Souad Mardam Bey paints with her wand again

Heba Elkayal
7 Min Read

Souad Mardam Bey has painted magic again. Ethereal and ephemeral figures and silhouettes grace her canvases in a collection that has outdone her previous exhibitions.

All her subjects, humans and animals alike, are fantastical and whimsical.

Horses with beautiful braiding, Nubian figures in intricate turbans and old styled fezzes and galabeyyas styled as if they were couture. There are references to what could be termed as vintage orientalism, a reverence for what was once beautiful during Egypt’s belle époque era yet with a highly modern twist on shape, form and color.

Growing up in a household with a variety of faiths, customs and traditions – a Kurdish German mother and a Syrian father, who collected and respected art – her passion for art was nurtured. Although of Syrian origin from Damascus, Souad Mardam Bey studied philosophy at the University of Lebanon and later fine art and art plastique at the BUC in Beirut.

Her work is highly complex art infused with symbolism that seems at first glance to be too whimsical to relay deep meaning. In essence though, Mardam Bey’s work carries with it substance and a complexity that is not too severe but rather playful.

Mardam Bey gains much inspiration from Egypt. She moved here in 2001 and it was then when she started her work on portraits of Nubian faces and figures.

“Nubian faces have highly accented features and beautiful skin tone; although, I never paint with the intention of identifying my subjects to a particular gender or forcing that upon the viewer, she said.

Her artistic versatility is clearly reflected in her paintings, capturing each subject differently in an entirely new context. She sees herself as a painter of “figurative modernism, her technique is original, and yet the figures – not painted with detail of their physical contours – are somewhat abstract.

Rather, the features are elaborated and the clothes take precedence over the physical body of the subject.

The subjects of this collection are more stylized, faces more identifiable on the whole to one gender or the other. Each face carries with it a sense of serenity, intensified as the subjects glance at viewers with large honey-colored eyes.

“Souad has an interest in fashion design, said Mona Said, who runs Safar Khan with her mother Cherwet Chafie. It is there that the mother-daughter team introduces and exhibits prominent artists from around the Middle East to Egyptian art enthusiasts.

“She redesigns typical Nubian wear with a more stylized take. For that reason, the clothes are a major feature in this collection of her work, she added.

Lithe male figures are wearing pin strip pants and tailored shirts that are surprisingly modern, evoking the impression of American fashion designer Tom Ford’s shoot taken in Aswan. Another subject stands on a train platform with a vintage red traveling bag, their galabeyya is plaid and in each grid is a bird native to Egypt; the inspiration she drew from a book on native Egyptian birds.

On this particular painting, she talks with excitement about this world of fantasy which serves as the backdrop for her subjects, and she relays a sense of her love for Egypt in both her art and conversations.

One large canvas depicts a young woman in a polka dotted turban and red dress, hugging a large silver fish as a human would embrace a loved one. A recurring motif in her exhibition, the fish are somewhat puzzling at first. Fish are symbolic of wisdom and good luck in Egypt, and perhaps for that reason the young subject is hugging good fortune to herself.

Despite the surrealism of the painting, there is something highly sensible and balanced about its composition.

“My paintings contain a mélange of color, texture, technique and subject. All in all I have to give my paintings harmony, and that is what attracts a viewer and what an artist has to ensure; the viewer doesn’t always know what is attracting him to the painting, but it’s there, somewhere.

Her technique is highly textured. “An artist’s technique transforms, develops and elaborates upon itself, says Mardam Bey. Relying on oil and mixed media, Mardam Bey successfully invokes life into her subjects by her very brush work which is strong in its effect yet subtle on canvas.

The multiplicity of layers on canvas creates a unique technique of brushstroke that can appear flaky and aged, or else solid and strong. Gold foil, earthy shades, red and Bordeaux are colors that she mostly uses, but this collection saw white, greens, yellows and pinks invading her palette for the first time. She is certainly developing both in form, subject and color.

“I always say that everything is art, and there is no competition. Everyone has their own road which they travel on, and everyone has their own way of capturing the moments. Each one sees something differently, and captures it differently. Art is relative to each person, yet every attempt at art should be honored and valued from whomever it comes from.

Visit the exhibition at Safar Khan: 6 Brazil St., Zamalek, Cairo; Tel: 2735-3314.

Open Monday to Saturday, 10-2 pm and 5-9 pm.

Exhibition ends on Dec. 31.

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