February 1, 2007
Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture, the Search for a Super-hero and Current Egyptian Contemporary Art Practices: A Local Egyptian versus Some Established Western Analytical Regards
By Khaled Hafez
The effect of the parabolic satellite culture dominated by Western/American media and advertising in the last two decades is undeniably omnipresent today, and for the past two decades, in the everyday behavior of societies of the Middle East.
The new ferocious audio-visual material of the budding (1) consumer goods mass culture propelled the previously slowly-progressive societies of the Middle East into a global visual culture that led to a dramatic confusion of identities, especially among the young, and a state of cultural ambivalence of love-hate towards the West.
Contrary to the gloomy picture described in a media dominated by a massive imagery of new “war aesthetics” and now-taken-for-granted “aesthetics of violence”, the confrontation/juxtaposition between the established, near-sacred, values and the newly “penetrating” consumer goods behavior change resulted not only in terms like “collision of cultures”, but also a new and interesting artistic expression by the local artists, carrying an amalgam of East-West visual alphabets of a strong hybrid nature that attempts to probe new values of visual nature capable of bridging and understanding the other.
For my Fulbright Scholar proposal, I wanted to get back to in-depth image-making research of painterly nature; my project text is entitled interdisciplinary art approaches of contemporary nature as a tool for communication. I was trying in my research to find the roots for what we know now as effective and “impactful” art practices like installation, sound, assemblages, image appropriations and video/image installation. My research, that in fact started as early as the year 2000 in my Cairo studio never aimed at attaining particular results as much as it targeted continuous probing into the (to me) misnomer “ancient Egyptian art” and its impact on today’s complex and sophisticated visual culture, tainted by globalization’s alphabets and iconography.
My research led me to probe into the works of contemporary artists who are living and working now in Egypt, who, though belonging to different age groups, are considered peers and colleagues; in fact my deep acquaintance with the artists described in my research, led me to get to know several psychological drivers required for the art practice in the local creative mind, i.e. the local artists who are influenced by both their cultural overload that makes them described as local and Egyptian and their immersion in the contemporary art practice that is a global/universal issue.
In my Philadelphia studio at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, I started my project entitled Philadelphia Chromosome, in which I worked with several intersecting concepts that will be mentioned shortly in this text. In the difficult situation in which one sets pragmatic rules that implies a theoretical approach besides the studio work, I decided to study the work of other local Egyptian contemporary artists whose practice is aligned with mine vis-à-vis the drivers, inspirational sources and favorite issues of exploration.
The chosen sample of artworks and artists is comfortably representative of Egyptian contemporary art practices as regards the popularity of painting and installation, which as will be discussed, is enormously influenced by ancient Egyptian painting and sculpture.
The selected artists share a platform of exploration that involves:
Time: past and present, since in most research involving the notion of time, focus is always on the differences. The research here looks for the anti-difference (2) (not just similarities),
The notion of Super-hero: across time, every civilization looked for the imaginary super-hero for protection against evil forces; in the selected works, there is a quest to locate a modern-times neo-messiah of salvation who is capable of reshaping a whole culture in crisis. In the process of personal research, the artists manage in their work to appropriate tangential points that alternates between Eastern and Western iconographies.
Continuous cultural recycling: that involves notions of time, the superhero/role model as well as sacred established idioms; to cope with the universal global culture, artists search in an experimental frenzy alphabets of the current established culture, fortified by centuries of handicapping religious myth; basic elements of faith are examined and scrutinized for recycling; the roots of current beliefs are examined for revalidation in a process of cultural revisionism. The sacred is juxtaposed against the consumable at all levels, from packaging religious ideas to sanctifying and/or selling the human body.
Metamorphosis: and the continuous movement of states, like physical forms: transformation from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and the evolution of ideas: from simple faith to bloody terrorism. Metamorphosis was indispensable in ancient Egyptian mythology, the principal source for Egyptian painting and sculpture, as will be discussed with the metamorphosis of the feminine later.
Kinetic versus static; this text examines works that use recycled/manipulated printed media imagery like in the works of Sabah Naim and Bassem Magdi that is loaded with kinetic narrative, while installation works of Tarek Zaki and Shadi el Noshoukati employ the static state of the white cube/space to reach an impact with the viewer reminiscent of the feelings practiced in holy places. Hoda Lotfi’s paintings and Ahmad Askalani’s sculptural installations alternate between the two states; in all cases the works reflect the ancient Egyptian careful balance between both states in painting and sculpture.
Identity and Gender; both notions are always omnipresent in the works examined in this research; the viewer questions the English/Latin text in Amre Heiba’s paintings, try to decipher the esoteric Arabic calligraphy placed in decorative patterns in Hoda Lotfi’s works, is puzzled by the rolled texts in Sabah Naim’s composite paintings and is both enchanted and intrigued by the sophisticated fabrics and various material used in the works of Amal Kenawi and Shadi el Noshoukati.
The principal benchmark in the visual research for many of the contemporary artists working today in Egypt in the past few years has been ancient Egyptian painting or sculpture.
Here I get back to why I personally believe that the term ancient Egyptian art is a misnomer; I believe the term is too global and describes all art as artifacts, while the principal function of each discipline/form was entirely specific and functionally different from other forms.
Ancient Egyptian sculpture is perfectly three-dimensional; the two schools described by archeologists and art historians are the idealist school that sustained for over 3000 years, where all the pieces were initially inspired from their models, but all physical (body) deformities are eliminated or corrected to render the sculpture ideal according to certain preset specifications; on the other hand, the realist school of the Amarna period at the city of Akhetaten (horizon-of-aten, capital of Akhenaten, tell el Amarna, Minia, 400 Km south of Cairo) that survived anything between 28 and 80 years, worked with the physical imperfections of models to render the work more human and realistic.
In both cases, the sculpture had the apparent function of representing God-King, in a static pose, with limbs close to the body to minimize damage through time.
But the principal function of sculpture was to be part of the temple, where architecture, sculpture, sound and light inflict different emotional states into worshipers, temple goers (or what we know now as viewers).
This, in my personal opinion, is what became in the twentieth century known and defined as installation, and interdisciplinary site-specific art practices.
On the other hand ancient Egyptian painting served entirely a different function; if we examine the perfectly three dimensional sculpture and compare it to the very two dimensional painting, we are confronted by a question: were the artists who made those massive site-specific public art sculpture/projects incapable of using theories of shadow and light, composition and create more sophisticated rules for a more realist painting?
The answer is quite simple: we need to look for the function of the artwork; in my personal opinion the main purpose of painting is not the simple aesthetics. In fact painting was kept two dimensional so as not to fall in the trap of appraisal of aesthetics.
The painting serves the function of narration, whether reality or fiction, and documentation of factual or value/belief-based events.
The two-dimensional painting did not change or develop much over three millennia, and always respected the same/initially set rules; they were descriptive, there was a narrative, they were always kinetic where figures moved from right to left or vice versa, never in opposite directions unless for decorative reasons, always following rigorous rules of expression: for confirmation and accentuation the figures were repeated several times in succession, and always there was descriptive text.
This combination of text and two dimensional graphic drawing is what we know today as comic strips, and the kinetic aspect of the figures gave birth to today’s film footage; the whole narrative is propaganda, advertising or documentary work.
Perhaps (subjective opinion) to defy the damage of time as well as to represent psychological facets of the humane, the resolution to metamorphosis found its way in the extremely graphic lay-outs; especially the metamorphosis of the feminine that almost always signified life: Bastet the cat (domestication) metamorphosis into Sekhmet (the ferocious) then into Hat-hr (maternity, bounty) then into Iset (Isis) (3) the sensual woman; the metamorphosis is not just physical, but also emotional and psychological and according to the role played.(4)
In both art practices, painting and sculpture, the human figure was indispensable; the body was sanctified, beautified, created to certain specifications of perfection worthy of worship; all goods were perfect female and male figures headed by the either powerful or generous animals: jackal, lioness, cat, falcon, cow, crocodile etc.
In my current research I examine samples of works of some contemporary Egyptian artists whose work reflect, through the process of creative inspiration, continuity to the very ancient Egyptian approach to the artwork produced. For three dimensional site-specific or space-designed works a look to the works of Shadi el Noshoukati, Ahmad Askalani, Amal Kenawi and Tarek Zaki is representative to the Egyptian art practices today; while the paintings of Amre Heiba, Bassem Magdi, Sabah Naim and Hoda Lotfi demonstrate a quasi Egyptian trend to graphism that was never interrupted, as if carried genetically throughout the ages.
In the process of image making the artists probe notions of distance and time, the established versus the ephemeral, the sacred versus the consumable as well as issues of gender and identity, while looking for witty solutions rather than the more comfortable aesthetic results along the way.
The fact that the artists live today in a continuous political turmoil is reflected on the content of the works; the artists thus try to scrutinize aspects representative of East and West, they look for the anti-difference in visual alphabets between Eastern and Western values;
In my personal work as an image maker, when one day I was looking at a small stone model of Anubis and a Warner Brothers model of Batman of almost the same size, I discovered that both figures are identical from the front view and from the back view; the only difference is from the profile view. It is a bit astounding that both super-heroes of past and of present have, beside their morphological resemblance, an identical function of protection against evil forces. This similarity discovered a few years ago continues to be a subject for research in my work till today.
In the surface-based-works (paintings) of the artists in question, there is a serious trial to examine the lay out (not standard composition) (5) of ancient painting to create a narrative that combines vision in recycling stereotypes, symbols, patterns, superheroes, time and ideas.
In the works of Amre Heiba (illustration) the combination of text and image is initially reminiscent to the sixties Pop Art, but on a closer and more serious look, we notice that the artist follows the ancient traditions of illustration/documentation followed by his ancient fellow artists; what initially may look a Rauscheberg-like dripping, in my personal interpretation is evocative of the unfinished tomb murals, and the hastily-finished artifacts that show a similar dripping, like the famous cow-head in Tut Ankh Amen’s tomb. (Illustration)
It is noticeable in Heiba’s work that he uses exclusively English text; this use of Latin alphabets is in my opinion the key that lead (or rather mislead) the viewer into labeling the painting as another pop art piece; the Latin alphabets are mirrors that reflect today’s Middle East societies in continuous search of local versus global identities. (6)
In the works of Bassem Magdi (illustration) and Sabah Naim (illustration), the use of motifs extracted from televised and printed mass media are transformed, each in her/his own way, to the artist’s personal narrative; the final work produces both: a powerful message and a witty solution to the surface capable of interacting with the viewer.
Both artists play and work on tantalizing the visual memory of the viewers through the recycling of déjà vu images previously seen, and repeated through printed and satellite media. Though some of the imagery in Naim’s work may seem banal, a thorough look in the work leads us to believe that she is documenting the simple layman’s day to day life in a technically sophisticated practice of image transfer and inkjet manipulated surfaces; the juxtaposition between the banal and the sophisticated are very reminiscent of the ancient tomb paintings, where the narrative was always déjà vu, recounting daily practices of the deceased, that many times were of interest to no one but the deceased himself.
Bassem Magdi’s work on the déjà vu evokes a provocative aesthetics of violence, (illustration of one of Bassem Magdi’s army paintings) where images of the armies, military conflicts and soldiers who became like chess pawns, all look alike, all automated in a similar function of invasion/killing are painted with industrial perfection only in silhouettes without facial details to denote that the hero is not the Who, but the What; this may initially be interpreted as the new world language; perhaps the content is, but the graphic two dimensional nature of the surfaces, the rigorous narrative in each surface, and his use of a very vivid palette of direct colors, predominantly light colors, is a practice evocative of ancient Egyptian painting rules.
Hoda Lotfi’s horizontal surfaces (image of a very horizontal surface) adopts a trait of repetition of form, in which a motif is repeated several times to confirm the message or idea; the interesting possibility here, is that this repetition of form is linked nearly always to Islamic art as a form of tasbeeh (repeating the name of God); in my personal opinion, it is the repetition of form in ancient Egyptian painting (illustration of ancient Egyptian painting) delivered by the Egyptian painters during the Arab invasion that in fact may have established this trait.
Lotfi’s use of text alongside the painted forms and figures is an example of the metamorphosis of the painting practice in Egypt that sustained the same rules established in the country centuries ago, and contrary to what art historians’ claim, the interruption caused by the arabo-islamic culture affected only the representation of the human figure, and certainly not the act/practice of painting (illustration of graphiti from Upper Egypt), where the narrative and the use of text alongside the illustration form the artwork, usually on the walls. The artist’s use of Arabic text, though may apparently stand in opposition to Amre Heiba’s English texts (Latin alphabets) is in fact totally aligned with the objective: to illustrate and complement the painted forms, exactly like the Local Egyptian trend/practice. (Illustration of one work of each artist)
In the three-dimensional works of Shadi el Noshoukati (illustration of the Venice biennale columns), the artist transformed the space into a crowded and interactive void in which his research in elements of architecture (columns) and material (glass, thin gauze and dantelle) led to a creation of what looks like a very ephemeral light-weight temple, where elements of construction of cloth columns and glass balls haunted the viewers, after all in all viewers’ minds, the material used causes everyone to have all sorts of paranoias and phobias out of the fear to cause damage. The juxtaposition of notions of sacred established values (temple) versus the ephemeral material used to manufacture, denoting the fragility of the very same established values. The sound and light created by the glass balls in continual touch and motion puts the viewer in a state of awe mingled with continuous questioning; a state similar to ancient Egyptian temple goers undergoing similar subjection to sound, light, awe and various sensual stimulations.
Ahmad Askalani’s works provide a personal narrative to his everyday life; his sculptural scenes are made out of straw and other palm by-products. The installed straw human figures are colossal; the subject matter always provides controversial issues, like his giant headless figures praying (illustration of Askalani’s installation of men praying); Askalani in this work decapitated men in pseudo-respect of the popular belief (Islamic based) against human representation; the decapitated figures in fact represent a state of total lack of thought/thinking, while the ephemeral material challenges the concept of the sacred: the act of praying. Juxtaposing those opposing elements renders the work of Ahmad Askalani among the most illustrative to contemporary art practices in the Middle East, where popular beliefs mingles with modernity in continuous ambivalence.
Tarek Zaki’s (illustration of Tarek Zaki’s white objects) white rooms and objects may best be described as what ancient sculpture may have led to had the chain of art practice been not interrupted; the artists uses cast objects toujours in industrial perfection, and places them in the white cube of the exhibition space; the installation (the word is totally not very precise, but the word sculpture will also not do) evokes a stupendous similarity in ancient interest for perfection, cleanliness and the craft of finishing. The contents of his spaces are reminiscent of again the arrangement of royal tombs, where the deceased arranges his beloved belongings in perfect shape around him, for an eternal life of comfort.
Amal kenawi’s installations, whether the collaborative conceptual works executed with her brilliant sculptor brother Abdelghani Kenawi like the room (slide projector emitted images and various objects, the Townhouse gallery, Cairo 2001) (illustration of the room) or the more recent personal video installation the dress (Dakar Biennale 2004) (one illustration of the work), reflect a continuous research in gender and rights, the allowed versus the forbidden, being a female artist in a conservative arabo-islamic culture; through the use of images that unequivocally evoke nostalgia, in Kenawi’s video installation the dress, the artist examines the metamorphosis from being a female child, to a virgin adolescent keen to preserve the state of virginity till her wedding night, to the womanhood stage attained the same second with the verb consuming the marriage. Together with the silent video shot in mini DV (to represent the present) and hi-8 to provide image contrast (to represent the past) the artist has an assembled three wall roofless room, where Kenawi herself works on sewing a glossy white wedding dress.
In the video work, the sewing process is initiated in white dantelle-like fabric, and with frames shooting in an attractive rhythm, the needle ends up by penetrating human tissue, in fact a throbbing heart that sustains its throbbing all trough the minutes of adamant sewing. The insinuation of the state of physical and emotional pain plays a principal role in the projection.
The architectural structure, the projected images and new-age-like sound/music written specifically for the work, the semi darkness of the space, all combined with the live performance provides a near-spiritual state for the viewer. The impact raises the question of what it would have been like in the days of ancient temples, where nearly the same elements of the senses like sound, light, live rituals in an architectural were performed.
The interesting finding in the works of all the artists discussed is their probing of the practice of mingling fiction with reality, a trait found extensively in ancient Egyptian painting and mural sculptural relief and bas-reliefs, but deliberately missing in ancient sculpture, since the function of the colossal works was to take part in the bigger temple installation, and not to provide a narrative of any sort.
A final word must be said, is that the selected artists for this texts represent only a strata of independent artists who work today in Egypt; other interesting independent artists who continue to work today between Cairo and Alexandria deserve a more profound regard, as well as a neglected strata of Egyptian visual artists who work between the USA and Europe. (7)
Khaled Hafez is a Fulbright Scholar and visual artist who lives and works principally in Cairo, Egypt. In 2005 he was a visiting artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (Fulbright Grant), and at the Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Arts in Limoges in France (Francophonie Prize of the Dakar International biennale Dak’Art 2004). He has written about contemporary art since 1995.
*The author would like to thank the artists and the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo for their supply of reproductions of the art works. Special Acknowledgement is due to the Fulbright commissions in Cairo and Washington DC for sponsoring the author’s residency in the US during the research and writing of this manus
||1. Budding and attractive, since many of the societies of the Middle East lived for several decades under regimes that adopted a soviet pattern of socialism. The current colorful parabolic visual culture provides a tantalizing pseudo-promise of an attractive comfort.
2. In the personal perception of the author, the word/term similarities cover only the superficial physical resemblance in morphology, while anti-difference implies more profound physical, psychological and behavioral similarities.
3- The name that we know now as Isis is the Greco-roman form of the ancient Egyptian (original) name Iset. The name Osir went into a similar Greco-roman modification to be Osiris or Osiers.
4. In his 1989 over-10-million-units-sold blockbuster book the seven habits of highly effective people, personal development Guru Stephen Covey created the work-out chart of roles and goals, where every person assumes several roles in life, in each role she/he behaves in a totally different performance, in each she/he should set certain goals (in the case of ancient painting, certain function like maternity, ferocity, domestication or sensuality, etc) to achieve.
5. The term composition implies following the post-renaissance rules of painting taught in academia all over the world, while lay-out implies arranging elements in patterns convenient to insinuate/convey a certain message and sufficient to serve a certain purpose of the design; usually lay-outing is carried out by trial-and-error exercise till the most convenient design sufficient to communicate the desired message/narrative is attained.
6. In the fifties and sixties of the twentieth centuries, President Nasser of Egypt established his theories of Pan-Arabism: one united Arab state that has its one common economic and political interest; the theory is considered now by many scholars of the Egyptian intelligenzia as collapsed, since the theory spoke of a common language (contested, since each sovereign state has its own dialect or colloquial form of the Arabic base), history (true only for certain parts of history), religion (true for the major three religions of the region), ethnicity (vague, since Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq were enormously cosmopolitan which implied a vast variety of mixed races and ethnicities; it is noteworthy to say that the Asian part of this Arab nation is Semitic, while the African part is non-Semitic).
Though extremely attractive in today’s political economy of a Hegemony, neo-Mercantilism and struggles of wealth and power, and though hypothetically the theory offers an alternative of national dignity, many consider the theory of Pan-Arabism as collapsed and futile because it (the theory) does not respect the specificities of each Arab community; some of those specificities are too serious to overlook or dissolve; for example the identity of Egypt is polyvalent, African, Arab, Mediterranean, Egyptian (ancient, Greco-roman, Coptic, etc) as well as Islamic if we consider the vast majority of citizens. Lebanon has more than three Christian factions and a similar number for Muslim communities, Sunnite, Shiite and Druze. The Shiite in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has more than three cults.
Another reason for the collapse of Pan-Arabism is the practically impossible adoption of two extremes: a strict socialist economy with near-extreme xenophobic right wing (though positively secular) mass attitude.
7. The controversial term diaspora, in the personal opinion of the author, does not apply on any Egyptian artist working outside the country, since working elsewhere is entirely optional for Egyptian artists i.e. as a result of the complete free will of the artist herself/himself.
Among such artists are Hamdi Atteya (USA, who was among the prizewinnig group at the Venice 1995, and who eventually influenced the works of many painters working today in Egypt), Essam Maarouf (Holland), Fathi Hassan (Italy), among others.
Use of italics
Words/terms like anti-difference, cultural overload and aesthetics of violence are created by the author to get to the point of research; they are by all means personal and subjective and represent only the authors’ view as an art maker.
Sources and Complementary Reading
1. Text by Marilu Knode, Cairo Modern art in Holland, 2001, Wells, William and Ende, Janine van den Ende, Chios Media BV, Amsterdam: 2001. Marilu Knode is Senior Curator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary art, Scottsdale, Arizona.
2. Text by Martina Corgnati, Mediterranean Encounters: South-East, Hycinus Orca publications, 2005. Martina Corgnati is an art historian, critic and independent curator who lives and works in Sicily, Naples and Spoleto, Italy.
3. Text under construction for the initial publications for the project Images of the Middle East 2004-2007, Director of Images of the Middle East Michael Irving Jensen, produced by Danish center for Culture and Development, Denmark.
4. Text by the author, Neighbors in Dialogue, Beral Madra (editor), Noueva Icona and AICA publications, 2005.
5. From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Freidman, Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 1989
6. Egyptian Religion: The Beliefs of Ancient Egypt Explored and Explained, Lucia Gahlin, Southwater Publishing, 2002
7. The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, Donald B. Redford (Editor), Oxford University Press, 2002
8. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard H. Wilkinson, Thames & Hudson, 2003
9. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford Illustrated Histories), Ian Shaw (Editor), Oxford University Press, 2000
10. Longitudes and Altitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism, Thomas freidman, Anchor; Anchor edition, 2003
11The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East, Jimmy Carter, University of Arkansas Press; Reprint edition, 1993
12. The Price of Empire, J.William Fulbright, Pantheon, 1989
13. Egyptian Art (World of Art), Cyril Aldrid; Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition, 1985
14. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt: Revised Edition, W. Stevenson Smith, Yale University Press; 1999
15. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Stephen R. Covey, Free Press; 1st edition, 1989
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