May 24, 2019

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  • Shaymaa Kamel bares her soul in “Roh”

    "Freedom" (2009) by Shaymaa Kamel.


    Last February Shaymaa Kamel showed a series of large canvases populated by rows of fictional animals dressed in suits. To her, these creatures symbolized the tyranny of successive political leaderships in Egypt, out of touch with their own humanity and their people. The undisguised political nature of this message was a departure from Kamel’s previous work, which had been dominated by far more private and visceral portrayals of her own ongoing quest for identity and introspection.

    For the first time, Kamel’s current solo exhibition “Roh” (Soul) at Tache Art Gallery, brings under one roof, paintings shown in 2004 as well as successive works from 2006 to 2012, displaying the continuity of subject matter that characterizes the work of this emerging artist.

    Kamel, 32, explores themes relating to her family and to herself across many of the 21 works featured in this show. She takes her inspiration from artists such as Gazbia Sirry to create portraits of women, standing alone or in groups, all depicted in a bright color palette and strong contrasting tones.

    The artist is concerned with the myriad ways in which her personal history, growing up within her family, blends seamlessly with her broader reality as an Egyptian and as a woman. Her works are replete with symbols pointing us to the deep, often unconscious, roots of history and tradition that extend beyond her immediate context and bind her, imperceptibly, to her fellow citizens and to the soil.

    In her quest for that which lies deep within, Kamel describes herself as peeling back the layers of societal expectation and convention, striving for a language with which to lay bare the varied manifestations of her soul.

    “The hardest thing as an artist,” she explains, “is to remain true to the work and to oneself. To attain that degree of honesty there is always a price to be paid. To get something, you must give something in return.”

    Indeed, the title of the exhibition, “Roh”, reflects the multiple dimensions in her work.  “Roh” is a literal reference to her soul and to the realities of life, in Cairo, that take us from our inner purpose and leave us stranded in a state of discontent. For Kamel, there is a hopelessness etched on the faces of women she sees waiting at bus stations or riding the underground through the city.

    “There is something in our community, in our hearts, that is missing. Perhaps it’s our love for one another, and for ourselves, that is gone,” says Kamel.

    “Roh” is also her mother’s name, reminding us that, above all, that her work is deeply personal. For Kamel, representations of her family are means of tracing her own identity — an identity that is at once a composite of the women who raised her and a separate entity, isolated and alone.

    “I often felt that my family were one community onto themselves and the world outside our home, another. I felt myself somehow mirrored in them. I guess through my work I often try to reconcile the two,” she says.

    Her mother and grandmother were particularly important influences on her growing up.  They marked the outer limits of her world as a child and served as possible models of womanhood, each in their own, idiosyncratic way. The bright colors of her work are a direct reference to these women who shared a passion for an “unusually bright” palette, she says, describing how “they used colors in a way others did not and thought nothing of it.”

    In 2009 Kamel experienced a period of particular introspection. In a key work she produced that year, also titled “Roh”, three women are portrayed standing side by side, looking towards the viewer as though posing for a family photograph. “This work represents three manifestations of my ‘self’,” says Kamel.

    Kamel inherited this urge to represent herself, and members of her family, from her father. Throughout her childhood, when he was not at work, she remembers how he always had a camera in his hand and was forever photographing her mother and siblings, sometimes catching them unaware and, other times, coaxing them to pose for his picture.

    "Roh" (2009) by Shaymaa Kamel.

    Standing apart from the rest of the works on show, the colors of the 2009 painting “Roh” are monochrome, with figures emerging out of a palette of black and gray. Here, Kamel’s choice of color is both a personal gesture and a nod to history. She says that as an artist she wanted to challenge herself to create a painting in black; and as an Egyptian, she wanted to reference the black soil of Egypt. A cat appears alongside the protagonist, a literal depiction of her childhood pet and a reference to representations of the cat in the history of Egyptian art.

    In ” Little Girl” (2009), Kamel depicts a woman, herself, standing alone against a bright green background, her face (and identity) literally boxed in by the limits of social and cultural constraints, while in “Freedom”, Kamel shows that self expression has its price. The artist portrays herself beside a bicycle in a highly personal work that expresses a deep-seated desire for release.

    “I’ve never been able to ride a bike but I’ve always wished to. I long to ride down the road, moving forward freely with the wind blowing in my hair,” she explains.

    She admits her work is ultimately about women, even where it features representations of men. In her most recent painting “Embrace” (2012) a couple is depicted, each with arms wrapped around the other. This is the final, concluding work of her solo exhibition.

    “If you look closely,” she says, “you will see that the man is sinking into the woman’s arms, he is engulfed by her.”

     “Roh” by Shaymaa Kamel is showing at Tache Art Gallery in Designopolis until November 19. The gallery is open from 1-7 p.m.

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