By Mariam Hamdy
Currently showing at the Zamalek Art Gallery is an exhibition that humbles even the most hard-working artist today, and dwarfs the efforts exerted in the local art scene. The pioneer of the Egyptian contemporary art movement, Gazbia Sirry is holding her 71st solo exhibition “Time and Place” at the gallery that has hosted her work for the last decade.
Seventy-one solo exhibitions is, in and of itself, an impressive feat, but when all the works created present a remarkable range of skill and approaches, not to mention are acquired in impressive private collections as well as in museums worldwide, the artist then becomes a legend.
Sirry is indeed the quintessential Egyptian artist. She has persevered to create artwork through the Nasserite 1950s, the intellectual liberation of the 1960s, Anwar Sadat’s 1970s, Mubarak’s last 30 years of decline and the revolution that they all led to.
The latter proves to have been an emotional and difficult experience for the artist who, like the rest of us, has slipped into a state of frustration and despair. Famously labelled “Spokesperson of the People,” Sirry’s paintings are always immersed in her surroundings and the people she lives among.
However, with this exhibit, Sirry told Daily News Egypt, “It was a wonder I was able to create anything at all, with this year’s unfolding events that are hard to hear and difficult to digest.”
She went to great lengths to distance herself from what was happening around her in the last year, not in ostrichism but rather in an attempt to find a peaceful state of mind from which she can create her latest work. The results are gorgeous, as usual.
The work is far from distant, with simple yet expert compositions that speak volumes with only just a few strokes of paint. Bright primary colors negated the overall serene and somewhat somber feeling of the paintings, presenting juxtaposition that extends into a world of contrasts upon a closer look.
The use of figures and architectural motifs together is an approach that Sirry has used in the later part of her career, and this exhibition features both once more. Here, however, is the best application we have seen from the artist yet.
The abstraction of every element, the literal reduction of every line, stroke and color to its basic form of existence can only be done by an artist of Sirry’s expertise. To have a painting largely made up of white negative areas and have the ability to command the entire gallery space is a trait that only Sirry can perfect.
A large canvas depicting faces, an aerial view of buildings and home windows huddled up in the upper half of a painting, charged as their palette of green and red clash with each other, is a perfect example of the artist’s masterful composition.
The painting is surprisingly relevant, presenting a range of emotions across the figures and faces as they stand crowded amongst each other and in their city. Ahead of them lies a stark white emptiness that presents, literally, an empty canvas for them to paint their destiny. Sirry precisely locates the heart of the matter; her work being raw, honest and straight to the point.
What is seen in these paintings is a trait not present in the way the last year was handled: class. The sheer force of the elegance with which every figure is sculpted and flattened by the artist is inspiring. A personal favorite shows red vertical lines running down the center of the painting, alternating between appearing like a silhouette of a figure or simply a thick line. These lines or figures are looking or moving towards a green expanse on one end of the painting. The emergence of human life from what otherwise appears as inanimate objects is exquisite, drawing a solid metaphor on our current state while allowing oneself a safe distance for deeper understanding and digestion of the events.
Other paintings boast of the artist’s signature aggressive strokes, where one color is dryly placed on top of the next, with very little blending. In these pieces, the composition is crowded, with people huddled in traffic of faces, while others present vertical figures lined up or placed across the canvas in organized, statistic arrangements.
Once again, the compositional skills of the artist are loud and clear, as the simple figures and sectioned areas of color balance each other perfectly. With every piece, the artist draws upon Egypt and her strife over the last 30 years. Although there is no particular reference to the revolution in the works, every piece bleeds in a manner that hearts do, and it was clear that the artist went to extraordinary lengths to paint at a time when her country and her people were, and still are, at a crossroads.
Perhaps the legendary Gazbia Sirry did not mean to draw attention to the revolution, or to any particular event of those we have witnessed lately, but the artist has always been relevant, maintaining a firm hold on the country she loves so dearly.
Sirry is the perfect example of an artist being involved with their surroundings but never a sheep in the herd. Always original, always new and only getting better with age, Sirry is an icon of our modern history and our tumultuous present.
“Time and Place” is only just the latest glimpse into the prolific artist’s mind, and that is not to be missed.
“Time and Place” is showing at Zamalek Art Gallery: 11 Brazil St., Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2735 1240. Closes March 14.