Music and musicians have often inspired visual artists all through history, with latest examples including such Egyptian masters as George Bahgory and Samir Fouad.
In Saqi Al Alhan or Melodies’ Gardner, which closed on 6 November, Mostafa Sleem presents 18 large unframed oil paintings showing the intimate relationship between musicians and their instruments in an expressionist style.
Western and Oriental instruments appear side by side with all kinds of musicians in pairs, trios or larger groups, including Nubian musicians in their distinctive white robes. Whiteness prevails. The background in many paintings is blank, and the musicians clothes are mainly white.
This adds a Sufi touch. Other recurrent elements simulate an aural rhythm as you move through the exhibition.
“This might be my first full exhibition tackling music, but I have exhibited many paintings featuring music before,” Sleem says. “I am always surrounded by musicians. I developed an understanding of music early on. The instruments themselves are very familiar. I like to watch musicians’ changing moods while they play. And I listen to most musical styles from classical to shaabi.”
The painter says he made many sketches of the musical instruments before starting this collection, but once he starts painting, he never changes a line. This is the rule, though his use of oil colours gives an effect more akin to acrylics. In one corner, two adjacent paintings pay homage to Samir Fouad.
“I am proud that Fouad is my mentor. I learned a lot from studying his work and from his advice. It is normal for each generation to learn and imitate the paintings of the older generation, providing new visions of the original paintings.”
Sleem is also influenced by Francis Beacon, one of the main characteristics of his paintings being to distort the human figure.
Born in Minya in 1981, Sleem has illustrated over 100 children books, and designed book covers for famous authors including Sonalla Ibrahim. Unlike other artworks that tackle music, including Marc Chagall whose musicians were depicted in a landscape environment, Sleem opted for limiting space; the viewer only sees the musician and his instruments, nothing more, as if they were locked in a small chamber.
“I like to focus more on the human figure. It is a technical issue. I want to draw the viewer’s attention to the human figure. In addition, it might have to do with my character. I tend to depict loneliness.”
This meld between the musicians and their instruments, depicted in soft lines and fast brush strokes is spectacular. In most paintings, the instruments are depicted as if they were parts of the human figures, as if tmade of flesh, especially in paintings where brass instruments, which already have their round curves, can be seen. The musicians’ expressions look funny and meditative by turns.
The artist’s solo exhibitions include Protein 2014, Gymno 2017 at Art Corner Gallery, Woman on a pallette 2020 at Azad Art Gallery among others. His last was in September this year at Gravitart Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. Titled Mirrors of Existence, the exhibition included portraits in acrylic and soft pastel often with a grey backdrop, spontaneously painted, reflecting intimacy and peace.
“I found myself spontaneously painting a series of portraits using the same technique in huge sizes, 180 by 150, to allow the viewer to interact with the movement of the lines and strong brush strokes.”
The technique adopted in the Kenya collection was based on the overlap and coexistence of many faces in one body. In one captivating acrylic on canvas piece titled Together we are a whole, three faces coexist under the bald head of a male figure wearing a black shirt.
The artist used the same technique in the current show, producing an even stronger visual impact with musicians overlapping with instruments. Simultaneous performance features three faces in one figure of a musician playing on a softly painted brass instrument, which recalls Dali’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory of 1931.
In Tea mood three separate Nubian musicians play oud and tabla at a café with a colourful background, which contrasts with their traditional white robes. The painter’s cold palette is limited and repeated in almost all paintings. In addition, the roughly one sized canvases generate a sort of monotony, which is a major shortcoming of this show.
The title of the exhibition is both eloquent and confusing. Saqi has a double meanings in Arabic: gardener and barman. In either case, the gardener is the source of the melody.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.