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.