There is a fierce sense of humor in Ihab Shaker’s new collection, currently exhibiting in Safar Khan. The extensive collection that includes works done in oils, pencil and ink feels like a commentary about Egypt with great imagery and mute musical notation.
The exhibition reveals an artist of versatile talents.
Shaker’s career encompasses a well-known legacy of caricature. His work established him while still a young student as a highly celebrated caricaturist for Al-Gomhuria in 1953 when he was recruited by graphics designer Abdel-Salam El-Sherif and where he met late President Anwar Sadat.
He had started drawing caricatures at an early age by drafting humorous sketches of his school teachers – a way of expressing his frustrations at them. His sketches were not the tasteless doodles of school boys, but highly developed proper art-work.
As a student, Shaker had applied for Alexandria University’s faculty of medicine. But before joining and during a camping vacation at Ras El-Bar, an artist told Shaker upon viewing some of his work that medicine wasn’t his path.
He should commit to art for surely he would gain fame and excel in this field, the artist told him.
He was instructed to meet the artist’s son back in Cairo who in turn took him to apply to art school.
“I went to Cairo University’s art school and found such beautiful statues and art and I was reconsidering the possibilities, says Shaker.
Art was also encouraged at home from a young age. Private lessons by Italian artist Carlo Minotti were further complimented by his father’s promptings and encouragement to be inspired by his collection of French illustration magazines. In university, it was the celebrated artists Bikar and Gazzar, amongst others, who guided the young man.
Shaker’s art today toys with a question he once voiced to Bikar: that of painting music. To this day, the artist’s work encompasses the narrative and music of Egypt in a purely physical and tangible way. Somehow, we do hear upon viewing his canvases the call of an apple vendor, or a fallaha, or the music of oud played by a man wearing a fez.
His works are permeated with a sense of the caricature, but more sophisticated. “God created art, especially music, so as to alleviate the pains of mankind. Art is about pleasing people, relaying something to viewers so they can feel that they have left their troubles for a little bit.
Working in Paris with Paul Grimault (Walt Disney’s French and equally celebrated counterpart) in the 70s allowed him to artistically contemplate the notion of music in art.
“Cartoons taught me many things. The seven years in Paris were wonderful, causing me to think of how music and my art could work together. It influenced all my future work in terms of movement, and I marveled at how [instruments], such as the piano, could yield so many varieties of music. Pondering at how time can be translated into sound, action and then art.
It was his work entitled “Un Deux Trois with Grimault that earned Shaker the prestigious Prix de Qualitè.
In his figures, there is much movement, which he believes will cause viewers to be visually dragged into his canvases, to contemplate for long periods of time.
“Like a symphony, one hears it a number of times, and can then begin to distinguish the various instruments and sub movements, notice different things. Your heart and mind start to engage in a dialogue of sound, and yields happiness and further curiosity.
His works utilize soft colors and soft strokes; nothing visually aggressive.
“The Apple Vendor plays on his notions of music, sound and form, and is one of a few works done in accrual pencil color, facilitating a build up of color and exquisite technique of the toning and shading of his subjects.
The apple vendor is calling out with hands to his ears, as if singing in notes of high soprano, hearing the great strength of his own voice as he calls to people in their houses to come down for shiny red apples. Upon closer contemplation, multiple hands attached to the same body are holding up apples to viewers and an old balance scale.
Shaker’s cartoon career has influenced him to draw subjects in unconventional ways.
“It allowed me more freedom in the composition of bodies. I have no worries about adding an extra arm, but I ensure that whatever I draw is in accordance with the rest of the body in terms of motion and activity. I do not allow you a moment of hesitation or objection upon viewing these bodies.
Shaker captures and translates strong internal emotions that are executed in physical contortions; physical movements of internal thoughts.
A fellaha in the pencil-colors sketch “El-Nadaba is like a figure of Colombian painter Bottero. Her proportions are physically exaggerated, and her spine bends backward as she shamelessly yells out. Arms outstretched, mouth wide open, her face is small in proportion to the rest of her body. She is everything that is beautiful about the fellaha: unrestrained and enthusiastic. And although on paper and formed by pencil markings, her voice is piercingly loud.
Shaker’s collection also includes a number of works that reveal one of his other accomplishments: he is also a children’s book author and illustrator. His oil painting entitled “Hug defines the prerequisites for a children’s illustrator. His trademark warm and soft colors, sense of creative execution and endearing characters are all front and center in this work.
In the painting, a lion, whose face is friendly and whose honey colored eyes are more human than animalistic, hugs a ram that too exudes a sense of human disposition.
“Hug prompted a book entitled “Endama Raqasa Alasad (When the Lion Danced) published by Dar El-Shorouk in 2008, both penned and illustrated by Shaker.
The narrative of a lion who is tamed by a dancing ram is reflective of the humorous approach to Shaker’s depiction of figures, both human and not; his ability to create movement and with it the sounds of crying and yelling and laughter.
Shaker has an extensive career chronicled with great humor that satires the goings on of Egyptian life, and most importantly, the stereotypes of characters who pepper it with great color. Like characters in a musical, Shaker’s subjects are singing and dancing on his canvases much to the bemusement of the viewers.
His collection of works is a celebration of what is strikingly Egyptian. He is the nation’s chronicler, and such a collection simply states that with great humor, there will always be hope.
Ihab Shaker’slatest exhibit closes on Monday, March 23. Safar Khan: 6 Brazil St. Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2735 3314, 012 312 7002