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Unknotting Nut
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 01 - 2012

Sekhmet, Stockholm Syndrome and Umm Kolthoum are turned into tulips in Khaled Hafez's SafarKhan Gallery exhibition this week, notes Gamal Nkrumah
An apotheosis of the feminine, an adulation of the lady-like goddess, crafted with the palette knife and sweeping brushstrokes, the works of Khaled Hafez juxtapose symbols of spiritual enlightenment with the mundane minutiae of the material mystique.
Deification of Mother Goddesses goes back in time, perhaps to Palaeolithic times. They set Hafez's acoustic nerves vibrating to the melodic strains of Umm Kolthoum. This glorification of Egypt's, and the Arab World's, celebrated diva and the ancient Egyptian goddesses he was soon to take as the subject of his latest exhibition entitled On Codes, Symbols and Stockholm Syndrome at SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek.
In a meditative manner, Hafez appears to be applying his brush to contemporary Egyptian society's coping with the intricacies of the neoteric. The shock of the modern conveys a sense of conflicts worse than civil wars. At times Hafez deploys an aerial perspective which projects the prevalent religious convictions of a distant past that long predates the patriarchal present.
Egypt has had many gods along its great time track of seven millennia -- most, believe it or not, matriarchal. Egyptians were never fond of going through myriad past lives. It has always been the here and the hereafter. Reincarnation ever had the ring of ill-repute. The current wave of religiosity is the latest in a procession of beliefs buttressed in the notion that believers must go aggressively after their apparent adversaries.
Rather more arduous is performing the kind of anthropological inquiry into the bizarre world of ancient Egyptian cults as a setting for less bellicose convictions.
Siwwa is the beauty of the feminine paunch slightly protruding, an ancient African concept of comeliness and pulchritude. The belly of the sky goddess Nut is rounded off with the silvery hue of a dolphin, overseeing the pastoral setting of her daughter, the earthly goddess Hathor, from above.
Painted with broad generosity, Nut and Hathor hint at a heavenly paradise with an earthly allure. Then, like now, the carnal is the temporal -- the celestial is the eternal. Hafez pays proper attention to his divine subjects' shapes and colours. His works could presumably be interpreted as a malicious protest against conventional male chauvinism in contemporary Egypt by harking back to the authentically Egyptian matrilineal original.
"My initial concern before starting a project is trying to create an intelligent work, not an aesthetic one." Hafez is infatuated with the notion of intelligence and with the interplay of diametrically antagonistic ideas that complement one another. The static/kinetic, good/evil, male/female conundrum intrigues him. Man is subservient to the bounty of the udder of the humble ungulate.
From the dawn of humanity, the matronly bovine was the symbol of motherhood in many ancient cultures, including the Egyptian civilisation. "I was a dermatologist by profession, but I left a medical career even though my parents were both medical practitioners. They never understood why I quit medicine until 8 April 2011 when I appeared on CNN in a televised interview on my artistic career and my mother at last began to appreciate my decision to become a full-time artist. I use old symbols of mine in previous works, I rework them in the current exhibition. The Stockholm Syndrome is not projected in a particular painting. Is it?" Hafez asks rhetorically.
Or, his works could be defined as a symbolic recording of his perceptions on mocking grounds of what ought to be. He succeeds in creating an atmospheric whole from using the mesmeric commitment to a select few goddesses representing the reproductive, life-giving, fertility symbols of yesteryear. The only male is the jackal god, the dog so to speak: Anubis, Lord of the Dead.
Six vermilion paintings in eye-catching mahogany frames are exceptionally energetic. The onlooker cannot forfeit his or her first impression. The brush-stroke is precise, the subject matter concise and its right shade of colour, therefore, is black.
The intermixing of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with ultra-modern symbols and signs is the hallmark of Khaled Hafiz's latest exhibition. A utopia of togetherness is insistently measured. For this is the strangest aspect of Hafez's exhibition's central thesis -- is an interpretation of the Stockholm Syndrome.
"During the election I came across a young woman friend who expressed her exasperation with having to vote for Kotla, the coalition of liberal and leftist secularist parties. She voted Kotla even though she understood that they included many foloul, remnants of the ex-president Hosni Mubarak regime, in order to prevent the militant Islamists -- Muslim Brothers and Salafists from winning a landslide victory," Hafez elucidated his point.
She preferred to vote for the foloul, her former captors, rather than risk the Islamists' interference in her private affairs. "This I clearly saw as a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome," Hafez explained.
This thesis is plausible in the current political climate of post-25 January Revolution Egypt. Capture-bonding, nevertheless, is hard to captivate graphically in the context of visual aesthetics. However, Hafez does just that by deploying the use of symbols and signs. Moreover, Hafez has become increasingly concerned with the "rising extreme religious right in the past three decades."
Never mind the wintry weather and bring along a raincoat. But Hafez's latest exhibition is the newest most provocative artistic output of this unique painter. It includes the maddening mandarin red of Van Gogh in a strange series of six ancient Egyptian animal gods. Hafez, after all, trained under Hamed Nada for three years. Another mentor of his is Professor Zakariya El-Zeini. "Cow is a space," he insists.
No landscape anywhere is more associated with Umm Kolthoum than the leafy island suburb of Zamalek, where the diva resided and where Hafez's current exhibition is staged. "She dressed like, and spoke like my grandmother. She was the Sacred Feminine. She dressed in Coco Chanel and Nina Ricci frocks. They occupied a special space and time in Egyptian history," Hafez muses.
Hafez uses a particular pictorial language to convey a sense of that belle epoch. "I use old paper in my collages, yellowed either naturally by age or artificially by excessive solar exposure, or sometimes actual burning," he says.
"Both women occupy a special space in my memory. They are, with all due respect, the Sacred Cow, I worship."
Still, the respect for femininity is fast waning in Egypt's patriarchal society. Religious zealotry threatens to erode the original matrilineal hierarchy of gods and goddesses in Egypt. So why did Egypt change so? And how did it change so? That is where the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play again. In psychology the Stockholm Syndrome has an evolutionary explanation.
"I belong to a generation of artists that spent their childhood, adolescence and adulthood surrounded by stress: military confrontations, unexpected political landmarks, and the subsequent effervescent socio-economic consequences," Hafez says.
The Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors.
The term was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot. In August 1973 the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, shook the world. The Swedish capital became a synonym for a strange and inexplicable phenomenon. Victims of the bank robbery became emotionally attached to their captors. Women are more prone to be affected by the Stockholm Syndrome, and this is because, like the Sacred Cow, they are more inclined to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their progeny.
"Deadly violence is also regularly activated in competition over women," Azar Gat, Israeli-born academic and author on military history, notes. Adaptive habits were adopted by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, particularly our female ancestors.
Hafez explored the continuous reproduction of dichotomies within and between the popular culture of his native Egypt; France, where he lived for several years; and the United States -- "the ultimate consumer society and locus of political power which seems to thrive on the marketing potential of divisive binaries." The Lima Syndrome is almost the opposite: it was coined in 1996 when captors at a Japanese Embassy in Lima became emotionally overwhelmed by and sympathetic to their hostages.
Hafez gave up medical practice to devote himself to art. His motifs are skimmed, like the Sacred Cow's milk, with the contemporary economy in abstract animalistic symbols. The latter characteristic is derived from the more stiff-necked accomplishment of classical ancient Egypt stylised art. Hafez flirts with Hellenistic abandon.
He had the sense early on to switch careers, from the medical to the artistic, but through his medical training he acquired a certain precision. The SafarKhan Gallery was excited by the emotional resonance that emanated from his works. They approached the artist and he happily obliged. The largest piece on display has a serene perfection. In this masterpiece it is clear that since time immemorial our ancestors have attempted to capture the essence of their cosmos, the flavour of life, sounds, aromas and motions and the political gradations of wealth and social standing. Signs and symbols were their favourite tools, like the medical instruments of a skilled surgeon.
Hathor is not lost in the haze of time. Ancient Egyptian symbols are combined carefully with more modern ones.
The man still has a long run ahead of him. He reaches out to Nut in the sky. He is Neolithic, perhaps even Palaeolithic in appearance. We do not see the stone tools he uses, nor can we guess at their real purpose. Were the stone incisions of certain magical significance? Were his stone tools designed to slaughter the Sacred Cow goddess?
Hathor is the generous mother, that much I know. But what of the mysterious tulips he adorns his paintings with? I had expected the Egyptian lotus. The cut out tulips replace the lotuses as they are symbols of a more progressive, secularist Egypt -- a dream come true of a country free of false piety and outward religiosity. The collages of tulips animate the works of Hafez and highlight the power of pictures, flowers in a most feminine touch.
Umm Kolthoum's Zamalek is a place of cultural pilgrimage. She is also Sekhmet, the ferocious woman, beastly when upset. Her posture and composure as assured as the lioness goddess of days gone by. Ironically the lioness, lebwa in the Arabic language, is a brave woman in the Lebanese colloquial dialect, for instance, but has sadly degenerated into an obscene and pejorative term in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. It is a reflection of the general patriarchal nature of contemporary Egyptian society and the fall from grace of the omnipotent Sekhmet.
The clear hierarchy of gods and goddesses most depicted in animal representations grew increasingly rigid. At the apex sat Isis on her throne with her Horus on her lap.
Egyptian is the only Arabic dialect where a woman is still called "sitt", lady, or more precisely Esset, the Lady.
Aset Isis often portrayed as posing in much the same fashion as the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. Isis is seated, breastfeeding the infant Horus, the pharaoh. The Temple of Isis in the magical island of Philae, modern day Aswan was her abode. Umm Kolthoum, herself, was often called Aset, Esset or The Lady.
Isis suckles the future pharaoh, giving him sustenance and life. She is the primordial Mother. Even so, she is also the daughter of the sky goddess Nut.
The ostensibly detached onlooker is Nut. She is keeping an eye on her daughter below on earth. Ultimately mother and daughter are two sides of the same coin. Mother goddess, matron of nature and magic, caught the imagination of the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean. Isis metamorphosed into a cult figure of immense feminine appeal, displayed by Hafez, in the shape and form of the unassuming tulip.
Hathor, or Hwt Hur, the goddess of love, beauty, music and motherhood. She was -- as the ancients sang her praises -- "Mistress of Inebriety Without End", "Queen of the Dance" and "Mistress of Music."
Hathor's regal headdress was the sun disc and cobra, and turquoise was her symbolic colour. The blue-green, semi-precious stone was the colour of Hathor as the cow goddess who grazed in a sea of grass.
Nut was the goddess of the skies and heavenly bodies. Sekhmet, with the head of the lioness and a solar disc and uraeus as her crown. "I work on several canvases simultaneously. But I also make time to read the works of the likes of Jean Baudrillard," Hafez says. Baudrillard's For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1980) inspired him and opened up old/new worlds of signs and symbols for him. "Ptah, metamorphosed into muftah, key," Hafez chuckles. And Ptah is male.
Thus, the myth has many things wrong with it. "Simulacra and Simulation", and we are back to Jean Baudrillard and his The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism (1995). Hafez was so affected by Baudrillard's works that he acknowledges the intellectual debt he owes him.
Africa, too, was an inspiration. "Senegal and Mali can confidently represent moderate African Islam," Hafez. This year he also took part in the Eighth Mercosul Biennale in Brazil.
Hafez took part in the Ninth Bamako Photo Biennale in Mali 2011, and also in the Sixth and Seventh Dakar Biennale in Senegal in 2004 and 2006 respectively. His March 2005 the African Memories Chantiers de la Lune in Toulon, France, invited international critical acclaim.
Nearer home in Heliopolis, Nut, the President's Necktie and Batman exhibited in the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo in April 2002, and this too was loudly applauded at home and abroad.
On Codes, Symbols and Stockholm Syndrome opened on 10 January at the SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek, and runs through 27 January

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