Named “Journey in Time”, Aliaa Al-Greadi’s exhibition at Gallery Misr – which opened on 26 September – includes 18 pieces combining knitting, embroidery and painting on canvas. Intuitive, abstract and surreal, the work evokes nostalgia and joy.
Born in Alexandria in 1968, Al-Greadi is a self-taught artist who studied history at the Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University but was propelled into her career in part by a coincidental encounter with prominent painter Farouk Wahba, the founder of a distinguished art school at Atelier Alexandria back in the late 1980s.
The artist’s fascination with embroidery started in childhood when she would watch her mother, who studied knitting at school, work miracles with thread. “I learned from her many types of stitches, and above all the passion for it. As a stubborn, enthusiastic girl, I developed my own passion for experimenting and learning other crafts like brass engraving and jewelry design.”
Since the early 1990s, the artist has participated in many collective exhibitions and workshops in both Cairo and Alexandria. In 1997, she won an internship to study at the Egyptian Academy in Rome, where she gave a solo exhibition at Casta Gallery. She subsequently also exhibited in Spain, Germany and Austria, among others. Al-Greadi works in a range of media, moving form painting to installation, and from jewelry design to embroidery.
One of her unique achievements is Gudran for Arts and Development, an NGO she co-established in 2000 to develop the artistic and societal standards of women in the popular area of Al Max in Alexandria. She supervised the organisation’s handicrafts and knitting school. This 16-year-long experience, empowering and teaching women and children how to produce handmade products, had a profound effect on her own creative identity. In 2005, she participated in a workshop with women in the village of New Belle, Cameroon, a remarkable place and the birthplace of many prominent writers and artists.
“It was one of my interesting journeys; the bright colours, beautiful nature, local dances and thoughts of African women were inspiring. I learned from African handicraft artists how to mix cheap materials with original ones. The secret behind their amazing creative art, I believe, is their closeness to nature and distance from modern technology.”
Still, Al-Greadi does not like to be hemmed in or pigeonholed. “I am not a feminist artist,” she says. “I am against categorisation in general; I am a woman who loves and supports all creatures.” Fortunately, she had the support of her family growing up. “I believe in creative chaos. I hate limits. I am a child of the sea and the desert.” And she means “child”: “I still run around and play with kids.”
Strangely enough, her first solo exhibition in Egypt was not held until last year – at the Museum of Modern Art in Alexandria, and it featured the inter-species blends and imaginary creatures that had fascinated her even before embroidery took hold some five years ago. Her concepts are no doubt influenced by travel, not only around Africa and Europe but, as she puts it, “across time”, combining nature with music boxes, verses from the Quran, folk tunes and science fiction books like H. G. Wells’ Time Machine.
But what is new about the present exhibition is how embroidery is turned into a painting technique. Here as elsewhere she does not work from sketches, but merely does “warm-up drawings” – only to let her imagination flow, whether through a brush or a needle. She tries out and carefully selects the fabric and threads, preferring cotton (whether Egyptian or imported from Turkey or Malaysia). The results are indeed remarkable.
The Flying Doll, for example – a 175 x 105 cm piece of embroidery, painting and mixed media on canvas – depicts a winged humanoid with a black chest, black legs and intractable head. In another, 100 x 100 cm piece that uses the same media, the needle outlines human faces while the lower half of the frame is filled with circles in different colours and sizes, like the debris of an explosion or the remains of mortality, our karma. In other pieces circles, sometimes turning into spheres look like flowers or watchful eyes.
They seem like regions separated by space that we cross to move from one to another. “This is very true,” Al-Greadi says. “As humans we do change, our cells change and our thoughts too. We move over an ever changing planet. I like circular shapes, they are soft. They evoke femininity, continuity and relaxation.”
In a separate room attached to the gallery, a set of six paintings in black frames, each 30 x 30 cm, feature female figures in outline. They are at rest, and seem joyfulز “They look perfect and happy,” Al-Greadi comments, “but they’re shallow. Life should not be that perfect, I think. Our happiness is when we strive to achieve our goals. Our happiness is the journey.”
The exhibition runs until 14 October.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekl