Is there a relationship between storytelling and fine art? Could the artist simply be a kind of storyteller?
Such questions may have occurred to visitors to “Once Upon a Time,” the title of an exhibition by artist Mohamed Abdel-Hadi that concluded at the Al-Bab Gallery attached to the Cairo Opera House on 22 October.
In over 25 mixed-media paintings of different sizes, the artist brilliantly told visitors a series of tales of love and history in a spontaneous and folkloric style that merges expressionism, surrealism, and symbolism together in a diverting and authentic way.
Born in the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate in 1977 and a graduate of the Faculty of Art Education in Cairo in 2000, Abdel-Hadi is an outstanding representative of a mid-career artist.
By following his contributions to collective exhibitions in various galleries, it is easy to develop the notion that he is a visual storyteller.
“I am very much interested in folkloric tales. As a child, my grandmother used to tell me tales that I still remember today,” Abdel-Hadi explains. “I was also born into an art-loving family. My father used to practise photography and we had a small laboratory to develop his pictures. My mother was also a good painter.”
“Moreover, I have always had a passion for history, and through my study of the history of art I was overwhelmed by the ancient Egyptian and Assyrian wall inscriptions that contain stories about daily life.”
“I also developed a passion for reading Arabic fables like Kalila wa Dimna and epics like the Siret Abu Zeid Al-Hilali. Children’s films have also been a resource for me, and I remember watching the film Beauty and the Beast some 45 times. I was extremely impressed by the idea of unconditional love at the time.”
This is the artist’s fourth solo exhibition after earlier exhibitions at the Art Corner in 2014, the Cordoba Gallery in 2016, and the Picasso Gallery in 2021. The paintings on show in the most recent exhibition acted as a kind of theatre in which all elements of a play were represented, with the main and secondary characters celebrating as if taking part in life itself.
In a couple of the paintings Abdel-Hadi had included tiny white characters against a black strip to act as a shadow theatre inspired by his storytelling technique. “I see the paintings as a theatrical stage, where there are characters, décor, harmony and background. I see each of my paintings as a theatrical scene.”
He also skillfully merges historical tales with incidents from his own life. Most of his characters represent people he has met in real life, whether friends, lovers, or acquaintances.
Moreover, unlike some other artists who have opted for copying elements and characters from ancient Egyptian art, Abdel-Hadi has managed to create his own icons, figures, and style.
“After years of classic drawing, I figured out that art is all about thinking and performing in a creative way,” he commented.
Influenced by ancient Egyptian art, many of his pieces show figures suspended in the air, while others may have a human body and animal head painted in a new and creative way. He has a passion for ancient Assyrian art owing to its spontaneity and harshness, he said. His male characters often have long beards, for example, a feature of ancient Assyrian sculptures dating back to 911-612 BCE.
A few years after his graduation, Abdel-Hadi stopped practising art for ten years or so to dedicate himself full time to teaching. It was the 25 January Revolution in 2011 that brought him back to art and provoked the inner artist.
“I was working as an art teacher in Saudi Arabia at the time, but started to paint according to the rhythm of the revolutionaries in Egypt. The revolution fed my soul, and the hope and emotions it brought made me decide to resume my career as an artist.”
His vivid, animated, and popular paintings are characterised by movement, giving them additional value. They are full of motion and crowded with figures, something which he says is meant to suggest the fast rhythms of contemporary life, the crowdedness of the streets, the faces of people in the crowds and their unfulfilled needs, and the misery of street children.
Life is not simple, Abdel-Hadi says, and art should reflect its contradictions and complexity.
In one mixed-media painting, human figures are shown mingled with animals in a reference to the unity of all the creatures that exist on Earth. Centaurs, creatures from ancient Greek mythology, are recurrent in his paintings, being seen as symbols of dualisms such as good and evil and compassion and indifference.
Equally recurrent are cats depicted in often funny yet authentic ways. Abdel-Hadi recounts a tale about a one-eyed cat holding a loaf of baladi bread in its mouth that he saw in a café in Downtown Cairo. He stopped to talk to the cat and asked it surreal questions about its status: was it homeless or had it been brutally kicked out from a nearby home?
This accidental encounter has been a great inspiration that has yielded numerous scenes in a number of his paintings and sculptures.
Men and women are always portrayed in a celebratory mood as loving couples united by compassion and tolerance and without drama or male dominance. “I believe that love is about acceptance, to accept the other with all their flaws,” he said.
In one 200 by 130 cm mixed-media painting, three couples are shown in different positions. At the bottom left are two lovers in a bed-like carriage, and few cm above is another couple consisting of a woman and a man with a long beard in serious conversation. With it are playful animals, along with other elements. The piece looks like a theatre play in which each figure knows their role.
In a number of paintings, a man and a woman are standing on a different side of the canvas stretching out their arms as if welcoming the viewer to be part of the scene or as a gesture of wanting to reunite.
The artist has used an oval shape in a number of his paintings in an attempt to break the rectangular pattern. The composition also changes. Abdel-Hadi skillfully controls the space and finds geometrical solutions to make it look different.
He owes his design skills to his late mentor Medhat Sobhi, who taught him design and drawing. He has been greatly inspired by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo in drawing and anatomy studies and by Gamal Segeny and George Segal, the American painter and sculptor, in sculpture.
“I never do sketches, but I do study the anatomy of the human body on a yearly basis,” he said.
Freedom of the imagination and interaction with the surrounding culture are his priorities. “I believe that we live in a visually rich culture. Art, therefore, should simply reflect life’s momentum. I consider art to be a kind of play, especially when it comes to colour. My favourite part of being an artist is when I feel like I am a child enjoying a colouring book,” he says.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.