Meaningful debris

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

Rania Khallaf spoke to artist Fatma Abdelrahman about her latest exhibition

Fatma Abdel-Rahman


In Autumn in Bloom, the new Ubuntu exhibition by Fatma Abdelrahman, includes some 30 abstract pieces, executed in a subdued palette and in many cases nearly monochromatic. They evoke flowers or stars, giving the viewer the opportunity to breathe and to see. In a separate space, a smaller number of one-size drawings on paper depict human and animal bones.

A 1995 graduate of the graphics department at the Faculty of Fine Arts, where she currently teaches, Abdelrahman says she was mentored, first, by her late father, Abdelrahman Dessouki, a professor of decor at the High Institute of Theatrical Arts, and then by etching professor Salah Elmeligy, who would become her husband. She participated in the prestigious yearly Youth Salon while still a student in the early 1990s, and her passion for nature, whether in a distant landscape or a nearby garden — she was continually meditating on plants and clouds — eventually yielded the kind of work on display here.

Abdelrahman’s graduation project, which enabled her to work as a teacher at the same department, was entitled Birth, Life and Death. It depicted delicate plants growing out of rocks. Abdelrahman, one of the most prominent graphic artists of her generation, is the mother of two boys, and a dedicated teacher. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions in and outside Egypt. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Gezira Art Center in Zamalek in 2003. Abdelrahman believes that it’s possible — and necessary — to make time for her own work alongside the university’s. Practising is necessary for her wellbeing. And she is constantly reinventing herself creatively.

In 2012, she started drawing using only pen on large canvases. In 2014, the abstract format she developed seemed to merge human figures and plants. This was a necessary stage on the way to the Fayoum portraits she started making following a workshop in Fayoum in 2021. But all through this debris was on her mind. She first became conscious of it as a potential subject during the 2018 Luxor International Symposium of Painting. “Inspired by the environment in Luxor, I produced one of my favourite paintings showing debris in a landscape,” she says. “A year later, I started working on this collection.” This wasn’t about debris for its own sake.

Abdelrahman’s central question is how we should deal with the good memories of our loved ones when they have departed either by death or dispute. How do we endure the pain of being separated from them? “I see life as a train journey, where we meet new friends and lovers and say goodbye to others. The idea of convenient or unexpected departure has always preoccupied me.” Covid had compounded her fear of losing her aging parents, and that made her all the more determined to pursue debris — and combine it with the notion of autumn.

Her father did pass away from Covid within months of that date, and she stopped working for a long while. When she started working again, the technique was different: layered, with gold and silver leaf mixed into the acrylic. It is almost reminiscent of knitting in the slowness and buildup it requires. Autumn is as much a beginning as an end, she says. In one painting, blue, white and brown suggest a connection between sky and earth. In another, pink struggles with grey while a narrow ribbon of green promises hope, fecundity. The drawings, far more figurative, are a harsher confrontation with mortality: denuded arms, a neck mechanism, a spine.

“The size of the drawings,” she says — 17 x 32.5 cm — “makes them very intimate. Drawing was like talking to my best friend. This small size gave me unlimited freedom as I had the liberty to draw anywhere, even while relaxing on a couch in the afternoon. In my upcoming project, I will be experimenting with ink as a new medium,” she smiles. “A new friend.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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