Titled “The Scene”, Sally ElZeiny’s fifth solo exhibition — which closed on 19 February at Sheikh Zayed’s Arts Hub Gallery — was a collection of small to medium mixed-media 1960s movie posters typifying the artist’s interest in pop culture. An assistant professor of the graphics department of the Fine Arts Faculty in Zamalek, where she graduated in 1997, ElZeiny researches the Sixties, the Golden Age of cinema in Egypt, and it was as part of her research that she commenced work on these paintings back in 2018. She selected film adaptations of novels by such leading lights as Naguib Mahfouz, Latifa Al-Zayat, Ihsan Abdel-Quddous. Among other visual reference points, the collection recalls the famous artist Salah Anani’s fabulous poster design for Youssef Chahine’s 1990 Alexandria again and forever.
The title of the movie, together with a line of dialogue, appears in beautiful calligraphy at the top, while the artist’s style transforms a salient scene from the movie into an aesthetic statement. Acrylic based, the images employ all kinds of materials. Imparting a sense of festivity, they are dominated by warm palette that can feel claustrophobic. “There is even more to communicate in these scenes,” she argues, “requiring not only the collage and patchwork techniques I’ve used but something even denser!” This is the culmination of a trajectory that started with book design and went through pure abstraction, arriving at folk and pop culture only in 2010.
“I am inspired by the folk tales told by my grandmother, who used to live in a fantastic old semi-triangular building on Ahmed Badawi Street, a very popular alley in Shubra. The tales were incomplete as I used to sleep before she finished the story. I believe my paintings have been an attempt to complete those tales. I used to spend my summer vacations in such a magical atmosphere, watching nearby mulids,” or saints’ anniversaries, “visiting small shops full of huge jars of colourful sweets and playing traditional games with neighbourhood children. In 2010 when I embarked on my PhD, it was a thrill to work on the manuscripts of Al-Maqrizi,” the 14th- and 15th-century Cairo historian, “which amounted to 30 volumes of social history, coming up with visual interpretations for 30 extracts — a kind of manual of 20 drawings and paintings together with these texts.”
Five years later, for her second solo exhibition at the Picasso Gallery, she focused on the garden in modern literature and Persian art — the influence of which “The Scene” shows in the form of Farsi motifs and inscriptions — drawing on the 1970s picnics she experienced with her grandmother. She sought out folk and popular art through workshops in Tunisia, Bahrain and India, where she found doors and embroidery as well as oral literature. She eventually came to Egyptian pop art in the 1950s and 1960s. That has been her focus since she earned her PhD in 2018. “In the sixties, cinema was nationalised by the socialist regime, and movies of that period were characterised by their commitment of the July Revolution’s values and romantic aesthetics. But there were exceptions such as Hussein Kamal’s A Touch of Fear, based on a short story by Tharwat Abaza critical of the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which had been banned before the film’s release in 1969.” She found it inspiring.
ElZeiny saw all the relevant films again, watching them slowly and often pausing them to take screenshots of particular moments that she would then develop through sketches into various compositions, later comparing them to the original posters. This was less strenuous than it sounds since part of ElZeiny’s daily routine is to watch a black and white movie — and it shows.
The original poster for Salah Abu Seif’s 1959 I Am Free, based on the Abdel-Quddous novel, features the face of the star Lubna Abdel-Aziz and little else. ElZeiny’s version includes two female figures, a traditional radio, and much writing. She also did her own poster of the 1963 The Black Sunglasses by Hossameddin Mustafa, another popular Abdel-Quddous adaptation starring Nadia Lutfi and Ahmed Mazhar. In the original poster for Hussein Kamal’s 1968 The Postman — based on the eponymous novel by Yahya Haqqi — the two lead actors Shukri Sarhan and Zizi Mustafa are having a romantic moment with the sun setting in the background. ElZeiny brings Sarhan into the foreground, giving him a full formal outfit and filling the table in front of him with period objects that bring Egypt’s unique Sixties to life.
The artist’s next project is to depict the social life and traditional costumes of Egyptian families using archival photos during the same period, a logical progression from this work.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.