Thoroughly Modern Antiquity

If you knew a dozen respected contemporary artists in Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor – arguably the three most important places for encountering Egypt’s antiquities – and you wanted to help them make a splash in the States, what would you do? If you were Moushera Maaraba, you might ask them to ditch their canvases and paint a few pictures on papyrus.

At tonight’s opening reception for A New Legacy – Contemporary Art of Egypt at Falls Church Arts, Egyptian deputy chief of mission Hatem Elatawy couldn’t have agreed more.

“The thing that really brings people and cultures together is art,” Elatawy said after being welcomed by Falls Church Mayor David Tarter – who got a laugh announcing he’d been “born in Alexandria,” only then clarifying he meant the one in Virginia. “Art is something you do not need to pronounce correctly. Art is something you receive in your heart.”

The international collaboration is a first for Barb Cram of the nonprofit gallery, located in the development that includes The Kensington residences as well as a restaurant called Famille. It is also a first for Maaraba, working on behalf of the Divine Art of Egypt Project, whose stated mission is to introduce contemporary Egyptian art to other cultures. She recounted a single conversation she had with Cram – and the show was on.

“It was discussed between two people in January,” Maaraba said, sounding as though she didn’t quite believe the exhibit was really taking place. “This was just a concept. I hadn’t yet talked to the artists, by the way. The artists had never painted on papyrus before, but they said they loved the idea.”

Ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus the way we moderns write on paper, which they did not have. It was made from the pith of the so-called papyrus plant that flourished in the marshy wetlands along the Nile River. We know of at least one official letter written on papyrus in Egypt in the 3rd century BCE, making a show of contemporary painting a dramatic juxtaposition of old and new.

The papyrus itself is fascinating. It’s quite different from any artist’s canvas, both in the way it takes on paint and the way its surface once painted catches the light. Curators emphasized this by not setting the vast majority of these framed paintings behind glass. That way merely viewing is almost touching, the surfaces more textured than canvas is likely to be. There is a rusticity to these works because of the material they’re painting on, often a lively contrast to the sophistication (and diversity) of their technique. And in adjusting the way a painting catches the light, these works adjust the very nature of the light-crazed Impressionism that so many are known to admire.

Highlights of the exhibit would have to include the works of Mohamad El Sharkawy, born near the Great Pyramid of Giza on the edge of sprawling modern Cairo. Most of his pictures show colorful scenes from everyday life in his country, which itself is a constant collision of developed and undeveloped. His works are generally mixed media, with some showing splashes of the shimmering gold that drags us back to some pharaoh’s tomb. Notes on his work speak of his “cacaphony of color,” and that would be an accurate description.

Also impressive are the paintings of Adham Badawi from Luxor, famous for its hieroglyph-rich Temple of Karnak and, across the Nile, its Valley of the Kings, where British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Badawi’s work offers a significant interplay of what many will recognize as ancient Egyptian themes but with a flourish of modernity in every brush stroke. Two of his best works here are “Flute Music for the Animals” and “Girl with a Bird in a Boat.”

In light of Arab Egypt’s history with women, a far cry from Cleopatra and other powerful female rulers in its distant past, it was fascinating to see several women artists represented. The expressive paintings of Hala El Sharouny are perhaps the most striking, since the women depicted are typical western-looking friends out for “girls night,” some wearing colorful dresses and invariably holding glasses of wine. Few things could be more not-ancient, and not-even-traditional, than the painting of such girlfriends chatting, laughing or enjoying a bright-hued selection of sushi.

For those whose tastes lean toward the abstract, Mhanny Yaoudi from an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert might be your guy. His splashes of mixed media seem, in most cases, to capture the jutting, clashing, sometimes cruel angles of a modern city, but at other times seem like peaceful water reflecting all the colors and shapes of the universe.

The reception spilled from Falls Church Arts into Famille for a video about the artists, as well as an Egyptian feast modestly advertised as “refreshments.” These were prepared by The Kensington’s chef, Samir Labriny, and reflected the evening and the multi-ethnic, Egyptian-heavy crowd quite well. There was couscous salad with olive, mint and carrot, garlic hummus, eggplant tapenade (the chef’s spin on baba ghanouj) and spinach-kale dip with toasted pita points.

Taking all the art together, a sentence from the notes on Badawi might indeed describe the entire group: “Adham continues to highlight the links between past and present, the acquired and the habitual, and reformulates them through his artwork encased in a contemporary vision.”