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Published on December 11, 2008

Sand-baked faces

In an unprecedented motion among private art galleries, eight local artists have set up a workshop in the heart of the southeastern desert, in the National Park of Wadi Al-Gemal in Marsa Alam, to artistically document a historical meeting between dozens of tribes hailing from all corners of the Egyptian deserts on the occasion of the Second Annual Characters of Egypt Festival (see Al-Ahram Weekly, issue 922, “Invisible People”).

At the Gauguin Gallery, a current exhibit by the same title showcases the fruit of the three-day workshop which filled a deep, long-standing gap in the history of Egyptian art. While some impressive and prestigious art work – not least of which, Gazbia Sirry’s – has been based on Nubia and its local community, the inhabitants of the Western desert’s oases have not fared so well although their natural surroundings have been a prominent subject for a number of artists, including Adly Rizkallah. Yet, when it comes to the dwellers of the eastern and southern deserts, and although they are the oldest Egyptians alive to date, the artwork documenting their existence amounts to nil. Indeed the Ababda and Bisharia tribes, both sub-groups of the ethnic Beja Tribe of Hamitic origin, speaking a language identified as te-bdewi and perpetuating an authentic culture that has remained virtually unchanged, have guarded the southern Egyptian border and the eastern coastline for millennia.

The artwork on display at the Gauguin Gallery offers glimpses of the Ababda and Bisharia, captured in mixed media by eight artists, and portrayed in forms ranging from the more abstract to the painstakingly intricate. Inspired by the lines carved over time on these tribesmen’s faces, engulfed by their music, caught in their storytelling, and surrounded by their simple everyday tools, the workshop’s artists now reveal their perceptions of these forgotten people who have never featured in the country’s collective memory although they existed before it even developed one.

Ahmed Samih’s minimalist watercolours portray faceless, featureless, still individuals squatting, in typical Bishari fashion, as they stare right at you without any eyes, seemingly to ask “Do you see me now?” Relying on two colours, Samih’s lines are assertive and asserting, as if aiming to document the tribesmen’s very reality without overburdening it with so much as facial features or surrounding context; an insolent blue on white background, the presence is radical and unwavering, isolated but existent, captured, there.

Perihan Abu Zeid’s bright palimpsests of meaning instantly call to mind Baudelaire’s objects of desire, Abyssinian idols, and Haitian goddesses of sensuality, exotic, mysterious, mystical. Her details add to more than the sum of their parts, the layered inscriptions, the countless crescent moons filling the spaces beyond reason, culminate in an incantation, the summoning of unseen forces, dark and unfathomable, a whirlwind of energy relying on every form and every color to mesmerize and entrance. Slightly reminiscent of Esmat Dawestashi, Abu Zeid’s work is a medley of reason and magic, deeply grounded in earthly motifs yet unmistakably feminine at its very core.

Mona Hassan’s pastels are curvaceous like the desert’s dunes. Her multilayered abstract paintings undulate in infinite, winding forms, shadowy yet absolute, like destiny. The palette is dark, the lines are generous, the spaces endless, extending beyond the borders of the frame. Asmaa Ahmed’s detailed impressionistic drawings are all expressive, calm, smiling, outlined in rainbow colors, like being enveloped in an otherworldly aura belonging to a dimension that only the lucky few can recognize. Her portrait subjects as people would be, if only they allowed the rainbow to settle. Nader El-Sayed’s dark backgrounds, on the other hand, catapult his figures forward, like a distinctive recollection jutting out of a foggy memory. His oils grab you from the opposite end of the exhibition hall, imposing and loud, knowing that you will enjoy the certitude they manifest and will establish a rapport with their models.

Ayman El-Qadry, whose documentary output is perhaps the most varied, draws on the everyday tools and utensils, summoning a larger picture which bespeaks a whole mode of living, complete with gabana coffee, camel carts and semsemeyas. His comic strip style of drawing celebrates every crease of a tunic’s fabric, every twist of a rope, every string of a tassel; festive, musical, colorful, happy to know that these men exist. Ahmed El-Gananini’s, bold paintings, on the other hand, encapsulate a series of struggles centered on the subject matter: the perception of an abstract world and the reality of specific detail; tentative interpretation and categorical declaration; fusion and boundaries; watered undertones and saturated chrome explode out of the canvas.

The only sculptor in the exhibit, Nathan Dows captures movement with genius. His camels are in the grip of distinctive momentum, their heads and limbs sculpted to relay constant shifting, while even his sand-baked bread sculptures seem to display evidence of motion at the subatomic level.

The Characters of Egypt Exhibit is a feat for which the artists, as well as the gallery’s workshop initiative, encompassing travel to the deep south of Egypt and endurance of the harsh desert environment, must be heartily congratulated. Unfortunately, the opportunity to capture this historical occasion for communication between all those different tribes as they shared music and food, played siga tournaments and discussed their tribal laws, was untapped by the workshop. The artwork portrays individuals in isolation, whereas an assortment of costumes, headgear and human exchange, on the same canvas, would have deeply enriched both the fruit of the workshop’s efforts, and the comprehensiveness of the ensuing documentation as witness to such tribal interaction.

This visit to Gauguin Gallery’s exhibit, however – one cannot stress enough – provides uncontested evidence to the fact that the desert tribesmen, hitherto marginalized and alienated although they constitute the longest historical thread among the numerous ones weaving the fabric of the Egyptian identity, have finally found representation in the local art scene. One can only hope that this new treasure trove in terms of subject matter will snowball into a wealth of depictions by the contemporary artists who will follow suit and face the challenge of the desert’s scorching sun in order to contribute to the posterity of its inhabitants.

Gauguin Gallery, 8 Samir Zaki St, off Mohamed Mazhar St, Ismail Yassin Bldg, Zamalek. Tel: 273 81432 & 010 816 2949.

The exhibition runs until 27 December, daily except Mon, 12 noon-3pm & 5pm-10pm.

Photo: Zamalek Art Gallery Website

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