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Picasso Gallery: 'Enchantment' by Helmi El-Touni
Egypt's relationship with the arts is one that goes back centuries; it's a relationship that once saw artists and artisans alike being considered important and significant members of the community. Sadly, nowadays, the art scene is limited to select enclosed circles and cliques. While it can be argued that this is not a phenomenon that is specific to Egypt, Helmi El-Touni is a figure who finds himself with exactly this problem – he's one of many artists that have found much more recognition abroad than here.
El-Touni's uniqueness comes through his vibrant palate and exploration of social and economic stigmas. Showing at Picasso Gallery in Zamalek, his latest exhibition, Enchantment, is rather novel in that it presents a series of stylised portraits that are inspired by and represent various Egyptian love songs.
But it's also the choice of songs that have bred what is an interesting and engaging exhibition. The songs are simple, memorable and have come to be associated with popular Egyptian colloquialism, like Ya Helw Sabah by Mohamed Kandil. The corresponding painting depicts a woman with long, wavy hair wearing mascara. The piece shows here looking out of a window and smelling a flower, while the background engulfs her in dark beiges and tree branches. There's a sense of peaceful seclusion about the piece, but also one of yearning, as the woman contemplates – maybe she's even daydreaming.
The late, great Om Kolthoum is a clear inspiration for El-Touni; Kawkab El Sharq features prominently in the collection. These paintings differ, however, in that El-Touny takes on the ambitious task of drawing on Om Kolthoum's music itself. Habibi Wafani stands out in particular, showing a younger version of the renowned singer grasping a bouquet of flowers, with the words of the song incorporated into the background.
Moving away from music, the exhibition also features two paintings that saw El-Touny take inspiration from pieces by revered Egyptian artists, Mahmoud Saeed. Banat Bahari and El Oyoon El Asalia are essentially interpretations of Saeed's two pieces – it's an interesting approach and one that El-Touni would do well to continue. The concept in itself is fascination; art re-imagined through the eyes of another artist.
Apart from its novelty itself, it's the overall aesthetic tone of El-Toni's work compliments the concept behind 'Enchantment' perfectly; his pieces are playful, almost cartoonish in appearance – the perfect quality for his lively interpretations.
While the late Inji Efflatoun has become known for her colourful paintings, Safar Khan Gallery’s current exhibition shines a light on Efflatoun’s ink-on-paper collection, ‘Freedom After Prison’. Utilising the chosen materials through different techniques, Efflatoun created a diverse collection of sketches, which depicts life in the Egyptian countryside.
In some of the paintings, Efflatoun used staccato pen strokes to form the scene. One of them is ‘Rest Time’, in which the artist drew the masses of resting workers, adding a touch of detail here and there to break the detachment of the outlines.
On the other hand, other paintings boast a flowing outline, especially the ones including palm trees and greenery. In one of the best pieces in the exhibition, Efflatoun not only studies the form of palm leaves, but she also adds a creative touch to this simple form, filling the thin outline of the element with waves of ink, using the wide tip of a black marker.
Merging between the previous two techniques, Efflatoun drew a number of scenes that portray the dwellings of the peasants. For example, in one of the paintings, the artist used a continuous outline to draw the houses, while pen strokes were used to form the shape of other details, like palm trees or straw ceilings. Where necessary, Efflatoun used the wide tip of the marker for creating shades.
Though the different shades of ink are dominant in this exhibition, the gallery shows four paintings in colour, three of which are by Efflatoun herself and the fourth is by the exhibition’s guest of honour, the late Taheya Halim.
While two of Efflatoun’s were placed in near the front desk, making it difficult for the viewer to have a close look at them under the stares of the curators, the third, which portrays the artist while working in a simple set of brush strokes, is placed amidst the other ink paintings. However, being the guest of honour, Halim’s Painting, which depicts a Nubian couple seated on a bench, is centred on the wall facing the entrance.
And whether in colours, or merely painting using ink, ‘Freedom After Prison’ is sheer proof of the artist’s brilliant ability to create animated paintings using different mediums.