Egypt’s imponderable industry

Rania Khallaf , Monday 21 Jun 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly explores new visions of Cairo


Cairo has been depicted by no end of artists in as many ways. Celebrated figures such as Mohamed Abla, Salah Anani and Omar Elfayoumi variously target Islamic Cairo, working-class neighbourhoods and street scenes.

In his new exhibition of 55 acrylic paintings and drawings at Access Gallery, Downtown, Joseph El Duwairy captures the vibe of the city. Seemingly autobiographical, these images reflect middle-class routines in a naive expressionist style: street food, barbershops, bands; lovers toasting each other, friends playing football, sunflower-flanked schoolgirls in uniform... El Duwairy’s figures – short and chubby, perhaps like himself? – are uniquely cheerful and spontaneous, with a caricature-like sense of joy. He shows the influence of both Bahgory and Salah Anani, who taught him for two yeras, but his style is all his own. His palette is in no way limited, but blue and green are especially prevalent.


Late Night, a 1 x 1.1 m painting, shows a sequence of scenes within a middle-class apartment: a man smoking his shisha in the hall, a woman making coffee in the kitchen, an infnat crawling on the bathroom floor. In another painting, a man and his wife embrace on the sofa in a beautifully decorated living room. The scenes are light, refreshing – and the painting style emphasises that.

In this, his seventh solo exhibition, El Duwairy seems to have reached a milestone in his career. In 2016, he showcased around 60 abstract paintings at the Gezira Art Centre in his third solo show, Shades. The collection featured individual human figures in a monochromatic style. Misty nudes and sad portraits reflected feelings of loneliness and abandonment.


“It was five years after the revolution,” he says, “and I was questioning everything. It was like seeing the world through dusty glasses. The figures were exhausted, reflecting no specific emotions. Therefore, monochrome was the right technique to reflect this lack of certainty, the silence that precedes meaningful shifts. After the show, I felt that I need to develop my figures. I wanted to paint something that reflected my own thoughts and character.

“I used to live in my isolated studio apartment in Haram City outside Cairo, a quiet place that hosts many art studios. It was the Coronavirus lockdown that actually ended this isolation. I couldn’t bear such complete silence and I was forced to move back into my family home in the bustling neighbourhood of Shoubra. As soon as I settled there, I was immersed in an ocean of memories; my outings with school friends, eating out and spending time at traditional cafes, smoking shisha and chatting for hours, playing football in the street...”

Born in 1977 in Shoubra, El Duwairy is a 2000 graduate of the Faculty of Art Education. He worked in a range of fields before he decided to dedicate himself to painting in 2010: as a supervisor at a construction company, for example, which gave him a taste for architecture.


Unlike Shades, Cairo focuses on groups – of people, buildings or cars – and contains more outdoor scenes. One 2 x 1.1 m painting has a neat architectural background, with symmetrical and lifelike buildings, contrasting wildly with the simplified plump figures before them. In another 1 x 1 m, Tuk-tuk Station, Egypt’s answer to the autorickshaw – a recent development – is depicted as a toy, complete with toy passengers.

“These are my dream houses. As a child, I used to enjoy playing with plastic blocks. Maybe this is why I like architectural motifs. However, it is the interaction between people and places that interests me the most. I love to stroll through historical Islamic neighbourhoods such as Al Azhar, and Al Hussein, observing the architectural details and the waves of people coming and going, and taking in the unique spirit of the place.”


Through his career, El Duwairy participated in some 40 local and international group exhibitions. In 2017, his paintings were chosen by the Beijing International Art Biennale in China to be exhibited at the National Museum, among works by other Egyptian artists. In the following year, he participated in the Chisinau International Art Biennale in Romania. These two experiences marked another significant shift in his career: the courage of his conviction that simplicity and spontaneity is the essence of art.

The exhibition runs through 16 June.

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