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Tattoos on the historical memory

Mahmoud Hamed’s new collection extracts significance from historical etchings and patterns

Mahmoud Hamed’s new collection is inspired by ancient cultures (Photo from Gallery Misr)
Mahmoud Hamed’s new collection is inspired by ancient cultures
(Photo from Gallery Misr)

By Professor Yasser Mongy

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) triggered a heated intellectual debate when he introduced his Semiologie. His enthusiasts in Paris heavily employed the new term in their researches to decode more of its curiosities and, in the meantime, claim royalties in this field. De Saussure seemed to have thrown the lifejacket to the Parisians, who were swept by the global Semiotics. Coined by American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914), Semiotics gained a strong foothold in Eastern Europe, Italy and the United States.

However, landing on their shores, Arab linguists and philosophers did not give de Saussure’s Semilogie a warm welcome; they preferred to walk in the footsteps of their American counterparts, who celebrated Semiotics in their writings and critiques. It was apparent that Arab linguists and philosophers appreciated an understanding Charles W. Maurice (1903-1979) came up with to declare that Semiotics is greatly interested in the meaning of signs and indication. Seeking to slow down the heated dispute, linguists in the Arab Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) transliterated Pierce’s term to Simiotiqa, which gives overlapping and conflicting meanings. Since then, Simiotiqa in Arabic language has been associated with the study of signs, sign processes and semiosis.

Philosophers and theorists, who jumped on the last wagon of the train of Semiotics paid much interest to semiotics and associated semiosis. However, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) acted exceptionally: his extensive researches sought to draw an analogy between symbols and signs. Amid such confusing understanding and explanation of Semiotics, in which the meaning of the referent, the sign and the symbol, is playing s central role, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Hamed reveals in his latest exhibition ‘Sgraffito’ his own visual argument. His sign and indication play the central role in aesthetical analogy and communication. The surface is no longer acting as a display of visual forms: Hamed’s surface is a visual incubator, which motivates the viewer’s curiosity to watch tattoos, signs and referents hatch out and form intricately analogical relationship with the surface. The presence of semantic, cultural and aesthetic signs analogous to indications plays a conceptual role. Semiotic analogy is motivated and intensified to transcend the rules outlined by pro-philologists Rolan Barthes (1915-1980).

Nor do Hamed’s signs and referents pay much attention to rhetoric by Jacques Derrida (1915-1980), who, regardless of acknowledging Barthes, sought to shake his thought. Hamed’s work also invites us to adventurously appreciate his determination to break the taboos and clichés, which are dominating several art circles in Egypt. Uncertain over the results of their adventures, members of these circles are helplessly allowing taboos and clichés to deepen unrivalled their presence and influence in their work. However, in his visual adventure, Hamed freed the sign from its traditional fetters to examine its semantic labyrinths and connotations. He came up with multi-layered courses, which involve the medium and the technique. At this moment, the viewer comes across several curiosity-arousing questions, such as: is it safe an appropriate to fit Hamed’s work in the category of painting, printmaking, compositions or installations? In addition to his free technique, Hamed’s new experiment, which is rich in intellectual content, does not only give answers to all these questions. The artist shed much light on the work’s thematic message, the heavy presence of colour, and signs of graphic technique imported from sgraffito, etching and silkscreen. Moreover, Hamed’s technique energised the surface textures, and tamed the visual values of bas-relief and scratch. The artist also invokes past experiments performed by masters of composition, who created an elaborate and consolidated form from separate surfaces to underline the value of diversity in the unit, and the value of coherence in diversity. In the meantime, Hamed’s experiment revives admirably contemporary examples of installation by compromising the classic restriction of 3D rules.

Hamed’s latest experiment should also be fit into the category of constructionism; he celebrated different artistic signs and connotations in a pool of native culture. That is why, we should also seek the help of Semantique to fruitfully analyse Hamed’s paintings and have a better understanding of the overlapping development of the meaning and the value in his visual signs, sgraffito and space. The artist also managed to achieve an elaborate composition of visual allures, such as ritual signs, talismans and symbols, which tempt the viewer to admire the illusive depth his exceptional technique suggests in the space. Hamed’s illusive depth is activated by contrasting colours and the intensity of light and shade.

The project aims at reviving a lost art and make it available to the general public (Photo Public domain)
The project aims at reviving a lost art and make it available to the general public
(Photo Public domain)

On the other hand, the artist uses the technique of dim surfaces, in which lines and colour gorgeously obfuscate in intertwined scripts and engraved signs. He also cleverly suggests that image of the sign, which develops illusively to display juxtaposed features of different portraits. At this moment, Fayum Portraits, which constitute the bridge of communication between the dead and the living, overwhelm our memory. Nonetheless, Hamed’s portraits transcend the classic territory of portraiture to associate themselves with the curious realms of sign, symbol and metaphor. Signs and talismans run into each other; magic incorporates into heritage to create illusions of ritual tattoos and murals decorated to protect against evil or bad luck. Hamed’s portraits also bear signs of sgraffito, in which children release their painting talent; and when they grow up develop the technique to graffiti, to express their revolutionary slogans for change and draw attention to their presence and contribution.

Importing the technique of sculpture, scratches in the thick layer of colour reveal their heavy presence, and would sometimes give the impression that they are slaps of ancient murals. Hamed’s scratches also seem to be worn-out areas of colours, which usually comes as a result of a friction between metal objects. The artist also revealed the environment (cardboard) underneath and celebrated the visual potentials of the inner layers. The engraved paralleled lines activate the presence of texture and shade, which jointly increase the intensity of the relationship of different elements.

The intense colour spaces, the rhythmic light and shade, dimness and semi-transparency play the central role in the visual illusions; they are attributed to the artist’s extensive researches into the potentials of his mediums and his study of different techniques. He is generous with the colour pastes. He admirably managed the irresistible influence of his colours and appreciated the feel of the texture to break the visible features of the portrait in the surface.

In Hamed’s portraits, lines, signs and indicators obfuscate in tattoos, decorations and metaphors. His portraits would trigger more of their curiosities when the colour, the script and recordings compete for their visual presence and bid to weave an interactive relationship. There is hardly any doubt that Hamed’s work constituted an example of the cognitive relationship between the script and the visual aesthetics. In other words, the artist introduced us to the duality of historical visual memory, and contemporary formulas to debate—visually—current developments. Hamed’s work is the highlight of the human presence tattooed on our historical memory.

The exhibition continues until 27 February at Gallery Misr in Zamalek.

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