The latest exhibition of works by Hossam Dirar, one of the Middle East's most promising artists today, pays homage to 19th-century Cairo through his re-interpretation of Orientalist paintings. “Le Caire 1801,” which opened at the Soma Art Gallery in Cairo on Feb. 4, features works in which Dirar has added his own touch of striking colors, among them shades of red and blue, to the older works depicting Western artists’ images of Egypt.
“I took European Orientalist artists’ paintings, which I duplicated as black and white photos, and then I painted over them using acrylic paints and inks,” Dirar told Al-Monitor. “I used collage techniques on some of the works.”
The exhibition is partly inspired by “Description de l’Egypt,” a richly illustrated, 24-volume work on the topography, architecture, monuments, natural life and population of Egypt. The group of scientists and artists who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 expedition to Egypt, some 160 in all, compiled this classic work from 1802 to 1829. Published in Europe, the volume became an influential scientific and artistic document recording Egyptian life at the time, significantly impacting 19th-century European art, including producing the style of visual art, architecture, fashion and literature under the rubric of Orientalism.
“With this exhibition, I want to show people the good old days of Cairo, which we no longer see — the beautiful Egypt that we have lost, the buildings, people and the lifestyle in general,” Dirar remarked.
A multi-disciplinary artist, Dirar produces works in a variety of media, including painting, photography and graphic design, and creates installations and video. His works to date are regarded as a modern reinterpretation of Egypt’s rich visual heritage. The current exhibition focuses on the people, who wear traditional attire, and the beauty of Egypt's 19th-century architecture. The images capture an air of calm in the city during that period.
“We miss the magnificent design of architecture of the epoch that [has been] replaced by ugly buildings,” said Dirar.
One of the paintings on display at Soma depicts a woman at home playing an oud, which resembles a lute. “It shows how life at that time was peaceful and simple,” Dirar said. “It expresses the relaxed nature of daily life.”
Another work features a number of men wearing white garments and turbans standing in front of a shop selling “olal,” earthenware jugs. “Olal, used as containers to store water, were healthy, unlike the plastic bottles that we use today,” Dirar commented.
Dirar graduated from Helwan University in 2000, having studied in the Faculty of Applied Arts. Since then, he has presented works in numerous solo and group shows in Austria, Egypt, Italy, France, Germany, Slovakia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Dirar is recognized as one of Egypt’s most significant contemporary artists. At the start of his career, he sold his works through online galleries. In 2013, Saatchi Art acknowledged him as an emerging artist in whom to invest.
“I was keen to display my works in Europe, to etch my name among famous artists,” he said. In the interview with Al-Monitor, Dirar, now based in Spain, referenced the Mediterranean basin's richness in art and commented on how suffering in the Middle East today is driving creativity.
“In Syria after the trauma of the 2011 war, many artists are successfully trying to express their suffering by displaying their works abroad,” Dirar said. “The same thing happened with Iraqi artists [after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein]. I believe that suffering helps artists to be more creative.”
Aisha Lutfi, a visitor to Dirar’s exhibit, told Al-Monitor with a sigh, “I really wish I could go back to that era and live in this vibrant life, where people were social, friendly and loved fun.”
A student at the Faculty of Applied Arts at the German University in Cairo, Lutfi praised Dirar’s use of color on the black-and-white photos. She gestured toward a painting showing a woman belly dancing while a number of men sit in the background, watching her.
“Look,” Lutfi exclaimed while snapping a photo of the image with her cellphone. “She is the focus while men are just watching.”
“Le Caire 1801” runs through Feb. 22 at the Soma Art Gallery, in the Zamalek section of Cairo.