Shems Friedlander, secret poet, playwright but no-longer secretive painter, is AUC’s Renaissance Man.
That is not an allusion to a period of painting which I would argue has barely touched or influenced his work, but rather to his technical and artistic versatility.
His award-winning commercial graphic art and design in New York in the 1970s and 80s went on to professionally inspire a generation of his AUC students. His deeply moving (in the most spiritual sense of the word) black and white photographs of dervishes at sacred dance, or full face into the camera’s eye, have been exhibited in galleries across the world and have graced the continuously reprinted book “Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes.
This same, latter sensibility would inform his series of documentary films “Rumi, The Wings of Love and “The Circles of Remembrance, as well as his many other books, in particular “When You Hear Hoof Beats Think of a Zebra and “Rumi the Hidden Treasure.
Friedlander has been painting since he was an art school student. However, the various publics he has acquired over the years would not be conscious of this constant stream of work, unless privileged to have visited his studios, until their first public appearance in February 2007 at the Gezira Art Center exhibition “Shems Friedlander: Photographs, Paintings, Drawings.
Nominally that show was dominated by his world-recognized still photography and the only remarks Friedlander records in this exhibition catalogue pertain to photography. But in fact the catalogue, like the exhibit, was dominated by examples of his painting and masterful drawings.
Yet, it is in those remarks upon photography that Friedlander quite accurately describes the vision of the artist that ties together so much seemingly diverse fields and will help the viewer who encounters Friedlander’s recent paintings in this latest exhibition.
“The Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi spoke of the inner reality of everyday life; the sound of thunder, the flowers, snow, all of nature, as having a hidden meaning that lies beneath its surface. For the artist this is a process of seeing through one’s inner being into a world of continuous impressions, and being present in a moment of active awareness recorded by the camera, or several individual moments of awareness experienced in painting, Friedlander said in his catalogue.
The paintings, now on exhibit at the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Center, are an accomplished collection. They can be referenced to the work first exhibited two years ago. But now, this most recent work evokes a definitive statement. The paintings, Friedlander’s “beings – both earthly and heavenly, have grown, in the words of the curator Naglaa Samir, into “full wings of wisdom.
Indeed, winged beings dominate this show. They merge significantly in the painting Friedlander selected for the catalogue cover: “The Angel in Joan of Arc. I’m not sure I grasp the full meaning of the title of this painting; Joan was a Saint not an angel. But there is both a spiritual certainty and majesty in her face that transcends even the saint, though she be braced for battle, her lance held forward, upright like the lances in Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano.
Yet, Friedlander has spoken of wings in the context of human aspiration and spiritual growth – that one wing is knowledge and the other wisdom. I gather he means that we can acquire knowledge and by its nature may take pride – a deadly sin – in it, and we may forget or lose it. But wisdom is paramount among the virtues – once achieved it is absorbed into man’s very being.
Perhaps that is why Icarus fell, the subject of one of Friedlander’s early (1967) paintings, according to Naglaa Samir. Icarus’ aspirations were molded by thoughtlessness or even deadly pride – how high he could fly. Not by wisdom. So many of us secretly yearn for wings; so many of us aspire to fly. These paintings make us ask ourselves, why?
One of the most persistent images for Western art and its presumed classical Greek heritage is “The Winged Victory. It is a breathtaking stance, of exaltation, as if mounted on a ship’s bow. Instead, it is at the very top of the main staircase at the Louvre. Believed to have been sculpted to celebrate a military victory, the image is alluded to in film, when a young Kate Winslet is held aloft by her lover on the prow of the Titanic. So the lever is love, sexual love, and the Sufi sages tell us that sexual love can lever thoughtlessness, pride and power on one hand or a taste of paradise and the ultimate spiritual aspiration for union with the Beloved on the other.
It’s all there in this show and in particular the vivid, indeed brilliant colors delivered by vigorous, but consciously, measured brush strokes. One thinks of Matisse. But really again it is Naglaa Samir, Friedlander’s curator, who tells us what this is about: “In his recent paintings one can depict the mystical vibration of vivid layered colors leading the viewer beyond the symbolism of the subjects towards personal insightful discovery.
And you, the viewer, can do this because these colors and forms that shape his painterly beings are expressions of what Wassily Kandinsky called “the inner need – the inner need of the painter for spiritual expression.
Friedlander has that inner need; he is a Spiritual Expressionist.
Wings of Speech: Recent paintings by Shems Friedlander. Mahmoud Moktar Cultural Center, 5 Tahrir St. Open daily: 10 am-10 pm and on Fri. & Sat.: 3:30 pm-10 pm.The exhibition runs to April 25