A woman at work

Rania Khallaf , Monday 29 May 2023

A duo exhibition at the Downtown Access Gallery of paintings and drawings by Fatma Abodoma and Agnes Michalczyk reflect on women’s work, inviting the viewer to contemplate the inner world women occupy and the psychological suffering they go through.



This is the third time the two artists have exhibited together since they met via a student exchange programme in 2009. The last, “Unseen”, took place in the same gallery in 2021.

Michalczyk is a Polish visual artist who teaches at the German University in Cairo. A graduate of  the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, she has been based in Cairo since 2013. A multi-media visual artist, Abodoma graduated from Helwan University in 2007 and has exhibited internationally, tackling themes like memory, time and mental disorders.

Michalczyk’s monochromatic work and Abodoma’s bright colours are but one of the contrasts that make this a thrilling encounter: Michalczyk’s obese figures in black gowns and Abodoma’s light figures in shades of blue; Michalczyk drawing on a range of working women’s contexts in Cairo and Abodomo focusing on her own personal world, including her pets…

But Michalczyk’s women aren’t in the specific working-class group associated with obesity and black gowns. “I actually see these women everywhere,” she says, “in Maadi, and in some areas in Islamic Cairo. But I do not mean to portray them specifically; I wanted to convey a universal message about the suffering of working women every day.” Such women, remarkably, include housewives whose labour is no less exhausting than any other.


In one typical charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 170 x 140 cm, a large faceless woman in black sits on the pavement with baskets of vegetables to her left. In another painting, also untitled, two such characters converse with pieces of paper in their hands. The facelessness is the artist’s nod to universality, and so is the subtle realism and symbolic approach to content.

Abodoma takes a rather more personal approach: “I used to keep a diary in key words, not in full sentences. These words, which developed into visual scenes ready to be depicted, refer to things that I see on my way from home to my studio, or situations that I experience that angered or moved me. The paintings on show expose a significant portion of my life.”

In Burden, a 100 x 70 cm acrylic on canvas piece, a bluish woman with a huge body and a tiny head is holding something yellow in her thin hands against a green backdrop. In My blue gemstone, the same figure is accompanied by a cute dog also in blue, while in Exhausted the woman’s body, lying prone on an orange floor, is segmented, and each part of it is painted in a different colour. Here as in Flying fish and vegetarian cat, a smaller mixed media on paper piece featuring a free, a cat and a flying fish, which reflects the desire to escape into a simple dream world, Abodoma’s style is primitivist and intuitive.

Connected by an intimate friendship, the two artists developed the concept of the show together after brainstorming for nearly a year, but as usual they worked separately. “Our intimate worlds just clicked,” Abodoma explains. “Although we have some disagreements, there is a perfect chemistry between us. We should try working on one piece together.”

Michalczyk agreed, confirming that she does think of herself and Abodoma (who seconded her view) as feminist artists: “I know that the word feminism bears some Western colonial connotations, but I have a positive perspective on it. After all, feminism gave us the freedom to vote, travel, and think independently.”

During the artists’ talk on the last day of the exhibition (7 May), most of the audience were women.

A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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