Wilfredo CHEN


The Egyptian critic Magdi Youssef once noted in an essay on his friend Saad El-Girgawi that it is hardly surprising if an artist like Saad who had spend almost four decades of his life in the Arab world (and here, mainly, in Egypt) was responding, in his work, to the formative force of his own, native socio-culture. And this even though during his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cairo, he was strongly exposed to Western artistic norms.*
A work like The Sad Melody, done in Cairo in 1951 (oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm), exemplifies the divergent influences that Saad, since his early years, struggled to convert creatively into something new.


           The Sad Melody, Cairo 1951 (oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm)

The Western aesthetic paradigm that precedes this work is apparent. The Sad Melody reveals this young Egyptian artist as an early realist, in the tradition of Courbet.

The painting shows a street musician, fiddling on a small violin. Such street musicians, even decades after the last World War, were part of the street scene in many countries. They could still be seen, for instance, in Taiwan in the 1970s, usually in groups. This work was acquired by the Chinese government, undoubtedly because someone recognized an affinity to an aspect of the pre-1949  Chinese past. The Egyptian artist had provided his perspective of the poverty of an artist working as a street musician to make ends meet and at the same time bringing art to the people in the street by expressing the sorrows of their exploited lives. The quintessence of Saad’s naturalistic “realism” is centered in the expressiveness of the musician’s face. It mirrors a somberness, a sorrow beyond bounds. The colossal sturdy figure of the man can remind us of René Schickele’s description of Jean Jaures: a Rabelaisian character.

Reclining Nude With Nylon Stockings tells us of the years when Saad started his painterly career in Egypt while the Nasserites pushed back Conservative traditions and young painters, despite the nationalism of the times, looked to Europe for paradigms.


           Reclining Nude with Nylon Stockings, Alexandria 1954, oil on canvas

The diagonal lines of this work (those of the girl’s body vs. those of the bed touching on the wall in the back) create an interesting formal tension. The prominence of the girl on the wide bed cannot be overlooked. In the foreground, the dish with knife and apple cut in half, of which one half is gone already and thus eaten, alludes to the sexual act, the temptation symbolized in another cultural context by Eve and her apple.

The girl is apparently giving in to it whether she is being paid as a model or not. We do not see a trace of happiness, of fulfilled love. Rather, the liberation from traditions has left her out in the cold, exposed to the forces of the market place where money and wage labor are “facts of life.”

The small chamber, almost entirely filled by the bed, is her work place, it is also the studio of the painter. We have no reason to assume the existence of any affluence in this neighborhood. Have the nylon stockings been the reward for posing in the nude? They were expensive, in the post-war years (in Egypt, too, I was told), and coveted, by the girls.

             Self-Portrait, Alexandria 1954 (oil on canvas)

           (The reproduction, from a catalogue, is flawed.
              There is a slight shadow on the left margin of this scan.)
Saad’s Self-Portrait, done in Alexandria in 1954, shows a  young man with moustache, wearing the brown cap of a Basque fisherman, a cigarette in his mouth, the eyes keen, watchful, and glowing. The chest is partly visible as his dark red shirt opens  wide.

It is a lean face we see, the face of a struggling, suffering man, a romanticized, somewhat sceptical painter who is determined to go on painting, against the odds, in spite of the circumstances of a life that is all but easy. 

But the sky, the light of the background is almost golden, and the harmony of the colors revokes memories of a classicist age, of French or Italian rather than Egyptian traditions of painting.

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A large part of Saad’s later work consists of paintings commissioned by customers, mostly portraits. 
In addition, drawing of nudes abound, done mostly in Nuremberg where he has lived now for so many years.


            Reclining Nude, Nuremberg 1987, charcoal on paper, 30 x 40 cm

But again and again, Saad has come back to images of his native country. It is here where his work is strongest.

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In 1983, during one of his visits to Egypt, he painted the Ship near Luxor.
What I see is a dark, visionary landscape. The work hints at the dark blue greens of the Nile valley, at daybreak. The first light of day is reflected by the hull of the ship. Its windows, black hollows. The pier, partly covered by shadows, partly beginning to glow. Desert colors, the sandy brown of the stones from the wasteland, awakened by the emerging rays of the sun.

           Ship near Luxor, Luxor 1983, water-color, 36 x 49 cm
It is like a somber awakening. A rite of passage, scarcely begun. A cryptic token of modernity intruding into an ancient, eternal landscape where Egyptian whippoorwills sound their call in the date trees.

As the darkness of night lifts, what does the appearing light of day signal? A new horizon, a beginning?  A thunderstorm, a sandstorm of terrible consequences that will cover the remaining green with a thick coat of dust?

Ship near Luxor, this water-color painting done by Saad el Girgawi in 1983, opens such wide spaces, between heaven and earth, desert and fruitful lands, past and present, a harnessed river offering new and fabulous journeys, and a quiet population, invisible and still asleep.

The painting is full of longing and apprehension. The outcome of the story yet to unfold, the presence of which we are so aware of, is more uncertain than ever. 

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Another, much earlier work by Saad el Girgawi has captured the same indecision of a moment. Here, carrying the freshly baked loafs of bread above his head, a bakery’s errant boy, in fact already a grown-up man, steps out of the darkness of a house into the street filled with the brightness of a Cairo morning.


           The Bread-Seller [Bread Delivery Man], Cairo 1956, water-color and ink, 31 x 41 cm
Giving the visible impression of being still asleep, the town’s appearance is deceptive. The alley, with its stepping stones and corners, may be empty but life has awoken behind its walls. 
Invisible to us, there are children that went to bed without a meal, families that will notbe able to afford enough bread in the morning. The hands of the bread carrier, raised above his head, balancing the tray with the loafs, rise in beauty like flowers, saying, Look, here it is, the bread, baked by the living for the use of the living. Eat, eat! You who are hungry. 

The face of the bread carrier tells a different story, that of a struggling, downtrodden soul, giving in to his plight, a hard life of toil and abuse, a life of making do with too little, a life of squalid streets, customers unable to pay, a hard-pressed, ill-mannered boss.

The Bread Delivery Man, done in Cairo in 1956, is close to everyday life, capturing its beauty and pain, its fears and its hope.

Mothers in Cairo, done in Cairo in 1983, speaks of a city, a neighborhood that has turned almost anonymous. The houses rise higher than they used to 50 or even  30 years ago. The washing still dries in the open air, in the street. Seemingly unemployed males linger at corners; they may be spies of the government or pimps with nothing to do at this time of day, or sellers of small, non-consequential items. One of them is looking , kind of bored, at a newspaper, as the sun is rising slowly to its highest point.
Its glare fills the street, coloring its pavement with its intense warmth.

The mothers we see are on their own, left to themselves, having to cope with their kid, their fate, their anxieties. 
Disillusioned, they face a hostile world where solidarity is rare.
With the wide-awake eyes of a street kid, a young boy carried on the arms of his worried mother stares into the distance. So young and so old already.


            Mothers in Cairo, Cairo 1983, water-color and ink, 31 x 41 cm

An aspect of the life of the middle classes is captured in another water color, Two Generations, done also in Cairo in 1983.

Two women confront each other, one young and seemingly convinced of being emancipated, at least freed of the shadoor, the other (obviously the older one) still carrying it, dressed in black from head to feet.

The void between them is filled with silence. Despite the closeness there is nothing that can be said. Perhaps the older one regrets her lack of courage that has always hindered her to resist what is repressive in their traditions. Perhaps the younger  one feels something is as yet unachieved. Real liberation, a real purpose is lacking. There is an emptiness made visible, in her life.


            Two Generations, Cairo 1983, 31 x 41 cm

The tension, non-explicit yet present, is felt very clearly between the two. It’s been made visible by the space “in-between”, the confrontation of light and dark colors. 
The older one, as she looks away from the younger women, looks at a tree or a wall, in the inner court of the house.
All the time she is stared at, speechlessly, by the young one.

There is a depth achieved by the composition, the colors, without ever relying on a ‘central perspective.’
I was reminded by the face of the young woman of a Pharaonic princess, the way their silhouettes appear in the caves of the pyramids.

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Cows in the Fields recaptures a motif that recurs in Taiwanese paintings as well, at least those inspired by peasant life, by folk traditions.
In Saad’s work, the expressive contrasts of darkness and light underscore the movement, and the vitality of the animals.
They appear awake, full of curiosity if not apprehension, taking in the sounds and the smells, the stirrings of the leaves in the wind, perhaps, occasionally, some distant voices. 
As one heads for the shade of a tree, the other watchfully observes something through the opening in a fence.

          Cows in the Fields, Cairo  1983, water-color,  35 x 47 cm

It is a story of a universe where peace may be a short illusion while the expanses of the lands in the distance as much as the stark presence of the tree and the animals in the foreground suggest something almost perennial and recurrent, a fragile protected zone, a rural Eden which may well be deceptive in a society where owners build fences.

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            The Dead One of Beirut, Nuremberg 1987 (Lithography, 19.5 x 29.5 cm)

No man is an island, no country, no artist of any place in the world. And the events in Lebanon could not leave Saad el Girgawi untouched.  The form his commitment takes is quiet, and at the same time disquieting. Death, even in its more massive, multiplied form, even in genocide, comes always to concrete human beings. Each one of them suffers; his or her own pain, in that sense, is always unique. But death, in some historical situations, is also typical, a shared or collective experience. In Saad’s work, The Dead One of Beirut , both the typical and the individual are present; they converge in the same dead body in the foreground of this lithography. The body is that of a nude young girl, or young woman on an empty square. Stretched out, she is lying there, in – is it the sun, or the moonlight? As if having given herself to a lover, tired, exhausted, she rest there, in front of the invading darkness.
Her body raped, her lean arm still on her thigh, the other as if grasping an amulet, she is separated from the distant houses, a modern Antigone sacrificed by the civil war, a war instigated by the rich of the city, those allied to outsiders, a bridgehead of globalization, a class living on another planet, in another world. 

This small lithography, done in  1987, gives a mute answer to the events that devastated Beirut, an answer that is also a question, asking  us to look for, and identify  the social forces responsible for its suffering, its undoing.

Antigone was thrown to the wolves outside the town walls, and so is this body, thrown to the voyeurs, a really disconcerting aspect  of this work. Silently, a pray for those without pity, she lies there on the pavement as we stare at her. While the others, surviving victims as well as perpetrators of such cruelty, know all to well how to remain  invisible.

The J’accuse inscribed in this lithography cannot be overlooked.  The human shape, its suffering at the moment of death seem universal. But the context is specific, and so is the formal approach of this work. The wood-cuts done by Chinese artists denouncing cruelties committed by Kuomintang forces during the  civil war ending in 1949 have their own strength and cannot be compared to Saad’s work; neither can the works of Kaethe Kollwitz that opposed the insanity of imperialist war. In The Dead One of Beirut,  the strength of the composition depends on the preponderance of horizontal lines and basically horizontal shapes:  The outlines of the square, and of the Arab houses, made of clay bricks, with their emphasis on the horizontal, underscore the tiredness, the suffering, the final breath of this outstretched, naked body, so close to the earth. As a lifeless body she is married to the earth, but also standing out from it: From her left shoulder to her left knee we see almost a long straight line, and this while  the left knee is slightly raised, the leg bending, with the left foot disappearing under the buttocks… Saad himself has observed once that “perpendicularity,” a preponderance of horizontal and vertical lines, is characteristic of much of his work, and that he owes it to his perception of the Egyptian landscape, its trees and horizons, but also its architecture. This may well be true. At least the works rings with a special quality that may well be derived from the socio-culture it was fed by and responded to.

Like other works of Saad, the one called Women Carrying A Heavy Load in a Cairo Alley (done in 1983) has no need of a central perspective.
In fact is characterized by a multiple perspective (something we might call, perhaps,  “poly-perspectivistic”),  the eyes of the observer finding two focal points, one letting us intrude deeply into the passageway on the left; the other sucking our eyes’ glance into the dark hollow of a door scarcely visible on the right.
The scene shown in the painting is accentuated by a more or less vertical rhythm of dark strokes of color, with few counterbalancing, shorter, horizontal strokes, none of them quite as dark.


           Women Carrying A Heavy Load in a Cairo Alley,  Cairo 1983 (water-color and ink)

The woman is present as a dark silhouette in the foreground, broad, rounded, and yet (small wonder) basically horizontal too. She carries what is perhaps a bag full of vegetables or heating materials, on her massive head.
As a dark shadow, she will be gone soon, will have vanished in the dark distance.

But her momentary presence cannot fail to impress us. At the same moment, we wonder why there is a man walking almost next to her, perhaps one or two steps ahead. A massive man, hurrying as she must be hurrying. He is busy carrying his own weight, the voluminous body dressed in sturdy clothes. 

                             Cairo street scene 

                          (Photo by the renowned photographer Khaled El-Fiqi,
                           from: Al Ahram Weekly, July 3, 2002, p. 21)

Landscape near Luxor, done in 1988, shows a symphony of colors that is both earthen and dreamlike. Is this how Saad, the exile, might imagine his country when far away? And upon returning, he discovers it like this, seeing it through his eyes of a painter.
The sand colors give way to glowing reds and a warm orange tone.
Bllues appear out of A Thousand and One Nights.  The white of the walls is silvery like the moonlight. The cupolas  are like the halves of apples or pears, they are like the breasts of a woman in her sleep, stretched out on her bed, the nipples confronting the sky.

Perhaps the desert has such colors.
Perhaps the intensity of the sun on cold winter mornings can give such clear outlines to rocks and walls and cupolas. Perhaps, the imagination has only to recollect and to intensify or guard the intensity of the moment lived through, the sight seen, the beauty so suddenly perceived.


            Landscape near Luxor, 1988, oil on canvas, 80 x 70 cm
Not like those German painters (Macke and others) who went to Morocco decades before the last World War, but still a strange relative of them, a kindred spirit, Saad painted women and men clustered in a village street near Luxor, in 1989.
For the expressionists from Europe, the cubes of the Arab houses, the exotic colors, the possibility to abstract was what seems to have counted most, while the populace was kept, largely, out of sight.

In another of Saad’s works, aptly entitled Village Street Near Luxor, the whitewashed walls of some of the houses, their windows protected carefully by iron grids, seem to be present almost in a photo-realistic way.

The sky announces rain, a thunderstorm after the heat of day. The tops of trees, the lush greens, are visible in the back of the houses.

In front of them, in the street, where the village population, or part of it, has assembled, their slender figures throw the long shadows of evening. 

The sand, or pavement glows reddish in the last light of the sun.

            Village Street near Luxor, Luxor 1989 (water-color, 29 x 39 cm)

We see that these people are not immobile statues; they are moving, passing (though not hurriedly or purposefully) between the houses.
The accentuated figures, some black, some greyish or of a faded white (while two are even wearing a green or olive-colored tunica with vertical black streaks), are for the most part not alone but relating to each other. 
Engaged in a conversation or at least looking at one another.
Some have come to a standstill, others approach a group. 
The rhythm of their vertical distribution relates to the counter-rhythm of their almost horizontal shadows.

It is as if the village population has discovered a common ground for themselves, a togetherness which would not be possible if all had stayed in their houses during this time of the setting sun when all jobs should be finished.

After the Work Has Been Done is a water color done in Komombo, Upper Egypt, in 1956.
The work, even though modestly, still relies on a central perspective.
It shows an old man, tiller of the land, returning from his work with his oxen.
Both are lean. That peasant work is not done by the young indicates that these have left whenever possible for the big town. 
The square they cross is empty. They are not headed for one of the nicer houses that line the village square, the village center.
Saad’s hypothesis that “perpendicularity” marks such works as these, centered in the landscape of Upper Egypt, is well confirmed.


           After [the] Work Has Been Done,  Komombo 1956, water-color, 36 x 51 cm

An abstract icon is approached, a calligraphic effect or something resembling it is produced by the distribution of the Women of Luxor, within the pictorial space. They are clad in black, forming a rhythmically subdivided cluster, in front of the light foreground that is presented to us as almost an empty space, with only faint hints of grass or stones.

           Women of Luxor, 1989 (oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm)

At the upper edge of the painting, the structure of a building is indicated;  we only see a tiny fraction of it while the rest is cut off. (In fact, it could be a dwelling, a store, or the edge of a prison.)

While the formal reductionism of the approach seems to decrease Saad’s “realism,” the painting speaks strongly of the female experience as a collective one, for better or worse.

* Magdi Youssef, “Die künstlerische Sicht des Saad el Girgawi: Versuch einer Verdeutlichung”, in: R. Boutros / F. Metzger / M. Yousef / F. Aschour, Saad el Girgawi. Maler und Bildhauer. Nuremberg  1989, p. 11

           P.S.: Reproduced below is the invitation to the 9th Cairo International Biennale.

       Wilfredo Chen is a freelance art critic living in London.