In 2010, most Egyptians were surprised by the news that Poppy Flowers, a priceless Van Gogh painting, had been stolen from the Mahmoud Moukhtar Museum. The painting was the pride of the small museum, and the main attraction.
It was located in a special viewing room with dimmed lighting and comfortable chairs so visitors could enjoy the picture for as long as they wanted. The experience itself was priceless; viewing a masterpiece in the heart of Cairo seemed almost bizarre. It was something to be remembered forever.
The Minister of Culture’s deputy, Mohsen Shaalan, was held responsible for the robbery and was imprisoned twice. He was initially held for two months under investigation during Ramadan 2010, and was then detained for a year in Tora prison along with Ahmed Nazif and other political figures.
After he was released, Shaalan began painting again and this month he opened his gallery, Black Cat, in Gezira Art Centre.
We met with Mohamed Bakry, the exhibition manager, who told us a little bit about the artwork and Mohsen Shaalan. “He has always considered himself an artist, and he found the public position he held to be shackling, which is symbolised in his painting as a suit and tie,” explains Bakry.
During his imprisonment, he was busy sketching his experience and surroundings using a black ball-point pen. He even sketched his cell-mates, and in his sketches one can see famous prisoners such as Ahmed Nazif, the former prime minister. He once played dominoes with Nazif while imprisoned.
The oil paintings in the exhibition are aesthetically pleasing, featuring recurring themes and icons that tie the exhibition together. The black cat is one of those icons. Sometimes the black cat is painted with yellow eyes, and sometimes it has blue eyes. “The black cat represents the people who conspired against him. He imagined a black cat everywhere. Anyone who conspired against him becomes a black cat. It is his own philosophy,” explains Bakry.
One of the paintings features a statue of Atlas carrying a pile of yellow-eyed black cats. Another shows Shaalan being crucified, with the Poppy Flowers painting in the background, and a blue-eyed black cat watching him. Many of the sketches feature former Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, whom Shaalan considers to be one of the main conspirators against him. In one sketch, Hosny’s face is half black cat, half human.
One of the sketches features Van Gogh, an apology written on the picture. The statement reads in Arabic: “In our country, the artist is more precious than the painting. What a shame, in your country, my painting imprisoned you. I am sorry, my friend, the artist.”
The paintings are well-executed, and despite handling such sad subjects, they are not morbid in nature. Shaalan’s use of colour and symbols enlivens the melancholic subject of the paintings, and the overall effect is captivating.