“Harvest Season” (13-21 March) is one of this season’s most remarkable painting exhibitions. Held at the Nile Gallery in Zamalek, it depicts the unique landscape of the New Valley using a new technique.
A 2003 graduate of the Faculty of Art Education, Shaker Al-Idressi grew up in the the Dakhla Oasis, and he approaches the New Valley with the familiarity of a native. In 40 oil and mixed media paintings of different sizes – mostly produced during the pandemic, though some date back to 2003 – he celebrates both nature and culture with a focus on simplicity, tranquility and openness.
Often there is a sense of organised chaos behind the arrangement of elements in the larger paintings, which can feel like conglomerates of separate paintings. Humans, flora and fauna figure in expressionist, symbolic or surreal styles. Following his participation in numerous exhibitions the world over, this feels like Al-Idressi’s exuberant harvest.
Harvest: for Al-Idressi, the word is a synonym for sustaining a true self despite the crazy, messy life one must live: “Generally speaking, I see my personal life as the main source of inspiration for my work.”
Place is his protagonist, reflecting both first-hand experience and serious research. The paintings feature direct correlations, with the colour yellow evoking the desert without there being any actual desert in a given painting, or a white cloud symbolising death as well as purity, in reference to mourning garments in the nearby Kharga Oasis.
Dolls, always dressed in white, also recur. They have no specific features.“Unfortunately, as is the case in most of rural Egypt, urban architectural design has gradually invaded my city, turning its beauty into an almost distorted images.” His paintings are a way of redressing this.
The artist’s Masters focused on popular toys, while his PhD dealt with the mechanism of art workshops. He is the founder and designer of many local and international visual arts workshops, including the Seven Heavens project in Doha in 2017. In addition, he organised many painting workshops for children, and this could be one reason why he maintains his naïve style of painting. Despite his academic background, his style is so spontaneous it sometimes recalls cave paintings.
Paintings on show reflect some masculine symbols, with a thin vertical object wrapped in white cloth evoking a phallic energy. One 60 x 80 cm mixed media on canvas piece depicts two animals floating in the sky while a huge female figure in white holds a red heart in her left arm and a small child holds onto her doll tightly. In the right corner a large phallic hangs down from the sky. In another 200 x 150 cm mixed media on canvas piece, a vast area coloured in red dominates a strange landscape with one blue human figure and a white dog.
Al-Idressi believes painting should be part of a research project. The influence of poetry on him is clear as many paintings are adorned with calligraphy, always an integral part of the composition of the painting. He often writes poetry influenced by the traditional oral literature of his childhood, which adds to the power of the work.
He never starts out with anything very specific in mind, he tells me, but his lines automatically reflect New Valley scenes: “I do many sketches before I start painting, but it is how you direct your accidental and spontaneous lines into new, lively images.”
The artist’s previous exhibition, “Popular Tales”, held in Picasso Art Gallery in 2017, was a manifestation of the impact of local culture on his art, which is a similar theme, nut the present exhibition boasts more abstract paintings of a much larger size, many mural-like. Another part of this same collection, in black and white, will be exhibited separately in the next few months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly