Unlike the case in every other art discipline in the country, it has so far been a great year for the visual arts. With every new exhibition opening, established artists are making incredible comebacks, practicing artists are presenting excellent work, and young talents are having strong debuts. It’s usually the case that art fares well in turmoil; in every global catastrophe, from economic recessions to revolutions, art usually remains unaffected. In that way, they function as hopeful departures from the otherwise depressing news we are bombarded by, and provide us with a pregnant pause in which we can calmly revise our thoughts and collect ourselves before the next bout of action.
An exceptional example of such pauses is Ahmed Kassim’s exhibition “Politica” currently held at the Safar Khan Gallery. An impressive collection of large canvases exploring Egypt from a highly original perspective, the paintings are hallucinatory, bizarre and comical. An excellent production of modern surrealism, each piece is skillfully painted then distorted into a dream-like image.
Very few young artists are capable of doing this today. It is in fact infinitely more difficult to create abstraction than to paint realism, as abstraction or distortion of any kind requires an astute understanding of anatomy and form, so that any warping in the image retains a sense of recognizability.
Kassim does this wonderfully, with large paintings depicting three tuk-tuk vehicles sitting around on a table, or a fish eye-lens view of a metro station with faceless figures hanging on to dear life from the ceiling handles as though they’re marionettes. The images require a minute to take in, as they are filled to the rim with colors and viewpoints and are rampant with details.
The most intriguing aspect about this collection of paintings is how specifically relevant they are to the current events. Each piece may as well be an illustration for a new headline in the last few months, yet the paintings boast aesthetic qualities that render them timeless and eerily humorous.
A particularly satirical piece is called “Snake & Ladders.” It uses the popular board game as a direct metaphor of any candidate’s route towards presidency, infamously called “The Chair.” Everything from tanks, salafis, army soldiers, KFC bags, piles of bread, VIP cars and of course snakes and ladders, stand in one’s way in reaching ‘The Chair,” presented as an antique thrown-like piece of furniture.
The chequered background instantly brings back memories of the game, a popular one in Egypt as well as a widely used metaphor of the minefield that was and still is our politics. The choice of subject matter speaks to all, and the sarcasm deftly employed by Kassim is dearly missed.
The fact that anyone can see, read and understand these paintings without having to read a statement or have a background in the arts is exactly what is needed. One feels the need to make postcards of these paintings and distribute them around the city just to show those skeptical of the visual art (and there are plenty) that it can in fact be more powerful than newspapers, TV shows and Twitter.
Two pieces in the exhibition best present the artist’s range and skill: the first is “Invasion.” Presented unto what appears to be a snapshot of Egypt from Google maps are rows of crows on wires. Like a snapshot from Hitchcock’s “Birds,” the crows appear menacing with bright red beaks and in their large number. They appear to be wearing blue helmets colored as though they’re wearing a uniform of some kind.
The resemblance to an army or a police force is uncanny, yet whether that was the artist’s intention or not is unclear. The painting could not be better named, as these birds appear to slowly take over the map of Egypt by sheer stubbornness. What draws one to this painting, however, is its aesthetics. His composition is excellent, changing what is otherwise a flat map of the country to a three dimensional study of crows. It’s an excellent insight into the artist’s ability to transform space and balance various elements within one canvas.
The second piece demonstrates the artist’s vast imagination, and here one is reminded with the one-hit wonder exhibit “Planet Cairo” by George Azmy. Kassim employs the same sense of depth, but adds several perspectives in one piece to create an Escher-like composition.
Titled “Utopia,” this painting features a giant figure of a woman sleeping in the center of the city like Gulliver, while cars drive over her, buildings surround her and little miniature army soldier beat her with sticks. Regardless of the meaning behind the piece, which could range from the dismal portrayal or our dormant state to the metaphorical mirroring of the treatment of women (or Egypt as a ‘she’) in the revolution, the painting itself is simply brilliant. How every element in the painting is layered on top of the other, with building balconies meticulously modeled, a pissing army soldier comically perched on a roof, cars cramming every possible empty space on the canvas, is exemplary.
Ahmed Kassim’s “Politica” carries the perfect balance of satire and accomplished aesthetic, which speaks to the average layman with ease. As an intellectual break from the more difficult times we are currently living, this show is a must see.
Safar Khan Gallery: 6 Brazil St., Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: +2012 2312 7002
“Politica” closes on Feb. 24.
Invasion – oil on canvas.
Snake and ladder.