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Art's aqueducts
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 03 - 2019

“Multipolar World” is the title of a recent Misr Gallery exhibition (10-24 February) by the Paris-based Swedish artist Fabian Edelstam. A collection of 15 mixed media works in four different sizes, this is the artist's first solo exhibition in Egypt, and it demonstrates his fascination with the history and art of the country and the region.
Facing you as you enter the space, a huge portrait of Um Kolthoum in fluorescent green has a hazy image of the Sphinx in the background. It sets the tone. As with the rest of the works, the piece is made up of photo paper squares pasted onto canvas, which gives it a distinct mosaic-like quality. As in a puzzle, some squares are missing, making room for the viewer's mental freedom and imagination.
Sultan Abdel-Hamid II
Born in Stockholm in 1965, Edelstam is the grandson of a diplomat who served in the Middle East, which seems to have prompted recurrent visits to the region reflecting a love of Arab culture. Edelstam studied graphic design in Stockholm before moving to France in 1990, initially to continue studying art. He gave his first solo exhibition in 1993 and has since exhibited all over the world including, notably, in Brussels and London as well as Paris.
In 1997-2013 the artist made commercial and commissioned portraits, his subjects including Giorgio Armani in 2004 and Queen Silvia of Sweden in 2013. But his exhibitions in the last five years reveal a yearning for a more complex approach to portraiture. Last year he gave an exhibition in Bulgaria to celebrate the commemoration of the European Union, the collaboration and common history of its member countries.
In 2017, Edelstam started to exhibit in the Gulf area. He was on tour in the United Arab Emirates when the desert began to haunt him, and so a collection was born. “The climate is very different from Europe, so are the people and their traditions,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. The theme of his exhibition was revisiting UAE 40 years after its establishment, exploring its contemporary culture and art.

Omar Sherif
The artist gave his present show the title “Multipolar World” for a personal reason: “During my childhood, the world was subject to a bipolar system. The Cold War was the main political game. Now, things have changed a lot. We currently live in a multipolar world. The power game has changed.”
To elaborate the influence of a multipolar world on his awareness, he chose such glamorous characters such as Egyptian royals king Farouk and princess Fawziya, Swedish Queen Silvia, Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, pre-1952 Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas and the great diva Um Kolthoum, with icons and heads of state from Europe and Turkey. It is a nostalgic experience. Seeing such powerful characters grants the viewer a nostalgic feeling.
“They feed us the dream once again,” he says, “and so help us to stay alive in such materialist times. I have travelled many times to the Middle East. It is part of my growing-up process. So I have memories, and I have kept materials from my recurrent visits such as stamps, pictures or maps,” he explained. “It is all about the way I reconstruct those images.” For each canvas, what is more, he chooses a different colour as a background: “Choosing colours comes very naturally at the moment I start working on the computer. It is organic, simultaneous.”
One interesting nostalgic work entitled “Palm Springs” illustrates some beautiful women in swimsuits relaxing by a swimming pool in Florida at the time of the economic boom after World War II. A lady who looks somewhat like the Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan turns out to be Edelstam's grandmother. The resemblance is remarkable and underlines the thin line separating the two worlds of east and west.

Al-Nahas Pacha
“I chose images from different parts of the world to confirm the idea that we are in the same boat,” he insists. Edelstam is planning a project in Cairo later this year. “I think we need to work towards building more cultural bridges between different parts of the world. And visual art is the best language that we all understand.”


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