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In the depths
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 11 - 2018

What do we usually keep in the basement of our home? Our precious belongings, our trash, unwanted stuff – or our true egos? The basement, or “The Crypt” – sirdab in Arabic: an underground storage space analogous to the psyche – takes on metaphorical meaning in the mid-career artist Randa Fakhry's new exhibition, on show at the Capital Gallery in Zamalek. In 15 medium-sized oil and decoupage paintings, a strange sense of intimacy emanates from expressive human figures in complex dramas.
In her fourth solo exhibition, Fakhry tells the story of her failed marriage, which ended in khul' (or wife-instigated divorce), as well as that of her illness. Her previous exhibition focused on women and their psychological suffering, hard to reveal in a schizophrenic society, but here benevolent male characters – in the guise of Sufi saints, “the only kind of man allowed to step in my life,” as the artist insists – make a timid appearance. A diptych named The Shepherd for example depicts the artist's brother, who supported her through her various ordeals. In the first painting, the a white-bearded, Jesus-like figure welcomes the viewer in with three tiny birds on his shoulders. In the second he is working marionettes of a cat, a pigeon and a rat.
In almost all the paintings, faces and hands are the only prominent body parts. The rest of the body is in black, decorated with flowers, or merged into the background. The eyes are open but completely black, with no irises, as if they are the way into the crypt. “The paintings feature the conceptual basements of real people I encountered in my life, but I do not paint people as is; it is how I see them in those basements.” Tiny roses, which made their first appearance in Fakhry's last exhibition as a symbol of her recovery, are prevalent. Together with white cats, they symbolise optimism and unexpected good fortune.
In the depths
An agricultural scholar's daughter, Fakhry grew up among animals and plants. “I am a great fan of all animals, even wild ones. I once raised a baby duck at home,” she said with an innocent laugh. For her, animals represent kindness, primitiveness, and transparency. She graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, where now teaches, in 1998, and she has always painted her life. Her second solo exhibition, “Trilogy of the Moon” (2010) – created during her “personal crisis” when she felt “everyone was wearing a mask to conceal their negative intentions” – featured masked women, black cats (a symbol of the white female spirit after it is tarnished by misfortune) and the moon (continuity and gloom) in intricate formations.
One of the paintings in the present exhibition also appeared in her third show. Titled “We Are All Roses”, it features an aged woman sitting at a table with plates of vegetables and rice that seem to look like rocks – uneatable. Here as elsewhere in “The Crypt”, because most of their bodies are submerged in private crypts, the characters look like ghosts. The also evoke mime artists with white gloves. When things were too intense for Fakhry, she would sometimes plug her ears and watch – and people would look comic in a kind of mime drama, she says; hence the clowns so prevalent in her work. But there is also a scholarly side to this interest: the exhibition reflects Fakhry's PhD on masks and dolls in the contemporary Egyptian painting.
In the depths
Viewers must not be deceived by Fakhry's seemingly restricted world, however. Each character has its own depth and philosophy. About her own basment, she says, “I was raised in a very conservative environment. I was very romantic and naïve and it took me a long time to work out how to deal realistically with people. So my crypt is still where I go when I find it hard again to deal with certain people.” In Supper, indeed, she seems to share it with a turtle. A young woman, in a black gown and white gloves, is leaning on a large turtle, which is placed on a dining table. They share food and silence. They both have black-painted eyes, with no glimpse of light. The symmetrical features of their faces enhance the feeling of solitude.
“Turtles,” Fakhry says, “are patient creatures. What distinguishes turtles from other reptiles is their unique and free will to hide inside their shell. You can never expect when or where it will decide to disappear. They have built-in basements and they resort to them only when they wish to,” she noted. “It is much like human behavior. People would resort to complete silence, or hide in their own spaces, when things are not going well,” she added.

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