Countless languid women – abstract and figurative, sensual and monumental, modern and mythological – hang under the high-ceilings of a dustry building which resembles a recently deceased bank. This is Ibrahim Abd El-Rahman’s extensive collection of Egyptian paintings (I mentioned his gallery in my previous post on art in Cairo). Of these, perhaps the most striking are Ibrahim El Dessouki’s elegant portraits (often of his wife, also a painter), which tempt comparison with Modigliani and Klimt. This collection of female forms – abstract and figurative, sensual and monumental – suggest certain trends in Egyptian painting and the nature of its buyers.

At Art Corner, a newish gallery in a Zamalek shop, two ink drawings lean casually against a wall. These are, I am told, the work of a French artist Paul Beanti, who came to paint the revolution and was arrested in Tahrir Square. The drawings give his account of arrest, attempted humiliation, striking back with satirical anger. The woman watching the gallery absent-mindedly whilst stringing a set of glass beads, goes to fetch one of Beanti’s paintings from the storeroom. When she returns, and the painting is removed from its bubblewrap, the exposed painting strikes me more than any of the other artists’ paintings on the walls: a composition in bright swathes of roughly applied orange, purple and yellow, the head of a sphinx emerges from within a haze of what looks like marker pen. The artist used sand and soil to give his work its roughness. The work made during his stay suggests he viewed his role as a foreign artist in residence in Cairo as that of agent provocateur (an interview in al-Ahram dutifully mentions that the artist’s main fascination – in his own [admittedly circumcised] genitalia – makes his work unacceptable in Egypt). These paintings look naked, aggressively so, insistently naïve. I wonder what art this revolution really needs.

In the Misr Gallery, a group show collects recent works of Egyptian sculpture: objects in bronze, nickel and marble. The elegance and simplicity of the room immediately calls to mind earlier European counterparts, Brancusi and Giacometti. The work of Khaled Zaki and Salah Hamid appear similar responses to recent events. Zaki, who works in Italy, contributes ‘Sitting Patriot’ to the show.

The head of this figure is marble, and the contrast between this humble (tortured?) figure and the eminent and supercilious faces usually incarnated in marble, suggest a careful and empathetic response to recent images of Egyptian civil violence. But it is the loins of this sculpture, and Hamid’s ‘Uprising’ (below), with their stylised (castrated?) genitalia, three identical cubes, which gives the work its especial anger. These works lack the quickness of paint’s criticism but quietly make an interesting argument about the perpetual dangers of making monuments to the Egyptian body in pain.

Atef Ahmed’s collages demonstrate recent thinking into the police presence on the streets. Menna Genedy, director of the Misr Gallery and an artist in her own right, has recently encountered similar problems. She lives near the Ministry of the Interior and is, she says, regularly “suffering from their looks”. Her images have the same peculiar affinity with and antipathy towards advertising as Richard Hamilton’s collages of the 1960’s.

Genedy’s mixed media work work as visual social commentary, gathering the country’s self-celebrating billboards (‘Egypt is the Land of Civilization’) with  images of its self-harm, bringing a photographed group of impoverished children onto the golfing greens of a holiday brochure. Marwa El-Shazly’s vivid collages include images of a goose settling on Mubarak’s head, X-Rays coming out of politician’s eyes, political satire with science fiction’s self-confidence, ruthlessly desecrating the images of a debased political reality. Figures of Obama and Gaddafi adorned with Grace Jones and Donald Duck: it’s all the same to us. There seems to be a silent accord between these satirists: Ghada Amer’s 2007 work ‘Le Salon Courbé’ (below) has the same uncanny fascination with bloodied furniture as Essam Marouf (see his faceless phantasmic paintings here).

The women in Egyptian art are no longer mere painted subjects, but active, even aggressive, players.  Amer’s recent works include a series of paintings of masturbating women, overlain with kitsch patterns. Another Egyptian artist, Nadine Hammam, has been mapping out the points of contact between the gaze and the female body and the destruction of subjectivity which that might involve. The French novelist, Pierre Guytot, commended this kind of art: “Pornography is certainly more beautiful than eroticism … Eroticism is ugly. Eroticism is an ideology… there is nothing more boring than eroticism, it’s worse than poetry, even. I say three cheers for pornography.” There is perhaps a similar distinction to be made between the modern women of Ibrahim Abd El-Rahman and this new generation of artists, making work which is unsaleable in Egyptian galleries, and threatened by the probable domination of the next government by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist affiliates. To quote Mahmoud Amer again: “What is this art of yours? The art of lesbians? The art of prostitutes?” Hammam’s recent work ‘Heartless’ answers boldly in the affirmative. Pornography may be a revolutionary art. These artists are making dangerous excursions around the borders of social acceptability, simple gestures which demand freedom of expression for artists and women.

Further Reading