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Few letters, universal language
by Muhammad Yusuf June 01, 2017
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Art Jameel, the non-profit organisation that supports arts, education and heritage in the Middle East, has announced the launch of the second Collection Focus, dedicated to a major work by Hazem El Mestikawy, the Egyptian artist who lives and works in Cairo and Alexandria, at Project Space Art Jameel, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai (May 23 – July 22).

Alif Beh (2006-2009) is a sculptural installation that comprises 60 parts representing 30 Arabic letters based on the idea of negative and positive, suspended and placed on the floor. It is accompanied by a set of drawings, in part a study for the installation.

El Mestikawy is known for the use of light material like cardboard, recycled paper and glue, to create apparently monumental works. He cites both aesthetic and environmental reasons for his choice of material.

“I love the construction, and I love the hollowness. I love that the work appears so solid and yet is very light and easy to pack and carry. I sometimes make huge exhibitions that come out of a very small box. I love the shock on curators’ faces when I open my bag and start pulling the pieces out!” he says.

He has an open mind, something that allows his house not to be walled in on all sides or his windows to be stuffed. He likes the cultures of all lands to be blown about his house as freely as possible.

However, he refuses to be blown off his feet by any. He refuses to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave. He puts his own imprimatur on his works; he has the ability to localise inspirations culled from various sources, both ancient and contemporary.

Therefore, he is open to the idea that his current innings with the Arabic alphabet has shades of hieroglyphs, which “sacred writing” was once prevalent in Egypt.  

“I cannot say ‘no’, if I am asked whether I have been influenced by hieroglyphs”, he said. “When I start to make designs, at the conceptual stage I have two basic grounds of calculation: the relation between art and architectural design and my own life as a contemporary Egyptian artist, who has been enriched by a very old national heritage. I cannot ignore any of it”.

He said that among other things, he has been affected by Minimalism, Russian Constructivism, geometrical schools and Islamic floor patterns. “I have built my own alphabet from this history”, he said. “Layers of history have been melted together”.  

In a lighter – or even more serious – vein, he said that when he was in Qatar, he found that Indian words (which were spoken by the expat population) were being incorporated into spoken Arabic!

El Mestikawy is a largish man, given to guffawing and energetic gestures. When he was told (half fearfully) that Alif Beh somehow lacked colour, he took it as honest criticism than mere finger pointing.

“It may not be colourful”, he said, “because I am more of a sculptor at this moment. Right now, form is more important than colour. Factors like light and volume – and not a colour code – are significant here”.

El Mestikawy’s work is based on the principle of duality, and oscillates between opening and closing, covering and uncovering and lightness and heaviness. It plays with light, brightness and shadow. 

He likes binaries but in his hands, they jell harmoniously. His works are noteworthy for their flawless precision and despite geometric complexity and seeming overlap, different sections or modules are locked, glued or arranged together, to create a homogeneous unity, like a puzzle completed satisfactorily.

For example, according to him, the letters and the panel on which they are erected, are positive and negative experiences (the former is vertical and the latter is horizontal). “The floor I consider a kind of cityscape”, he said, “while the grid of letters form a kind of mashrabiya”.

Mashrabiya is the Arabic term given to a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second storey of a building or higher. It is an element of traditional Arabic architecture used since the Middle Ages up to the mid-20th century and is mostly used on the street side of the building in houses and palaces, and sometimes in large public buildings such as hospitals, inns, schools and government buildings.

One of the major purposes of the mashrabiya is privacy - an essential aspect of Arabic culture. A good view of the street can be obtained by the occupants without being seen, preserving the private interior without depriving the occupants from a vista of the public outside. Thus Alif Beh brings indoors, a street side view as seen from a mashrabiya. 

Alif Beh is a masterly understatement of what is a significant linguistic experience.  El Mestikawy’s work does not push itself on the viewer; it pulls him towards itself. 

“Earlier”, El Mestikawy said, “I was doing classical and figurative sculpture. But even then, I was attracted to Arabic letters. I was amazed by their abstract possibilities. I found them magical! I thought I could use them for my concepts”.

He said the abstraction of the alphabet was rather like musical notations, or numbers. All of them, in general, are a kind of abstract devices.      

He then went back to his favourite subject: the confluence of cultures. “If cultures close up”, he said, “they die. Cultures have to give and take from each other. Layers have to be connected. Each culture has to be given an equal position”.  

Commenting on the exhibition, Antonia Carver, Art Jameel Director said: “We are delighted to host Hazem El Mestikawy in Dubai for the opening of this Collection Focus, featuring his major work, Alif Beh. Hazem has a remarkable interest in form and material, transforming cardboard and recycled paper into intricate, geometric sculptural shapes. He has been an integral part of the Egyptian scene, and a strong influence on other artists, for many years”.

Born in Cairo in 1965, El Mestikawy holds an Bachelors in Art Education from the Sculpture department of Menya University. He has exhibited consistently since the 1990s. His works are held in the collection of the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art, Cairo, and the North Carolina Museum of Art, USA, among other institutions.

He also previously held the position of Director and Chief Curator of the MEMA Museum of Egyptian Modern Art; Head of the Jury for the 1st International Media Art Forum (2008); and member of the High Committee 11th Cairo International Biennial (2008). In 2011, he was short-listed for the Jameel Prize.

Art Jameel’s current initiatives include running heritage arts schools and restoration programmes, plus a broad range of arts and educational initiatives for all ages. In 2018, it will open the Jameel Arts Centre, a not-for-profit contemporary arts institution in Jadaf, Culture Village, Dubai.

Its model is collaborative: major institutional partners include the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.

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