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Just before sunrise
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 12 - 2014

Recently, portrait exhibitions have been frequent in Cairo, the latest — and one of the most intriguing — being Essam Maarouf's “Sequence of Portraits”, currently on show at Gallery Misr in Zamalek. It is made up of 23 huge portraits, their average size being 197 by 168 cm, and they reflect the artist's fasciation with women in a range of emotional registers: secret dialogues. The women are depicted both alone, in pairs and in groups. Men are rarely seen, and when they are their appearance is in harmony with their female partners. No conflict can be detected.
The viewer will be overwhelmed with a sense of calmness as they tour the gallery. Artistic originality is one thing, but Maarouf manages to imbue his subjects with a unique freedom. His inspiration, he says, is the Egyptian Museum. “My art is but a small fragment of a huge procession that started with the ancient Egyptians,” he said. It is a Sequence because it involves the recurrence of certain motifs, circles for example. “It is a visual need. It appears whenever there is a place for it. It is spontaneous, however, and it has a long history. “n some paintings, I just feel like the circle is on the move.” But this is hardly naive art.
In most paintings, there is a kind of peaceful coexistence between different schools; abstraction and expressionism are two main components. “Actually, I do not think of such theories when I start painting. I love painting. It is like an ocean, rich with different kinds of creatures. I also love child paintings and find them a very rich source of inspiration, where else you can find such spontaneous creativity?” Maarouf was born in 1960. A graduate of the mural painting department of the College of Art in 1981, he was lucky enough to be taught by the late Hamed Nada in the last few years of the great painter's life. On graduating he continued his studies in Rome. This is his tenth solo exhibition.
Repitition can make for boredom, however. How does Maarouf justify it? “I used to paint abstracts for long time. For five years, I have been repeating the circle unconsciously. What is more important for me is the development of my technique and use of colours. I don't consider repetition a point of weakness. Credibility is the most important thing in art. I just paint what I have in mind, what reflects my philosophies. Repetition is not a formula; it is the persistence of a certain idea...”
Likewise the blue that prevails in the background of nearly all the paintings on show. “It is the colour my hand will instinctively grabs off the palette. Let's say it is my blue, because blue is a big word, it has many degrees.” Maarouf's blue is the colour of the sky just before sunrise, a deep, dark blue that he associates with light, implying Sufism. “I have always had this habit of staying up all night looking out of the window, waiting to grasp this rare moment when night departs and morning fills the sky with light; it is fabulous to watch the first rays of the sun and the amazing changes of colour in the sky. I conclude that God is the greatest artist ever.”
Under the surface of the portraits are many layers: experiments in colour and emotion. It is this special mixture of colours that grants the portraits their vivid look. “I spend many hours in my studio compositing colours to reach the desired degree, and I only use acrylic colours on linen,” he explained, “because the rhythm of painting is too quick for oils, which take much longer to dry. Music is my usual companion. Music and art are correlated in construction and harmony.” Maarouf conforms that the faces and busts of the women on show are not seen from a sexual point of view; the women are portrayed, rather, as human beings. With even the hair disguised, it seems to be the artist's belief that only the face reveals emotion or truth? “ButiIt is not an intellectual choice,” Maarouf protests. “It is just the way it came about.”
Maarouf's nine previous solo exhibitions were held at Mashrabiya Gallery. They include “Muse”, dedicated to his wife, and “The Others”, which shows people “from other places, other times, or maybe people from no place and no time at all”, he winks: “People from another planet. I also assume that we, generally, come from another planet.” Maarouf, who has exhibited in the most prestigious galleries in Holland, Italy and France, claims Cezanne and Gauguin as godfathers. “I actually feel like they are my colleagues, and that I am going to my studio to paint along with them. I do have a surplus advantage here: I am still alive while they've passed away. I still have the chance to create...”
This is one of the lessons he learned during his stay in Amsterdam, where he lived with his Danish wife for 12 years. “My advice to young artists is to go beyond the great works. Making replicas of Picassos for example, is not something to be proud of. Go beyond reason, beyond the present moment, and be honest to your feelings and visions, as much as you can, not to the requirements of the market. Always relate your art to your ancient culture, never forget to pay regular visits to the Egyptian Museum and observe how futuristic the ancient Egyptians were.”
“Sequence of Portraits” is open until 7 January 2015.


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