Titled “An Egyptian Vision”, Hany Rizq’s recent exhibition at the Picasso Gallery (which closed on 18 October) features a relaxing, monochromatic palette and a dreamy feel. In large, 120 cm by 120 cm landscape-cum-folk paintings, Rizq pursues a somewhat surreal, idyllic vision of the Egyptian countryside, the earliest manifestations of which emerged in the late 1990s.
Born in 1967 in Diyarb Negm near Zagazig, Rizq populates his paintings with the creatures of his upbringing, bathing them in a uniquely peaceful aura. Arched gates and fences, chubby figures with pleasant round faces and mud brick houses decorated with flowers reflect the artist’s attachment to the 16-room house with five-metre ceilings where he grew up, to scenes of farmers at work and the folk motifs of religious celebrations.
Perhaps the large size of the paintings is a kind of compensation. “When I first came to Cairo to study at the Faculty of Art Education,” he says, “I instantly observed the absence of warmth. It was a shock to have to sell my share of land to buy a small apartment in town.” Rizq’s is a vast world where humans and nature – palm trees, farm animals, birds, clouds – are in exuberant harmony.
Windows are a recurrent element, reflecting the sense of security and peace among neighbours who might be seen happily exchanging freshly baked bread and caring for each other. Everything is in constant motion, reflected in the spirals, curves and circles of Islamic art, with donkey riders flying over houses and horses straddling the realms of dreams and waking life. The images evoke the indigenous architecture of places like Luxor, Aswan, Siwa, Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, where Rizq lived at various points.
In one mural-like painting, girls with their heads uncovered fly kites, jumping and dancing in a rural landscape, recalling a pre-Wahhabi countryside. “Although many values have already changed in the Egyptian countryside, I strongly believe that happiness can still be had there,” the artist says. “I made these paintings to maintain the childlike spirit in me.” Whether people cling to a boat, a kind of homeland, or hold each other, there is a somewhat old-fashioned sense of emotional intensity.
Though prolific, the philosophy or art professor doesn’t exhibit too often, and he pays no heed to artistic fads. “Being contemporary shouldn’t have to mean aping the West,” Rizq says. “My plants and palm trees are derived from ancient the Egyptian art found on tombs, clothes and jewelry, for example.” Previous exhibitions include, “Egyptian Faces” at the Cairo Atelier, “A Creative Mess” at the Ahmed Shawqi Museum and “Short Messages”, collection of line drawings on A4 sheets.
Using a doodle-like style that stresses line and keeps brush strokes to a minimum, the artist works with a pen on unbleached canvas to produce his remarkable dialogues between light and heavy, real and imagined, empty and full. In black, white and a soil-like brown, together with the surface as temporal abstraction, Rizq – who studied Persian miniatures – introduces his universal creatures.
Rizq is always sketching, and he wants to turn some of his sketches into affordably priced, digitally coloured pieces that can hang on walls like rugs. “My dream is to make my vision of the Egyptian countryside spirit available to people who can’t afford to buy original paintings. I want to introduce light into people’s lives. Light is love, it is giving and communication.” It is also the effect of the empty spaces in his paintings where the absence of detailed figuration seems to say more than any other element.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly