The rainbow lady

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 7 Mar 2023

Rania Khallaf spent a long, happy time with Nazli Madkour

Nazli Madkour


Catalogues of work by celebrated artists are more widespread than ever before. Although they are published in limited editions and remain expensive, they remain a valuable reference and enrich the body of literature available on contemporary Egyptian art.

The 200-page monograph of work by the renowned artist Nazli Madkour, first published by Al-Karma in 2022, is an exquisite piece of art  in itself, containing dozens of high-quality reproductions of paintings representing different phases of the artist’s long career.

After a brief biography, unusually for a catalogue or autobiography, Madkour, born in 1949 in Cairo, gives a detailed Q&A interview in English providing a detailed picture of her journey as an artist, her unique style and techniques, along with other interesting aspects of her life. The fairly long conversation with Maie Yanni, a multidisciplinary artist and curator, covers many personal and professional aspects of the artist’s life and presents visual art students and professionals with a uniquely educational experience.

It is worth mentioning that the journey of the artist, whose works have been acquired by the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art, Al- Ahram newspaper, and the New Hall Art Collection at Cambridge University, among others, started painting many years after her graduation from the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences at Cairo University. In 1981, Madkour, a self-educated artist, decided to nurture her passion for art and therefore resigned from her job as an economist and undertook several courses in painting and drawing.

Asked by Yanni if she faced prejudice as an emerging female artist in a patriarchal society, Madkour says that since she was not a graduate of any local art school, it wasn’t strange that she got no support from any group or camp. “I was not entitled to the support system extended to art graduates. However, I don’t see my work as falling under a woman’s gender designation and I don’t believe it was ever received as such,” she said, adding that her work is neither feminine nor masculine. “I view my work as a manifestation of universal values engraved in the human psyche since the beginning of time.”

This statement perfectly sums up the abstract art ethos she has adopted since the beginning of the 1990s though not so much the women’s issues that come through in her figurative art of the 1980s, which isn’t as well known to her audience and admirers.

The artist’s journey from figuration to pure abstraction is indeed fascinating in itself. At the start of her career, Madkour was inspired by women’s issues and nature, especially the desert, the rural landscape and greenery, all of which she will later reconstitute in abstract work.

The first phase of her career extends from 1982 to 1993 and it featured nature-focused experiments with palm strips and papyrus, among other media. The enchanting spiritual paintings of this period explore new compositions that integrate human figures, provincial houses and palm trees, in a lyrical style. In another, captivating collection of abstract paintings, an introspective journey, as the artist calls it, dated 1993-2004, the viewer is mesmerised by a journey into the depths of the earth and the human psyche.

Using mixed media on canvas, with rich layers of brown, grey, black and orange in larger works, the artist establishes her mastery of abstract expressionism. One beautiful painting (reproduced on page 69) is itself a journey from bottom to the top, from the depth of earth to the sky, each layer an enjoyable scene imparting a sense of warmth and hope.


The last chapter of the book, entitled “Foliage”, includes paintings from the period 2010-2022, which show botanically inspired abstract work that strikes a truly female chord. Here she makes use of vibrant greens  to convey the widest range of emotions beyond the tranquility associated with it, evoking the spiritual power of flowers in ingenious  new ways.

The catalogue is supplemented by a captivating chronology, which features posters of some of the artist’s 40 solo shows, in addition to group exhibition posters and snapshots with famous artists such as the legendary George Bahgory and the American Robert Rauchenberg and many others. Two studies in Arabic by critics Ezz Eddin Naguib and Farouk Youssef bring the rich compendium to a close.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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