The 20th century saw many humorous interventions in visual arts, driven by political and social satire. This was declared by representatives of some art movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and street art. There are many examples of artists’ conscious or unconsciously efforts to induce laughter. Robert Colescott’s The Green Glove Rapist in 1971, George Condo’s Clown in 1984 and many artworks by Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali.
In the contemporary visual art scene in Egypt, there are only a few examples, mostly based on the legacy of caricature, which exaggerates human features, such as works by visual artist Mohsen Abulazm, famous for his light and funny depiction of women in popular alleys in old Cairo, and Niveen Farghaly, whose amazing kinetic sculptures draw on children’s games and naïve behaviour.
Recently, two visual artists representing different generations have taken comedy more seriously.
One is Mohamed Khaled Omran, a young artist and a teacher of mural painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek, whose exhibition “In a Parallel World” closed at the Ubuntu Art Gallery on 8 March. The whole collection of 28 large paintings and three medium-sized polyester sculptures focus on one idea: what the world would look like if humans were replaced by monkeys.
The collection recalls the famous 1837 painting The Experts by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, which depicts a cohort of chimpanzee critics analysing a Baroque landscape, made after the rejection of his experimental works by the French Academy.
A 2010 graduate, Omran earned his PhD in 2020, studying the depiction of religious topics after the World War. In a previous collection titled “A legitimate immigration”, Omran depicted a fantastical scene out of the simple story of a young man who wanted to emigrate but has nothing but his small home which he turns into a boat. The artist is influenced by animation, pop music and comic strips. That is why the collection on display looked like a comic strip.
In a collection of 12 paintings last year, Omran dealt with imagined landscapes gleaned from memory. Later he felt a desire to figure out what makes him laugh. He recalled positive childhood experiences of the 1990s, and sought the joy they gave him in the quest to see how monkeys might behave human situations. Monkeys can be seen playing with bath ducks and water guns, stealing cake from the fridge – and listening to the monkey legend Monkeyl Jackson.
Two paintings from the same collection participated in the London art fair 1-54 for contemporary African Art last October. But Omran didn’t feel the necessity of writing up a concept. “I started working on this collection as a way to understand myself better,” he said. “My target is to recall happiness and fantasy away from involving myself in complicated philosophical issues.”
The acrylic on canvas paintings look very neat and clean, using a layering technique also adopted in graffiti and graphic digital video productions, which makes them look a bit static and artificial. This is enhanced by the presence of the sculptures, which are an unexpected gesture.
“I don’t like to repeat myself. I like to surprise myself, and to try new techniques. To accomplish this collection, I studied the behaviour of different types of monkeys, which are some of the most similar species to humans. They are funny and a symbol of wisdom in ancient Egyptian philosophy.” But presenting the monkeys as humans the images do not go past expectations. “Well, you are right. I ended up creating images on the border between two worlds, or a mixed up world which is populated by both monkeys and humans, which is surreal.”
Omran has an academic background. How does he feel about being in a popular art category?
“I don’t really care about this categorisation. I believe that every new experience should be reflected in the work regardless of how serious it is. Visual art is open to the depiction of all issues. I don’t lock myself in a certain mould. Life is changing fast and the artist must respond to such changes. My next project will be a development of the current topic. I’m betting on it being something very new.”
The second artist is Mariam Hathout, whose exhibition Fahlawa (an Egyptian Arabic word used to refer, often sarcastically, to a kind of hustling ingeniousness that aims to bypass the rule) took place at Demi Art Gallery in Zamalek from 8 to 22 February.
Including 25 paintings in various sizes, the collection depicts the pitiable behaviour of Egyptian drivers on overcrowded streets of Cairo. With bright colours, thick layers and strong brush strokes, cars, people and animals intermingle. Two paintings depict a heavy woman riding a poor white donkey, showing the same scene from two viewpoints. Both woman and donkey wear red.
“To understand the word, you yourself might need to practice fahlawa,” Hathout joked.
One 120 x 50 cm mixed media painting depicts a huge number of tiny people, each heading to a different destination, interspersed with donkeys, carts and tuk-tuks. In another painting, various vehicles going in different directions gather together in a tiny space. A third, 120 x 120 cm mixed media painting depicts two trucks overloaded with humans and luggage, while in a smaller 60 x 80 cm painting passengers seem to flow out of a small yellow car...
Hathout, a mid career artist, is famous for depicting popular scenes from countryside, with girls wearing traditional dresses adorned with flowers. Her smiling white donkey, depicted in several paintings. The last of these were displayed in the group show Ode to Joy, which earlier this year opened the Bibliothek Gallery, a brand new cultural space in Shiekh Zayed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.