In memory of an Egyptian avant-garde

BEIRUT: The Arab world’s modernist artists are enjoying revived interest at home and discovery overseas. Witness the Beirut Exhibition Center’s several retrospective shows and the Tate Modern’s 2013 exhibition of works by Saloua Raouda Choucair. Artists whose legacy might be at risk of being forgotten are thus brought back to the public eye.Hamed Abdalla was born in Cairo in 1917. Self-taught, the artist made a name for himself with his bold, innovative work, first in Egypt and later across the Arab world and in Europe – he lived in Denmark and France for some decades.

A teacher, writer and passionate student of art history as well as an artist, Abdalla’s avant-garde experimentalism earned him recognition within his lifetime. Close to 30 years after his death, in 1985, the artist’s son Samir Abdalla, Agial Gallery’s Salah Barakat, arts writer Roula El Zein and Palestinian artist Nasser Soumi, among others, are working to ensure his legacy lives on.

Two simultaneous exhibitions – one at Cairo’s Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, the second at Agial Gallery – have been timed to coincide with the release of Zein’s comprehensive monograph on Abdalla’s work.

“Homage to Hamed Abdalla,” now up at Agial Gallery, includes more than 40 works on paper. Some date back to Abdalla’s early years. Most stem from after 1958, when the artist became interested in the possibilities presented by Arabic calligraphy and developed his figurative “word-forms.”

Many pieces betray the artist’s political leanings, particularly those created post-1978. Outraged at the outcome of the Camp David Accords and then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, Abdalla created numerous pieces in support of the Palestinian cause.

While these paper works may not provide the same insight into Abdalla’s unique oeuvre as the canvasses on display in Cairo – Barakat decided against bringing valuable works to Lebanon due to the volatile security situation – they do showcase the artist’s experimental approach and the variety and breadth of his output.

Completed between 1941 and 1958, the earliest works on show betray the artist’s interest in the everyday life of the Egyptian people. In landscapes and a series of brightly colored naive portraits, he captures farmers, peasants and workers in the streets, at the market and in coffee houses.

Abdalla’s paper works are remarkably textural. The artist employed a range of innovative and occasionally bizarre techniques to achieve a unique finish in his paintings. He used tar lined with silver foil and heated with a blowtorch, as well as polystyrene, linoleum, plaster, cement, lime and jute, Zein notes in an essay published earlier.

It is this imaginative approach to materials that imbues his 20th-century avant-gardism with the spirit of the contemporary.

An early abstract from 1941, entitled “At the Market,” employs oil and acrylic to create a highly textural piece in shades of deep blue, green and maroon. The water-based acrylic has reacted with the oil to create an effect akin to raindrops on a windowpane.

The focus of the show are Abdalla’s “calligraphic improvisations,” as he termed them. Several pieces have marbled surfaces achieved with an airbrush – bearing a remarkable resemblance to some of the graffiti adorning the streets of Beirut today.

A series of contemporary calligraphy-inspired works currently on show at the 392Rmeil393 Gallery employ written words to represent the forms they reference. Abdalla was doing much the same thing decades earlier, using just one or two words.

In “The Defeated” (1961), Abdulla transforms the word “al-mahzoum” into what appears to be a prostrate figure, kissing the feet of another. His 1977 piece “Woman = Man” employs the Arabic words “al-rajul” and “al-mara” to depict a couple, united by the small equals sign between their legs.

Another 1977 work, referencing Camp David, consists of the Arabic word for betrayal (al-khazi) airbrushed in splatters of pink and purple on an orange background, above the date Nov. 19, 1977, the day Sadat arrived in Israel to speak before the Knesset. The single word forms a shape resembling three kneeling figures.

In Abdalla’s hands, calligraphy losses its merely decorative associations and is transformed into something figurative. His simple shapes are more sculptural than anything else, hovering between abstraction, figuration and formalism.

“Homage to Hamed Abdalla” provides a rare opportunity for the public to revisit or discover the work of this groundbreaking artist, whose experimental and varied output has influenced countless artists, both modern and contemporary.

“Homage to Hamed Abdalla” is up at Hamra’s Agial Gallery until March 8. For more information, please call 01-345-213.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2014, on page 16.




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