Vibrant colours, distinctive shapes and women – these are the first words that spring to mind when confronted with painter Mariam Mourad Abdelmesih’s latest work. Scattered around her home in Zamalek, the paintings keep drawing my attention away from our conversation, their deceptive simplicity seems to belie the energy they encompass.
Abdelmesih graduated in 1991 from the Faculty of Fine Arts, but it took a full 15 years before she showed her work to the public. “I was busy raising my children, taking care of my family,” she explains. “I drew and painted during all this time of course, in games with my kids and whenever I had a spare moment, but I did not have the time to prepare a full exhibition.”
After her first exhibition in 2006 Abdelmesih returned to her first love, drawing in black and white ink. Her style in this medium is distinctive and engaging, intricate images flow through each other, full of subtle meaning and contemporary social commentary. “Art is how I express myself, how I translate the emotions that are evoked in me into something tangible,” she says. “I am especially moved by the struggle of women. We are often confronted by cruelty and have been struggling for our basic rights for a long time. References to this are all over my work, it is my way to tell our story.”
The transition from black and white into colour was inspired by the 2011 revolution. “The 18 days, the times I stood in Tahrir, unleashed my desire to work in colour again. I felt this was the moment where change was possible and happening and it inspired me to create these new paintings,” Abdelmesih shares.
The normally soft spoken Abdelmesih gets passionate, “the position of women everywhere and certainly in our society is often misunderstood. The strength of women is tremendous, we are part of the change—we often drive the change. Despite our struggles, we are the foundation on which our society is built. Egyptian women have been this foundation since the beginning of our history.”
In preparation for an exhibition in the near future, Abdelmesih has created a whole new series of paintings that reflect the depth her views. They are all of women, alone or in groups, against colourful backgrounds. The features of the women vary from distinctly to vaguely pharaonic and details of their clothing often have hints of ancient Egypt. Yet all these references to ancient glory days are counteracted by modern details, like one of the women leaning back leisurely while holding a cigarette.
The ostensible simplicity of Abdelmesih’s style sometimes hints at the naive movement in her composition and choice of colours. However, there is nothing naive about the dedication and purpose of the painter herself, and she fully intends to make a statement about the power of Egyptian women that has been a constant all the way from the pharaonic queens through to today. All delicately leavened with a subtle humour that so often lacks in the modern-day reverence of those days long past.