Soft spoken and delicate, a new player has emerged onto Cairo’s art scene with canvases as soft and feminine as the artist herself.
Marwa Adel is only 25 but her work – currently on display at Safar Khan Gallery – reflects a maturity of spirit with subject matter that highlights the angst of young women in Egyptian society struggling to maintain a strong identity in a man’s world, as Adel argues.
Adel teaches graphic design at Helwan University’s faculty of applied arts.
In addition to her fluency with design software, she is also a skilled photographer.
Juxtaposing the medium of graphic design with photography, Adel layers a collage of landscape and human images with photographed textures of indecipherable calligraphy in both English and Arabic scripts.
The majority of Adel’s subjects are naked and many are curled into fetal position. Adel, who wears the hijab, is quick to point out that none of the naked images are intended to titillate or provoke. Rather, they are meant to direct viewers to the emotional monologue of a subject on a canvas.
“I don’t care for the outward beauty of a subject model, I use it for overall appearances. I don’t take advantage of the physical form, but the emotional, she said.
The most pressing question that strikes viewers is how Adel reconciles naked images and the very process of creating the art pieces. With the aid of technology, Adel spent many tedious hours recreating the appearance of skin and hair on the subjects with Photoshop and airbrushing techniques. A small patch of skin from a hand or cheek is repeatedly manipulated to encase the entire body in blatant flesh.
Adel’s choice of medium is remarkable. Egyptian artists have produced some interesting work with graphic design in various outlets of media and print, but to see it being used so wholeheartedly is inspiring.
Despite its growing popularity, graphic design is not yet regarded as highly as other art forms. “Egyptians don’t have a sense of conceptual design, and it’s hard to convince people who aren’t swayed easily, Adel said.
At the exhibit’s opening, a significant number of visitors showed an appreciation for this relatively new art, snapping up many of the pieces. It was obvious that both older and younger guests related to the work easily.
The audacious honesty of the pieces was too strong to ignore. These are not the typically repeated images of women from Egypt’s countryside; rather, they speak a modern narrative.
“These are the incidents of my life, Adel said.
The canvases are large printed images. Adel plays with light against skin and hair, as well as against the vegetation of landscapes and water.
There are recurring motifs of bondage: tied hands and a bright red mouth bound by a rope are set against a background of black and white. It is somewhat difficult to look at these images for long. Something about the images resonated with me – perhaps as a woman or as a citizen of the Middle East – as they articulate absolute resignation to physical oppression and vocal suppression.
The motif of being rendered mute is repeated throughout and one canvas presents a woman’s face devoid of features, containing one single word: “Boefkom. The Farsi word means mute and Adel layers that very word in curlicues of Arabic script over the subject’s mouth.
Many of Adel’s canvases contain indecipherable text transcribed from her personal diaries, in which she writes of how it feels to live in a world where women live to fulfill societal needs and the wishes of others.
Subjects’ are positioned on hard surfaces, curled up uncomfortably. A woman’s naked back faces viewers, and the word “Freedom, is highlighted across the canvas again in Arabic script.
“Nakedness is not nakedness but pure vulnerability, and standing up from nakedness is solving the problem, Adel said.
Nakedness is a method by which one can let go of oppression. Adel explores the notion of freedom in a triptych detailing the moment of death, a position of the absolute surrender of all things, and finally nakedness as it results in a spiritual as well as a physical release.
What is evident in all of Adel’s work is her passion for the intellectual and artistic rights of women, daringly projecting women naked and confident.
Many might only be able to see what seems like a contradiction in her art and persona, but that does not reflect on the value of her work and what it expresses socially and artistically.
Adel’s exhibit runs through June 15. Safar Khan Gallery, 6 Brazil St., Zamalek. Tel: +2010 544 6611.