The Canvas Guide | Canvas Magazine | September \ October 2005 | Issue 4 | Volume 1 | Page 48
Ica Wahbeh explores the world of
Fathi Afifi – meَtro – boulot – dodo
Powerful, expressive, catchy and realistic. You relate to, mingle with and recognise the characters in Afifi’s paintings. And then you talk to him and the penetrating eyes let you in on the secret of his art: an interest in the world around, attention to the minutest detail, care for the fellow human beings and a wealth of tradition.
Egyptian Fathi Afifi was born “in the ancient and crowded neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab” and his childhood memories are still alive. Not that they had reason to desert him; he left the area for a while but came back among his people, where "religious feasts mingle with celebrations of a new life or mourning a deceased one".
Afifi was born in Cairo in 1950 and had formal, academic, but mostly informal art education. His is an inborn talent, honed by constant interest in his immediate environs, helped by a photographic memory and an acute sense of the surroundings. "My work in the factory", he says, reminiscing about the days at the 'war factory', "left imprinted in my memory details about the smallest screw, wheel and pipe".
That is obvious in the many paintings depicting factory workers and the machinery around them, in the way regular vertical lines become ducts and pipes, assuming the majestic verticality of a colonnade.
Rich, bold strokes of color (mostly blue, like the coats protecting the workers) easily create human figure in various working postures: lifting heavy metal beams, carrying weighty sacks or cumbersome pipes, furnaces with the fire raging on.
Afifi creates multitudes with ease and grace. His masses of people are in perpetual movement, coming and going to or leaving the factory, milling about, congregating, never sitting still.
It is probably a reflection of the life in Cairo, this huge metropolis built for 2 million people where at the daytime 18 million come together, of a city where people stay up, celebrate, move around non-stop, or for an artist who reminisces about his life and neighborhood, of Sayeda Zeinab itself, where people are constantly brought together by one celebration or another.
A black and white (with hint of sepia) big painting is arresting. The crowd this time is not going to work but coming home, assuming a more leisurely pace, many riding or carrying their bicycles.
The two-wheeled contraption seems to hold a special fascination for the artist. No wonder when he explains that, "in our neighborhoods, when we were children and poor, the wheel was the only toy" they could afford. Then, there were people selling their fare on wheeled carts, images that left a lasting impression on the child who was to become an artist.
So, serving as a means of transportation, new and gleaming purple, carried by the horns or by couples, the bicycle assumes an important place in Afifi's works, almost as animated as the human beings around it.
His nostalgia for the good old days when life was tranquil, pleasant, enjoyable and neighborly transpires in his painting of Gamal Abdel Nasser, "not because of political leanings, but life in his days was made easy, books and education were free, arts were encouraged", or of Umm Kalthoum, the days when people were glued to the radio listening to the legend. In the case of the former, the same sepia tone brings to mind a faded picture of a time fading in the memory of people who now "have to contend with life's difficulties in time of political insecurity". The famous singer is caught in a typical pose: clasping an oversized handkerchief, hands clutched to the chest, singing with curtains in the background and Callas at her feet- homage to the celebrity or symbolic audience.
Using a particular technique- “I didn't like etching on zinc, the feeling of the metal sheet, so I prefer working with ink on glass"- Afifi creates black and white images of amazing depth and transparence, with "blemishes" that give them charm and uniqueness.
So are created his heavy, voluptuous woman figures, posing alone or with children, his portrait of a sleeping man, head resting on his bent forearm, his couple on a bicycle, the two men reading the morning paper or the friends hugging and holding hands in a carefree posture of companionship. An oil on canvas, of a woman doing the washing in a plastic bucket, must be a familiar image in Afifi's neighborhood. The colors are bold, vivid, and confident, like the movements of the woman's habitual act of caring for the family.
The texture is rich, the technique imparts multi- layered dimensions that elude perhaps the more dense oil.
Called 'metro-boulot-dodo' (translated from French as 'subway-work-sleep'), the exhibition mirrors the life of so many of us, but also Afifi's experience and his longing for the warmth of love, friendship and neighborliness in a world surrounded by cold, mechanical machinery and gestures.
Collected in 70 countries, Afifi exhibits for the first time outside Egypt. Zara Gallery's choice to host him is commendable.