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Egyptian ‘Soul’ through the eyes of Shayma Kamel

There is something particularly luring about the artwork of 32-year-old Shayma Kamel. It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is as she has already produced such a large and varied body of work by such a young age. But her latest exhibit, a collection of works entitled “Roh” (Soul) can provide viewers clearer insight into Kamel’s world.

The exhibit, currently at Tache Art Gallery in Designopolis, is a collection of work, selected by the gallery owners, ranging from 2004 until the present. It features around twenty heavily textured and moodily painted pieces that explore a variety of subjects like race, gender and religion in a different ways, from the completely abstract to the more direct and didactic.

There is definitely a lot of soul in the artwork, and Kamel often appears to intensely focus on human moods and how they relate to one’s inner feelings and surroundings. The facial expressions and colors used in the paintings make it difficult to determine whether the characters are happy or sad, contemplative or shallow. It is also hard to tell whether or not the environment in which the characters are portrayed is a positive or a negative one. In other words, Kamel appears to combine and express all her complex and diverse moods and experiences into a neutral glass neither half full nor half empty.

The word neutral might suggest a certain boringness, which Kamel’s pieces are certainly not. Colors are often extremely playful and beautiful, using a diverse palette. Rather than neutral, the pieces tend to strike a balance between the seemingly dreary world Kamel finds herself in, and her playful perspective of the world as an artist. Her paintings are where her personality and the world seem to call “it” — struggle, cosmic dance, whatever — a truce.

For example, one piece, entitled “Thoughts” from 2007, shows a blue woman sitting naked on a whitish floor with a red and black background. But the composition of the piece makes it difficult to determine whether or not this woman is crying on a bathroom floor, admiring the stars and city from a rooftop, sitting happily on a bed, or begging on a sidewalk. Maybe it’s all of these things, or maybe its none, but it’s all in there, and manifests exactly as the title suggests, “Thoughts” — not one, but many.

Kamel says that the blank characters she portrays reflect the soullessness she has seen in the faces of everyday Egyptians over the past decade, infused with an innate Egyptian nostalgia for the soul of older times.

However, despite the majority of the pieces having this sort of soul versus soullessness quality to them, expressed in an abstract, colorful way, a couple stand out as being quite different in their approach to the concept.

One small piece from 2004, entitled “Old Soul,” is an extremely abstract-expressionist collage of browns, mauves and beiges, with no clear image or object being portrayed. It almost looks like a deformed lady with swans following her, until you realize that it looks nothing like that. The piece is simply dreamlike.

Another very tall and more direct piece features a woman in a niqab surrounded by writings in Arabic and English that say, “Am gonna be in the heaven! And u will be in the hell. You I am wear black or you hell bad. I am the only one who is. You will go to hell.” It might seem at first like this piece is a reaction to the recent rise of conservative Islamists since 25 January. But, it was made in 2010. While it appears to portray veiled women in a negative, judgmental light, it feels as if it is more a reflection of the confused feelings of guilt and identity Kamel experiences living in an Islamic country.

But aside from those odd few pieces, the majority of Kamel’s work focuses on a variety of characters and their relationship to their environment.

Kamel says that this exhibit is very important to her at this point in time because it reflects the complexity of the Egyptian soul both leading up to and after the 25 January uprising. And while the works provide insight into daily lives of Egyptians prior to 2011, the newer ones also seem to show Kamel’s feelings that nothing has really changed.

Her newer projects are quite different, as she uses collages to express quirky political ideas. So, for Kamel, this exhibit served as an opportunity to revisit the background and context of her new, reactionary work.

Many of the pieces at Tache appear to have already been sold, which confirms a personal view of the artistic strength of Kamel’s work: not only are they artistic, moody, confusing and intriguing, but they also function beautifully and simply as pieces that can be hung up in an art collector’s gallery, a restaurant, or a family living room.

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