Closing today, Nihal Wahby’s exhibition, Floating Hope, which took place at Karim Francis Gallery in Downtown, offers a new take on the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, focusing on the tears Isis shed when Seth killed Osiris, which made the Nile Valley fertile and engendered all the different species.
Covering all three halls of the gallery, the installation has two parts to it. Balloon-like shapes hanging from the ceiling represent hope, while sculpture fragments hanging on the walls represent those tears. Wahbi drew on the legend, she tells me, under the influence of the pandemic: “It is an attempt to create light, to rediscover our truthful moments and spread hope.”
But the end result is rather more complicated. The translucent forms – executed using a combination of resin and pigments produced in the artist’s studio, in a palette of light blue, pink, grey, purple and green – reflect different feelings depending on the light you see them in. They suggest both movement and stillness. Just like human beings, they appear tough but are actually fragile.
A multidisciplinary artist working on concepts of identity and awareness and the relationship between physical and virtual realities, Wahby was mentored by legendary artist Hassan Soliman, studying at the Central Saint Martin School of Art. After Lucid Realms in 2018, Eminence of Light in 2015, and I Can Walk But I Have Wings in 2012, this is her fourth solo exhibition.
One small abstract painting, dated 2014, was made when the artist started planning for this project.
“It required a study of the place, the gallery space, which inspired me to create more pieces. In doing installation, the artist should listen to the voice of the place where they plan to exhibit. It is an interactive performance after all, as the viewer becomes a part of the installation.”
Here as elsewhere in her work Wahby is inspired by the themes, symbols and characters of ancient Egyptian mythology. “It is a civilisation that inspired artists around the globe,” she says.
“And as these are such tense and hectic times, it’s only natural for an artist to want to go back to their roots, to rediscover that magic in the hope of feeling safer and more confident. History is not a mute reference, I believe. It is there to help us solve questions the of the present. It is a tool that gives us wisdom, And undoubtedly our ancient history is fascinating. I am more interested in the philosophy, symbols and meanings behind the stories than their typical manifestations though.”
Suggesting the shapes of women and wild animals, and generating a sense of being alive in the world today, the exhibits represent hope and distress. The more time you spend with them, the greater the sense of liberty and love. What does it take to be in such harmony?
“I used to listen to classic music in the early stages of my career, but then I met a life coach who advised me to listen only to my own music when I am doing art. Sometimes it is frightening, at other times joyful. When I was doing the tears part, I was literally crying during the process. And I am curious about traveling to new places. I love to learn new techniques. I do painting, sculpture and installation. I believe the artist should not be categorised by or restricted to one specific genre.”
Installations do not generate as much income as say paintings, and that requires a gallery owner with courage and understanding but Whaby is clear: “I believe that the artist is a leader who should do what they believe in, take the risk, and transcend current and traditional forms. Who knows when what I do will bring in money?”
Earlier at the Picasso Art Gallery, Romany Hafez exhibited photography under the title To Be Present. Curated by Nagwa Ibrahim, this is the artist’s third solo exhibition there. As well as Coptic language and culture, Hafez studied design at the School of Applied Arts. For 15 years he has sought out remote places and fast disappearing heritage. These black and white photographs, mostly from Siwa and Aswan, reflect a fascination with place, broaching identity and human relations.
“I wanted my photos to raise questions but give no answers,” Hafez says.
“All our life events, I believe, happen in places. The place is our documented history. Some places make you feel good while others overwhelm you with negative energy. And you never know why. Black and white makes room for nostalgia, for the viewer’s imagination. For me, a place is like a human being. Any point even in the depth of desert could be a place, a meeting point. My obsession with the notion of ancient places has extended to ancient tools – like cameras.”
Around 20 medium-sized prints invite the viewer a space to meditate; the white framing takes up more space than usual. In one 30 x 30 cm picture from Siwa, palm trees intersect in motion, recalling children playing.
Using film, which requires studying location and light, Hafez makes long and multiple exposures in such places as the abandoned village of Zaitouna in Siwa, the artist captures not only the place but traces of those who have passed through it. Other pictures are graphic compositions of many shots of one place seen at different times from different angles of one place, creating their own reality.
“When we leave any place,” Hafez explains, “the image of one or more of its elements stays in our memory. When I choose to shoot in a place like the Old Cataract, I consider these elements, so I can reach a higher level of engagement. I never interfere in the making of the shot. I never bring people to act. What I do is when I find my target place, or actually when the place finds me, I put my equipments aside and sit for hours, considering any possible movement and change of light, waiting for someone to pass, and then by the long exposure technique, I erase his existence...”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly