A big portrait of Ahmed Zakis stands defiantly in your way as you enter the Mashrabia gallery. The portrait is made out of 8-bit pixels. It gets more obscure when you come closer and only becomes clear at a distance. There are a number of other 8-bit portraits around it, each of a different face, all seemingly unrelated except for a signature by the artist underneath each of them: A El Shaer.
Ahmed El Shaer’s 8-bit Portraits are a compelling experiment in art at Mashrabia that aim to bring the 8-bit era that was culturally significant and influential in the west, to contemporary Egypt.
The 8-bit technology uniquely uses limited colours and pixels to create what Shaer calls “a distinct simplified monolith form.” The lack of exposure of this region of the phenomena is what fueled his desire to experiment with it.
Shaer believes that the 8-bit era was largely lost on Egyptians and that it does not hold the same place in Egyptian pop culture as it does in the west. The exhibition features portraits of famous figures from Egyptian pop culture (though not all are Egyptian), including Om Kalthoum, Fairuz, Abdelhalim Hafez, Asmaha, Ahmed Zaki and artists such as Mohamed Abla and Ahmed Bassiouny.
The portraits are all digital print-outs of the artist’s work and the gallery made sure to inform us that there was “no photoshopping” in any of the pictures.
The exhibition is a nostalgic journey for anyone who was a gamer as well as anyone with an interest in seeing pop culture through art. There are logos of Atari and Activision everywhere with some subtle commentary. One example in particular is a Sadat portrait that includes 8-bit airplanes and small flags of the Unites States and each portrait has these charming icons that the artist carefully placed according to each subject.
There are high scores and rankings in some of the paintings as well as icons of alien spaceships, reminiscent of boss battles that had us screaming in frustration at an 1980s video game.
There is no specific reason why the artist chose these particular people as subjects of his 8-bit portraits except his admiration for them. From ElBaradei to Mohamed Mounir, each subject represents something to the artist but there is no unifying theme save for their prominence in Egyptian culture one way or another.
“The portraits here are digital print-outs and each of them is different. That one is a self-portrait of the artist,” said Stefania Angarano, director of Mashrabia, as she pointed to a portrait I had mistaken for an actor. Relieved I had not made my mistake public, I went back to contemplating the juxtaposition of an Atari logo and a picture of Fairuz and the nostalgic effect it has, even on those who missed the 8-bit era.
The exhibition is free to attend and will be featured until 8 November, giving you lots of time to sample Egyptian pop culture in this distinct 8-bit form.