Breaking out

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 7 Nov 2023

Rania Khallaf spoke to the artist Ibrahim Philip about his new exhibition


Can an artist double as a storyteller? Can still images visually tell stories the artists heard? “Short Stories” is the title of a very expressive art exhibition opened on 14 October at Cordoba Art Gallery in Mohandessin. The new collection by the celebrated artist Ibrahim Philip, constitutes a rare focus on the city of Tanta, whose popular markets it depicts.

Born there in 1956, Philip spent most of his life there, working among other things as a teacher of design at a technical secondary school. He started exhibiting in 2001. In 2014-21, Philip worked and exhibited in the US. His first solo exhibition was not held until 2021, when he showed 115 paintings exploring the relationship between human beings and public space at Dai Gallery in Zamalek.

In 2022, he gave an exhibition entitled “The Apple Market” at Access Art Gallery in Downtown, in which 30 oil on canvas paintings inspired by the Tanta apple market pursue the unique association between women and apples.

The present exhibition features 22 uniformly sized paintings (100 cm x 80 cm) reflecting the influence of public culture and the environment in Tanta. “I live in the Ezzeldin Street, near Al-Gomhuria movie theatre, where middle class residents live in quiet and elegant houses with high ceilings. Normally, I grew up loving the very special lifestyle in the adjacent popular markets. My studio is located in a busy area, and I’ve often made sketches of people at cafes in the streets of Tanta and Mahala.

“The pigeon market, which is held every Friday in the city of Tanta, was my main source of inspiration, usually dominated by men, I found it amusing to look for woman vendors to do some new sketches, talk to them and listen to their stories,” he says. “I heard stories about late marriages, loneliness and sad tales of male predominance over every tiny detail in their lives. Going to local markets for some of them was like a picnic, as most of them couldn’t go out for entertainment.”

There is a balance between warm and cool colours, the former are more dominant. Philip made sketches of vendors and buyers, but when it came down to work at the studio, he painted without looking at them. His expressionist, symbolic style, which he describes as magical realism, citing Marquez as his strongest influence, have earned him a niche in the art scene in Egypt.

White pigeons are depicted in groups and pairs, and also by themselves. They are normally a symbol of freedom and peace, but they are depicted here in motionless positions, as if made of stone. In one painting, there are three women, three apples and one playing card, featuring the Queen.

The background in most of the paintings is layered dark blue, and all the women have red hair — the author’s gold standard. In most paintings women appear before a wall or barrier on which other elements like playing cards, pigeons, cats or red flowers appear. Their powerful facial expressions, the movement of their arms and the way they silently communicate are all masterly.

In some paintings, the shadows of houses appear in the background. There are some light ornamentations on the doors. In one painting, a rooster stands on a roof, symbolising for male dominance. In another, women with pigeons on their heads are separated from men by a wall. The painting has obvious connotations, stressing the need for cross-gender understanding and meaningful dialogue.

In another painting, five men wearing red gowns and a woman in a dark blue dress play out an evidently sad scene where, eyes wide open, they are following seem to be responding to some horrific news.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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