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More than music
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 06 - 2014

Music and musicians have always inspired artists, from the ancient Egyptian mural painters to Picasso's Three Musicians and many of the works of Wassily Kandinsky. Artist Samir Fouad follows in this tradition in his present exhibition — opened on 14 May — at the Picasso Gallery, entitled Maqamat (or “Tones”). On boards rather than in matted frames, he exhibits some 20 oil on canvas paintings on the subject.
Fouad's early understanding of the magical relationship between music and art dates back to his childhood. His older brother Mahmoud Sami Fouad, a military pilot who died on 5 June 1967, the date of Egypt's defeat at war, was his first mentor, whether in music or the visual arts. “I lost my brother and mentor when I was a young man. A highly talented violin player, he taught me the love of music and its magic world. He also taught me drawing when I was aged eight,” he recounts.
Indeed music has always been one of the main clues to Fouad's art and an underlying theme in all his paintings, with rhythm, movement, harmony and composition providing keys to its hidden messages. “Music is a very significant component of my personality. I started listening to music when I was very young. I started playing violin in my childhood, and then became a keen listener to various genres of oriental and classic music,” he said. “I started portraying musicians in particular in 2009, in my exhibition entitled Flight of Time, featuring brass players. It was the beginning of my work on musicians, while painting oriental dancers had started earlier, in 2004. My approach is to focus on the relationship between the player and his instrument, and it has nothing to do with the kind of music being played.”
Tones takes this further, unearthing the musical core in which the character of Fouad's art is rooted. “It's about the tone, the colour of the painting, the colour of the space. Colour plays a significant role, it creates a sensual feeling exactly like the key in tonal music.” Starting in 2012, Fouad initially made just four paintings “featuring trumpet and saxophone players. But I continued,” he says, “working till earlier this year, and completing another 20 paintings. Some changes in the theme and technique must have taken place during this time. I guess the colours grew darker. If you take for example the cello player, you will notice its brightness: orange, a very cheerful colour, prevails. But the two paintings featuring flute and drum players are quite sombre. This, in a way, reflects my changing moods, my depression over the sad events we witnessed during the last two years.”
A very interesting painting features a trumpet player, totally engaged in performing, with his forehead down embracing the instrument. A vast space, in brownish purple, is left empty above. The player, as a result of that space, looks depressed — something that Fouad says resembles a style in oriental musical, where there is a stop between two tones, with a pause marking a dip in the rhythm.
Indeed such playing with time is one of the main features of Fouad's art. His portraits tend to have this hazy touch that distorts the features of the figure, conveying time as a distorting element. In this exhibition, though time is present, the distortion isn't as pronounced. That is because, though music is all movement, these images of musicians are static moments.
“In my portraits of the famous and beautiful dancers Samia Gamal, Naiema Akef and Tahia Karioka,” Fouad explains, “the distortion is minimal to preserve the features of the figures. Movement is there in the repetition of the hands for example. Music by default evokes a sensual feeling, and this is what I attempted to do in those paintings, evoking sensual feelings even when the portrait is static.”
Few paintings are directly erotic, though one canvas features an oriental dancer, nearly naked in a black suit, performing a seductive movement. But aside from the general musical mood of the exhibition, another painting shows a group of children circling, hand in hand, in a big circle. The painting reflects a sad mood with the features of the children concealed. But the rhythm of the movement is pronounced.
In his statement Fouad describes tones as “the foothold, the seat, the place to which you resort”. In visual art, “the maqam is the sensual and emotional situation created by a definite colour or group of colours in a single painting.” In a different passage, entitled “Transit”, he refers to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5: “Moving from the third to the fourth movement, the music enters a vague space, humming as if uncertain of its way, and then the tension is released… announcing the victory of the human will.” He is also enthralled by Mozart, Bach and the gypsy music of central Europe. To his ear the sound of Um Kulthoum is “a powerful and optimistic voice coming through the radio”…
Fouad boasts that his studio in Heliopolis includes the biggest music library ever in Egypt, comprising thousands of musical recordings. “I have always been keen to explore new trends in classical music, as well as contemporary and electronic music, particularly from Italy and France,” he said. No is it a one-way relation: the composer Ramz Sami, Fouad announces, has created a 10-minuts electronic piece, “a kind of collage of styles from Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius”, inspired by Tones.
Fouad's adherence to the classic rules of painting and his keenness on improvisation reflect a constant and engaging tension. In one painting three musicians are stuck together with their instruments, mingling as they embrace each other with their faces concealed, showing how Fouad plays with and transcends form.
“We live and die ruled by laws, canons, regulations, measures,” he writes. “They are injected into our brains, hammered into our conscience. In art, as in any other activity, we are guided by what we were taught as the right way of doing things; it is the result of the accumulation of human experience with all the trimming and tempering, layer after layer, generation after generation. But with all this pruning, we lose some of this wonderful asset we are endowed with, which is the ability to improvise, to fly, unrestrained by the force of gravity, wandering wherever the whim will take us. The beauty of improvisation and the thrill of bending the rules, however, could prove very precarious and going back to order remains inevitable in order to avoid chaos; however, the sensation we experienced when we broke free will remain inside us, pushing us to try it again and again.”
On my third tour of the exhibition, I could trace another significant experiment in the red arrows on a white background shared by different paintings. One of them depicts a flute player with a hazy look, red scratches spotting his blue shirt; the next, with the arrows in the opposite direction, a drummer in a gloomy mood. At the end of the gallery, just beside the exit, a small painting features the same background with the figure of a policeman in a black mask. The policeman looks peaceful, almost astonished. Is this a Fouad's prophecy of a new wave of violence? Or a warning against future turmoil?
The artist refused to answer this question.
The exhibition runs through 14 June.


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