Egyptian artist Assem Abdel-Fattah's newest exhibition ponders old Cairo

Rania Khallaf , Thursday 25 Nov 2021

The Samah Art Gallery displayed last month Assem Abdel-Fattah's works, ranging from oils to mixed media on canvas.


Inspired by a wide array of popular art, the new exhibition testifies to Abdel-Fattah's continuous quest for joy, lightness and quality.

Born in 1956 in Abbasiya, and raised on historic Al-Moez Street, Abdel-Fattah acquired during his childhood his lifelong love for the peculiar heartbeat and rich folkloric manifestations of old Cairo’s streets and alleys.

Graduating from the faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek in 1982, he now works as a professor of painting at Menia University. As an artist, he has participated in many group exhibitions in Egypt and Europe, as well as 22 solo exhibitions since 1983. In 2018 he held his latest solo exhibition, About Love, at The Capital Gallery in Zamalek and participated in The Rooms of Wonders at Villa Giulia in Italy.

The artist participated last month in a quartet exhibition in Samah Art Gallery in Zamalek, where he exhibited around ten fantastic oil and mixed media on canvas pieces, wonderfully depicting folkloric features of old Cairo. These scenes included a boy on a bicycle holding loaves of baladi bread on a huge wooden pad, amazingly keeping his balance; and old men sitting at cafes, along with other depictions of traditions that still survive in historical Fatimid Cairo.

“I am infatuated with many genres of visual arts throughout different historical periods starting from the ancient Egyptian sculptures and murals to Renaissance art, but I fell in love with pop art,” Abdel-Fattah told me as we sat in his beautiful studio located in the first floor of a small villa in Haram City.

As I entered the small garden attached to the studio, I was thrilled to witness his breathtaking collection of cacti. Adenium, with its colourful and attractive pink flowers and artistically shaped trunks, which look like pieces of sculpture, was itself a magnificent scene. The artist spends his time between painting and growing his fantastic plants. Together with a greyish parrot perched on a tree branch, the scene looked very poetic.

Few of the artist’s paintings feature his wonderfully coloured Adenium collection. However, the spirit of plants and their unexpected forms is evident everywhere in his paintings.

“I am one of these artists who gets influenced by the surrounding environment. I love nature and as a kid, I used to grow plants and I keenly kept this hobby. Watching the growth of plants is one good source of inspiration and happiness,” he noted.

A 70 x 100 cm mixed media on canvas recently exhibited at Samah Art Gallery features a dialogue between a male singer with his oud and a musician playing on tabla drums, sitting in an old popular cafe. With no audience, the scene looks a bit sarcastic. Round and rectangular lighting units hanging from the ceiling correspond to a similarly shaped tea pot and glasses on typically round cafe tables, adding an air of cheerfulness and harmony.

“Particular scenes of historical places are still engraved in my memory. I used to walk every morning in Al-Khyameya Street, which was, with its amazing colours, very inspiring for a teen already practicing drawing.”

“And I keep returning to theses places. They are a great source of inspiration. It is here where I lived my teenage years; the narrow alleys of Al-Hussein and Gamaliya penetrated by sun rays, making the view of colours more shiny and clear, and the huge historical stone buildings, whose walls are like charts carved by the passage of time, inspiring of imaginative shapes of horses, trees and human faces,” he said in a passionate tone.

In addition, he added, harsh voices of street vendors and sounds of donkeys and horses hooves, mixed with sounds of carts, sometimes filled with aromatic plants, all this coupled with the sounds of huge musical instruments of Hassaballah bands roaming the streets, have contributed to the development of his own style.

“And as a professor of painting, I was keen to teach popular arts in different ages, like murals inscribed by naïve artists, etc.”

Another piece, a 230 x 200 cm mixed media on canvas, hangs on one big wall of the artist’s studio. Just finished, the painting has a very unique design and a cheerful chemistry of colours, featuring different scenes of Al-Moez Street. Divided into six units by different geometrical lines, each unit features a different figure, nonetheless coexisting with the others in harmony. These figures include, among others, a beautiful woman in a traditional yellow dress and a man sipping coffee at a café in a black and white sketchy style. All of this adds to the intimacy of the painting.

“I believe that any small part of the painting is a unit that should be seen as a main feature and should be carefully integrated in the whole picture. I consider the painting as a single surface, where all units should be seen as heroes,” he explained.

In some of his paintings the role of foregrounds and backgrounds are exchanged, and this is exactly what gives his paintings a different flavour. In addition, the artist makes use of deconstruction, deconstructing a certain scene in his vision and then rearranging it according to his own order.

Abdel-Fattah noted that this technique is inspired by ancient Egyptian murals, which adopted the stacking technique (putting all elements of the mural one beside the other, with no perspective). All elements are unified on the surface.

The artist’s use of thin silver and gold plates in some paintings adds an air of holiness to ordinary figures, and special visual effects when light is reflected on the surface.

The artist’s pallette is virgin and fresh, similar to rainbow colours, and he moves freely between different media; mastering watercolour, oil and stained glass colours. He experiments by adding colourful scraps of cloth, which adds much to the richness of the final scene. “I like to experiment with new mediums and techniques and I find joy in surprising myself with new compositions of colours or elements. A good art piece should leave you astonished. In general, it is good for people to be astonished even when they look at usual things they see everyday like the sky or plants.”

His cartoonish figures reflect his early passion working as an illustrator for children magazines, like Basemback, in the 1990s.

“Sketching is a prime step. Most of my paintings are based on sketches. Art is like a destiny, I believe. I don’t necessarily work everyday nowadays. Like a smart chess player, I prefer to wait for the right moment to start a new painting.

“Anyway, true artists never feel completely satisfied. This small lack of satisfaction is what drives the artist to start another painting, hoping for another dose of pleasure,”Abdel-Fattah concluded.

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