The painting, “Enta Omri,” is kaleidoscopic in pattern, jewel-like tones glowing side by side in dazzling – even dizzying – rhythm that only reveals each of its parts after you stare at it long enough. It looks like a brilliant series of complicated rosettes of patterns and colours resembling watercolour flowers, until you look closely and discover Um Kulthoum staring contemplatively from behind her large sunglasses multiplied in wheeling patterns, or Fairuz’s pale profile looking at a reversed copy of itself in a wash of blue symmetry.

Walking through the Dar al-Funoon’s warm corridors in October was a refreshing, interesting experience. Staring at the square canvases is a visual puzzle as you try to separate the pattern into isolated images, and then come up with a new, creative way of looking at it all.

Abdulla al-Awadi, last month's featured artist at the gallery, presented a unique and modern collection, called "Anmatt",  which incorporated historic Arab film and music culture with modern, psychedelic patterns as well as traditional Eastern patterns. The art had a certain spontaneity to it that restrained one from thinking of it as kitschy and more as vintage-nostalgic, which leads to an interesting visual experience as one juggles the past with the present.

Al-Awadi has a diverse range of talents and interests which show themselves in his art. He earned his BA in Architecture and Art Photography and an MA in Suburb and Town Design from Miami University, but also designs contemporary clothing, theatrical clothing (recently he was costume designer, choreographer, assistant director, and artistic advisor to Suleiman Al-Bassam’s theatre). He also has an interest in photography, jewelry, plastic, and installation arts.

With "Anmatt", he focused mostly on two-dimensional works (giclée, digital art imprinted using ink jet printing), hiding a kind of surprise in each canvas. The artist encourages the viewer to “scratch your head, hide a smile, or just blush” at the collection of paintings.

What is interesting about Al-Awadi’s idea of nostalgia is that it is refreshingly humorous. It is without the melancholy so common in nostalgic art, but at the same time presents an affectionate image of those depicted. “Ghanni” (‘sing’ in Arabic), for example, features the singer Sabah as she was illustrated on the paper sleeve of a vinyl record, the record entitled “Sing with Sabah,” or “Ghanni ma’a Sabah” from the Voix D’Orient Series. Al-Awadi multiplies Sabah’s figure in the image and six other copies of her stand behind her as in concert, all lit with a pastel-like softness. The panel is closer to the bottom of the canvas, and is one of several repeated patterns, the others all charcoal-dark, lending the main panel a kind of spot-light, complete with Sabah’s charming smile.

On each side of Sabah’s canvas, brother and sister Asmahan and Farid al-Atrash are featured in paintings of their own, their faces multiplied and rotated in a rich cube-like pattern, Asmahan’s face solemn and captivating, Farid’s with a dreamy, faraway look.

Many images featured Fairuz, one of them with a doubled image of her singing, but so abstracted, while in the foreground are the doubled words to her famous “Habbeytak bi-sayf, habbeytak bi-sheta.” Other paintings featured the lovely Layla Murad, Faten Hamama, Dalida, Samira Tawfik, and Hind Rustum, but the spotlight really went to Um Kulthoum in homage to her great place in Egyptian culture.

Scores of different images of Um Kulthoum stare out at the viewer from a dizzying jungle of shapes and colours, sometimes smiling to one side, or singing with her hands clasped, or wearing her familiar somber expression, behind her large sunglasses. The way Al-Awadi layered text, abstract shapes, and figural art had regularity that gave the paintings harmony, but he also added whimsicality to the paintings with off-center elements, such as a geometric snowflake-star that seems to have broken off from its network of stars and is floating away in Hind Rustum’s painting, or the off-center strip in “Ghanni.” In the paintings of Um Kulthoum, there was more order to the design, but the lively movements of Um Kulthoum in various positions lent human dynamics to the stationary patterns.

While all of this seems to try hard to steer away from looking kitschy, it is hard to say the same after looking at the other objects displayed at the gallery which al-Awadi worked on in cooperation with Sarah Beydoun of “Sarah’s Bag.” Beydoun’s designs are known for using collages of old pop icons, recalling the ideas of Egyptian-Armenian artist Chant Avedissian’s now very famous image of Um Kulthoum, his first stencil painting in a series of about 200 works capturing something of that golden age of Cairo.

Looking at the bags makes one reconsider the commercial element to the art. Al-Awadi’s fresh take on the icons force the viewer to look at them in different, unusual ways as part of a creative, though not wholly innovative, design concept. But the addition of the purses and clutches with prints identical to the paintings makes one to think of consumerist tendencies in art and the need to transform art into business. Art probably sells better when it’s on pins, T-shirts, purses, and mousepads, and while all of Sarah Beydoun’s bags are very appealing and beautifully made, it adds a different edge to the exhibition that represents new shifting dynamics in art that is not altogether negative, just different.

Bags aside, however, examining the paintings proved to be a real trip into the past, looking back to the old icons of the Egyptian silver screen, and singers who reigned over the Arab world for generations, but because of the vibrancy of his designs, the reminiscence has a light, quirky edge to it.

The gallery is quiet as it is on most evenings, save for the artist showing a few visitors around, and the sounds of laughter coming from the courtyard where the gallery curator, Lucia Topalian, was entertaining guests. But one could almost hear the strings, tambourines, and nay in prelude “Enta Omri,” “Emta Hata’raf,” and “Ana La Habibi” in the halls, humming off the canvas.

– Images: Nur Soliman


By: Nur Soliman

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