While human immigrants may or may not return to their home countries, the journey back is an essential part of a migratory bird’s short life. In his new exhibition of 23 mixed-media paintings and one installation, “The Return” (8-23 November at the Samah Art Gallery in Zamalek), Haytham Abdel-Hafeez explores homesickness from the perspective of birds, attempting to connect it to the human experience of displacement and, beyond landscape and homeland as such, evoking all the different connotations of the word “return”: revolution, renewal and profit.
A graphic artist by trade, perhaps Abdel-Hafeez was also thinking about his return to the art scene after a five-year hiatus.
Born in 1970 in Assiut, Upper Egypt, the artist is himself a migratory creature. In early childhood he went with his parents to Nigeria, where he lived for 13 years before coming back to join military school followed by the faculty of fine arts in Minia. In 2000, he moved to Germany to study history of art at Bochum University and lived between Egypt and Germany, where he came under the influence of Marc Chagall.
He earned his PhD – on graphic design in the age-old Al-Hilal magazine – in 2013. He also held the position of general manager of the Fine Arts Sector, attached to the Ministry of Culture, developing cultural spaces and supporting new talent.
It wasn’t until 2018 that, giving up all his academic and administrative responsibilities, Abdel-Hafeez dedicated himself fully to his own art. The present show, on which work began in 2019, was inspired by his nonstop travels and his interest in homesickness. “Nostalgia as a theme had preoccupied me for years before I started working on this collection,” he says.
“Return is not restricted to a place or a dreamland, but rather to our good values, to love, civilisation, even good music and fashion.” Using a mix of acrylics, pastels and charcoal on canvas, these relatively abstract landscapes feature peaceful colours defined by harsh lines and figurative motifs. Only two 145 cm x 145 cm paintings show a purely abstract landscape with multiple horizons and inverted pyramid shapes. Different topics, however, the same departure from graphic techniques can be seen in all seven of his solo exhibitions before the present one, including “Reality” in 2006 and “A Bridge to Tomorrow” in 2016.
From the Nigerian character to the German landscape, Abdel-Hafeez has a lot to draw on in the way of inspiration. “But the Nile,” he says, “must be the most beautiful waterway I have ever seen. Compared to the Rhine, for example, it has a unique range of colours, especially in Aswan, due to the sun and the surrounding mountains.”
With a warm palette, yellow and greenish-blue in configurations recalling the desert and the river recur in almost all his paintings. So does the figure of the bird, which occurs in black, yellow or green and in various numbers, and takes on a primitive, children’s drawing-like form. It has a head, body and two wiry legs but no wings or tail. Sometimes it recalls a sheep’s carcass at the butcher’s, at other times it evokes a serious-looking man or a child at play.
“The bird just appeared spontaneously when I started doing multiple sketches in early 2019. I wasn’t interested in an anatomical study of the bird, I just wanted to abstract the figure into a human symbol.” He paused and, pointing to his own small head and ponytail, asked, “Don’t you see the resemblance?” A birdlike quality is undeniable, and in one otherwise abstract painting a black beak seems to reflect that.
Two pairs of birds are engaged in separate conversations in a semicircle. In some paintings, the birds are gradually being replaced by calligraphic symbols. He is currently working on a series in which birds merge with musical instruments. Perfectly composed and mostly huge, the paintings of “Return” are shown in frameless canvases which emphasises their exuberant colours and sense of space.
Featuring a recording of various birds’ sounds, wind and sea, the mixed media installation, 240x350x100 cm features dangling coloured birds made out of cloth and evoking the pain of displacement. One white bird symobolises hope.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly