Reconciling Past and Present in Color: Helmi El-Touni’s Design Retrospective

AUC Times - November 2014.

..“تشوفها تقول دي مصر”

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It is perhaps the vivid purple of the wall, with its glaring gold stencils, that render the staggering feeling you attain once you are within its confines. Complementing the striking vivacity of the color, four medium-sized white frames correspond to each purple-colored surface; thus, delineating the carefulness employed to the organization of the place –one down to every minute detail. A closer look at the frames will enable one to set eyes upon beautifully ornamented and colorfully adorned illustrations, all titled with the words ‘Agmal al- ḥikayāt al-sha’biyya’. Where purple lends off to white, words are inscribed, acting as a prelude to the remainder of the place –a three-story exhibition –and the various works it embraces:

I do not want people to see an exhibition of mine and cry ‘oh, a beautiful picture.’ They must think, look back at the beautiful past that was so often condemned. It was much better than the present.

An invocation and portrayal of ‘this beautiful past’ permeates the work of renowned Egyptian artist Helmi El-Touni, to whom those words belong and the exhibition devoted.

At the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Sharjah Art Gallery, El-Touni’s Design Retrospective was inaugurated on the 19th of October and set to continue on till the 9th of the following month. Curated by AUC’s Arts Department, the exhibition encompasses various works by the renowned artist, thus displaying his immense contributions to a plethora of cultural organizations and cultural projects, and his contributions to culture. What renders this particular exhibition moreover unique is its display of illustrations in their nascent stages with pencil markings, trials, and handwritten ideas that culminated into El-Touni’s finished, exhibited productions; in other words, the stages undergone by some of his works. Highlighting one of Egypt’s celebrated contemporary artists, and in turn shedding light on Egyptian contemporary art, is a task this exhibition and its curators seem determined in upholding and successful in achieving.

Subsequent to his graduation with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and a specialization in Theatre Design, El-Touni went on to become one of Egypt’s –and the Arab World’s –most well-known and established contemporary artists and graphic designers. Tracing his career path and analyzing his innovative artistic style can further elaborate on El-Touni’s prominence in Egypt and the Arab World. El-Touni embarked on his artistic journey roughly around the mid-1960s, when he held his first tour around Egypt’s governorates’ cultural centers in 1965, as noted by the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Arts’ Sector profile on the artist. Local, regional, and international exhibitions were also held for his works in Egypt, Lebanon, Germany, and as far as India and Japan. Alongside his numerous and geographically wide-spread exhibitions, his career is one that involved working with a number of publishing houses and magazines, on which his valuable imprint is manifested in their prominence and their reputed popularity.

El-Touni’s artistic style is tinted with several discernible characteristics that in turn enable one to rightfully and justly deem it unique. Alongside his photography and unique graphic designs he primarily employs oil colors in his paintings. The bulk of his art, moreover, pertains to book illustrations and design. His first book illustration was Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley which was originally published in 1947. His illustration of Mahfouz’s novel was a significant instance of introspection to El-Touni, when he first learned “that a relationship binds art and book”, in his words. Among his ensuing one thousand book illustrations are the entire works of Naguib Mahfouz published by Dar al-Shorouk Publishing House, Radwa Ashour’s famous Granada Trilogy, Siraaj: an Arab Tale, and others, and finally a number of children books.

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A striking feature of El-Touni’s art is Egypt’s centrality to most of it. Through his art he explores Egypt through its political, social, and cultural dimensions. Both where it is directly and indirectly invoked, Egyptian nationalism speaks out through his art pieces. This Egypt-centrism seems as no coincidence. El-Touni explains how he is a firm believer in his contemporary and writer Ahmed Bahaa al-Din’s words that “as artists [they] are committed to regenerating the Egyptian spirit and the idea of nationhood … there are [supposed to be] artworks that [one] looks at and sees Egypt”.

His employment of the elements of Egyptian folkloric art, however, is the most significant in this regard. With his voiced intention of bridging past and present, El-Touni utilizes the symbols of folkloric art to address present issues. As noted by Sayed Howaidy in his 2010 article in Al-Khayāl Magazine on the artist, “El-Touni created his own visual world through the elements of folkloric art that retain symbolic meanings and ideas”. This revival of folkloric art in El-Touni’s work is an instance of a simultaneous refurbishment of a past identity and a configuration of a present one that remains intimately tied to the former.

The exploration of other themes fairly coexists with El-Touni’s focus on Egypt. Palestine, Arab Nationalism, political activism, and the social role of women are central to many of his projects. Taking Beirut as his home from 1973 to 1984 –living through both the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli Occupation of Beirut –El-Touni’s art was undeniably influenced by events geographically beyond Egypt, yet nonetheless ones that had their toll on the Arab World in its entirety. It is noteworthy that his life in Beirut culminated into an exhibition of his paintings in Beirut in 1985. Additionally, the red, green, black, and white colors of the Palestinian flag ornament many of his art works. El-Touni’s abundant works on Palestine thus shed light on his interest in and focus on major regional political conflicts, and his championing of an Arab cause. His work with Al-itihād al-‘ ām lil fanānīn al-tashkīliyyn al-falastīniyyin and the Arab Cultural Club further allude to his concern with Palestine and the Arab World.

Portraits of Gamal ’Abd al-Nasser, Mahmoud Darwish, Amal Donqol, Ahmed Shawky, and Nelson Mandela, occupying a wall on the second floor to the exhibition, seem to each symbolize a theme explored by El-Touni: nationalism, Palestine, anti-despotism, Egyptianism, and anti-colonial resistance.

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Adjacent to the purple wall on which this note began, stands an adjacent yellow one on which it will end. The inscribed words on the former find their correspondents on the latter. Words that, on the contrary, stand as a culmination, an impeccable summary of the artworks embraced within the parameters of this Art Gallery. The words printed in black –where yellow lends off to white –read as follows: “…After so many ‘Orients’ invented in the West, here we finally are given a view of far off lands untrammeled by artificial overlays”. “Untrammeled by artificial overlays”, as the final four words one sets eyes upon prior to the exit, are obtained as muses, perhaps as explanations for the profound sense of beauty this exhibition will reside in its visitor. The sincerity of the artworks cannot but evoke serious thoughts on the matters they address and the sentiments they conjure.

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