Last night I was at Arttalks’ opening of their latest exhibit, “The Forbidden”, featuring the works of Weaam El Masry and Yasser Nabaiel. I was intrigued by the title, and as usual Arttalks’ invite and catalogue were so impeccably done, that they alone were enough to draw you to see the show.
I’ve always found Weaam El Masry’s work interesting, and her multi-layered commentary on gender and feminism has always been complex and far from typical. She paints women with the adoring eye of a man, but with the rawness of a woman who knows what lies beneath the curves. Her paintings are always brutally confrontational without being vulgar, erotic without being lewd, and painfully coarse without being morbid. Like her brushstrokes, her figures and subject matter always tread the thin line between the bold and the barely seen. In this exhibit, she was inspired by “Season of Migration to the North”, a novel by the Sudanese thinker Tayeb Salih, and every painting was accompanied by a quote. I didn’t personally need to know this- the works stood alone without the need for a title even- but the labels did enhance the experience. Perhaps I’m biased in this particular case since I love that book, but I do believe that labelling can truly change an experience of a painting: Seeing the text that inspired the visual side by side helps viewers get a glimpse of the inspiration/creation process.
El Masry’s last exhibit at Arttalks was stronger in figure drawing, but this one proves to be more mature as she veers more aggressively towards abstraction. A few of her pieces boast of a rather elaborate colour palette. My favourite of these is titled “A whole Harem”, with an exquisite combination of yellow, black and kaleidoscope of female body parts.
To pair Weaam El Masry with Yasser Nabaiel was a moment of excellent curation by Arttalks, because they compliment each other so well, despite being very different. Nabaiel’s work is hauntingly surreal, painful and desolate, but oozes of a carnal sexiness that draws you in, like a voyeur in a sadist’s home. It takes an actual effort to look away from his paintings: They are at once repelling and commanding, rough but alluring to stare at. I’ve seen his earlier works at Arttalks before, and even though they were beautiful, they did not have the punch that these pieces do. Nabaiel’s paintings here put the viewers in a headlock and slowly proceed to rearrange their outlook on life. The fact that both artists in the show are tackling taboos, the illegal and the sins that we are constantly navigating through in our society is already intriguing, but the way Nabaiel tackled the subject leaves you aching with bruises that you masochistically keep wanting to touch.
My favourite piece in the entire show is titled “Only God can judge me”. It’s an incredible surreal piece that not only shows off the artist’s superb technical skills in composition, colour and rendering of flesh and anatomy, but manages to pull off an exceptional commentary on our bureaucratic and hindering culture of government control, judgement and social oppression. I stared at that piece for a solid 10 minutes, and it was one of the few times that I wish I made more money because I’d have bought it instantly. The portrait of the man in the painting shows a tiresome, heavy expression, but the man’s features are strong and a little intimidating; you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark street. Dressed in an abstracted cloak of a monk- a man with not much to lose- he stares upwards to an unseen authoritative being, with a conforming stare that threatens of rebellion. Elusive faces pepper the painting like ghosts, while numbers are thrown about to remind us all of the statistic we could become at any minute. The most amazing portrait of tied hands command the lower center of the painting, with veins flaring like those of a caged animal. It’s truly a contemporary masterpiece.
I can’t praise the work of Nabaeil enough, and no little image online would do it justice. He compliments Weaam El Masry’s softer works beautifully- and this is a show that is an absolute must see.