When I heard about “Untamed Bodies”, the established artist Weaam El-Masry’s new solo exhibition, I expected her trademark detailed human anatomy. I was in for a big surprise.
Closing on 24 October, the exhibition at Misr Gallery in Zamalek is a kind of graphic novel in which obese nudes – mostly female – engage in a physical dialogue that seems to stand in for all kinds of struggles. They appear individually, in twos and threes, and they totally eschew romance as their collisions, transcending gender, reflect the human condition. At first the breathtaking scenes appear like stills from a documentary film, later morphing into a psychological thriller.
Using a limited palette of black and brown with touches of blue, green and red, the paintings juxtapose harsh strokes with soft circular lines, an effect the drawings achieve by balancing pen and pencil as well as light and dark spaces. Though dark-toned, the bodies appear colourless, almost transparent, giving them a strange mirror-like quality.
El-Masry, 44, is a scholar and curator who moves freely between painting, photography and animation in her own work. She earned a PhD in media art from Helwan University’s Faculty of Applied Arts and teaches art and design at MSA University. She cofounded the Easel and Camera Gallery, where she serves as artistic director. I first encountered her work in a 2015 dual exhibition with Yasser Nabil, “The Forbidden”, in which her nude figures were accompanied by giant insects apparently representing patriarchal power.
Similar themes predominate in “Untamed Bodies” too, though the nudes here are less appealing and seem to reflect women’s inner struggles as well as the fight against patriarchy. Applying charcoal, crayons and acrylics (sometimes with sand and glue mixed in to impart a sense of struggle), El-Masry uses cardboard and notebook paper as well as canvas, and there are four pieces in which she pastes bits of drawings onto a new sheet of paper and reworks them. One piece features calligraphic elements. In another, a 100 x 130 cm acrylic on canvas, the bodies, like ancient sculptures, are missing their limbs or heads.
As well as fighting male figures, sometimes the work features bulls, whether as part of a bigger struggle or centre stage. In one 41.5 x 29.3 cm charcoal and ink on graph paper piece, two bulls appear almost drunk as they engage in combat. These bulls are less erotic symbols than psychological turmoil made flesh, and they feel deeply anthropomorphic. One drawing on graph paper features a female hand between two bull horns. Another, 100 x 100 cm mixed media on paper piece depicts a mother peacefully embracing her two children in the upper corner while the rest is occupied by the same struggling bodies and a bull head.
Though some pieces required better lighting, it is a credit to Misr Gallery that it should be exhibiting such remarkable, non-commercial work. After this extended bout of wrestling, one is left in a state of imbalance asking questions. Who is battling whom? Which side are we on? And who will win? Perhaps the triumph of the viewer’s body is El-Masry’s target.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly