The coronavirus pandemic has brought the mask back into the public sphere, and in Pandemic by Mohamed Bassiouny at the Easel and Camera Gallery in 6 October, 50 paintings and sketches in different sizes explore the phenomenon. Huge paintings showing key politicians and stars from various points in history wearing light blue masks and gloves. They include the Mona Lisa, Frida Kahlo, Ahmed Zaki and Kim Jong Un, among others.
This is Bassiouny’s third solo exhibition. His previous one, held at the French Cultural Centre and the Saad Zagloul Museum, focused on the human body, tackling gender and identity. Based in Kafr Al-Shiekh, where he runs his own business, the artist was born in Kuwait in 1979, and lived between Kuwait and Cairo until he decided to settle in the Delta. The artist earned two diplomas in painting from the Faculty of Art Education and in restoration from the Faculty of Archeology, which gave his paintings a degree of perfection.
Bassiouny is one of those contemporary artists who were inspired by the pandemic, and he uses masks as a tool to hide the fear felt by the famous more than anything else. They are also a symbol of separation and caution. Having come down with and survived Covid early on, he believes it has united the global population: “I would say that everyone is scared, even the most powerful among us. The image of people wearing masks has become a universal symbol, like the outward sign of a new religion.”
Using acrylics, oil and ink, the works on show are both real and enigmatic. The artist’s expressionist realism is influenced by pop art. His palette is unlimited, even though warmer colours prevail, balanced by the blue of the masks and gloves. “I used to wear a mask to protect myself during my frequent visits to China, yet I was still infected in late 2018 during a visit to Shanghai. This is how I grew obsessed with the idea. The pandemic which halted my business has forced me to stay for longer in my studio. I started this collection by drawing sketches of political leaders wearing masks.
“I was influenced by historical stories and paintings triggered by pandemics, namely the deadly Spanish flu which hit the world exactly a century ago. I started browsing black and white pictures from that time, and I noticed people wearing masks in the streets. The Mona Lisa was one of the figures I chose to start with. In addition to the pictures of public figures, I made modified copies of famous paintings such as Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait.”
One funny yet mysterious piece is the 100x130 cm oil portrait of the German politician Angela Merkel, wearing a red jacket in front of a darker red background. She looks serious and worried and the mask intensifies that image. The impact of portraits of politicians is especially powerful. I had the feeling that Merkel’s power was diminished by the mask. She looks powerless and lost. “I wanted to send a message that even evil politicians like Golda Meir are frightened. Everyone is equal,” Bassiouny says. And indeed you can see Mao Zedong and Abraham Lincoln hinting that Covid-19 is a capitalist joint venture gone wrong.
In addition to portraits and paintings, there are over 30 sketches in ink on paper showing public including the 1980s preacher Shiekh Sharawi, Nelson Mandela, Khomeini and Gaddafi. They look strangely petty and insignificant.
Also remarkable is a number of acrylic paintings featuring key scenes from famous Egyptian movies such as the 200x150 cm piece featuring Shadia and Mahmoud Morsi in She’e min Al-Khof (About Fear), and a 100x200 cm piece Mahmoud Al-Melegy in Al-Ard (The Land), as well as Dalida in Youssef Chahine’s The Sixth Day, about cholera. “All these movies dealt with fear – of loss, death or disease,” he commented. Here as elsewhere the images are beautifully executed but only as replicas, with no change apart from the mask and gloves.
“My aim,” says Bassiouny, “is to document the situation from a different perspective and to send a message that we all equally face fear and uncertainty.” One exception is Toy, a 100x200 cm acrylic on canvas painting, produced earlier this year, featuring a doll in a colourful short dress wearing a mask and gloves. The painting is inspired by the artist’s career in the manufacture and trade of toys.
“I am not sure I will develop this theme in my upcoming work. I was infected again a few weeks ago although I was taking severe safety precautions. I don’t personally believe in the usefulness of wearing masks. I think of the mask as an illusionary symbol of separation.”
As no one could predict the time when this fatal pandemic ends, the exhibition is on show indefinitely.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly