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'I breathe colour': Egyptian artist Halla El Shafei on her journey with pastels
Published in Ahram Online on 07 - 08 - 2019

To talk of colours as an emotional force is arguably to talk of pastel. The history of pastel in Europe dates back to the 16th century though it did not gain popularity until the 18th. This unique way of painting went in and out of vogue, witnessing its most recent heyday at the hands of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose death marked its relative fall from grace. In 20th-century Egypt only a handful of artists – notably Mohamed Sabri – used the medium with any success. In 20 years of regular gallery going, I have seldom seen a single exhibition dedicated to pastel.
Halla El Shafei's initiative is therefore all the more remarkable. Recognised by the International Pastel Journal in 2016 as one of the top 10 pastel artists worldwide, El Shafei's work has garnered much attention; an abstract piece was selected by the jury at the Annual Pastel Society Exhibition in England inn 2013. Her colours flow with such energy and spontaneity it is as if she is using her own emotions to paint. I visited El Shafei at her beautiful house, a treasure trove of eclectic art.
Her passion for art started early, she told me, partly because she grew up in an art-loving atmosphere: “My father, a famous economist, used to help me do my art projects and buy me colouring books, while my mother was keen on decorating our home with colourful things, and music was an essential part of our daily schedule. We travelled a lot, and I went to a lot of museums and galleries when we did.” Yet she did not think of becoming an artist herself. A 1987 economics graduate of the American University in Cairo, El Shafei led a successful career in finance, eventually working for UN organisations.
“For 20 years I had a disconnect with art. I was developing my career, then I got married and had a son. I don't know how I lived without art. The turning point in my life was when I turned 40. I was celebrating with some old friends from school and I suggested that we should do something different that year. So I started taking courses in photography, pottery and drawing. It was when I started studying with the late artist Maged El Segeny, the son of the pioneering artist Gamal El Segeny, that I was hooked. I learned from scratch, then I realised that I was building my new, original career.
“It took me four years to master every branch and method of colouring and drawing, and I was still working part-time in the economic field. Another encouraging event took place in 2010, when I took part in a pastel exhibition in London, and my pastel drawings were warmly appreciated by many friends who encouraged me to start working on my first solo exhibition. A month before the 2011 Revolution, I decided to dedicate my time fully to pastel. I did a lot of research and experimentation, and studied international journals of pastel, used different types of pastel colours in order to master the medium.”
Triggered by an appreciation of nature, even El Shafei's work is rich in intimations of flowers and landscape.
“Abstraction is the most difficult genre of art, it is based on the artist's memories, and the their ability to analyse and simplify figures and items. Abstract art is based on composition, how to use different tones, different strokes. Colours are very significant for me because they carry different emotions. The spectrum is endless. The trick is how to blend them and make music out of their diversity. It is very challenging. I chose pastel because I am a colourist in the first place. I breathe colour.
“Colouring is a gift. I was brought up to believe in the power of colours. However, not all artists are colourists. Colors is a language, and pastel is one of its harder tools. You can learn how to draw or paint, but colouring is definitely a gift. Soft Pastel is made of the purest pigments in the world. This explains its richness and luminosity, and why its impact is incomparable. The special thing about pastel is that it is a medium for both drawing and painting medium, it requires no brush, so it gives the artist tremendous intimacy and freedom.”
Her first solo exhibition, “Loving Pastel”, was held at Al-Bab Hall, Opera House grounds, in 2012. It included 60 works, all in pastel, which dealt conceptually with women's issues as well as nature. In 2015 she gave two exhibitions that reflected her thoughts on storytelling and experiments in abstraction that led to the present abstract work. There are very few abstract paintings in pastel in the world at large. But she might not stay in her abstract phase forever. “Artists are free to go back and forth,” she says. “Of course I can revisit my old phases, but with a new spirit.”
In these recent paintings, there are hardly any traces of the human face. She is more interested in the soul, not the material form of the subject. Her confident yet sensitive strokes form lines and spaces that merge in chart-like compositions. Especially since winning international awards, El Shafei is not too concerned about the lack of popularity of pastel, of which she is such a champion she teaches it online.
“One lesson I learned about art is that you just draw what you love. There is no way you can be dictated to by market forces or fads. Luckily, there is a growing audience in Egypt and a flourishing market worldwide for pastel. The problem in the 21st century is that we are bombarded by millions of pictures through social media. This is why I challenge myself every day. I want to make images that have never been seen. I want to leave the viewers with a space to meditate. My dream is to establish a pastel society in Egypt to promote pastel as a medium, and recognise the fact that it was part of Egyptian art history since the 1920s.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The queen of pastel
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