On Hamed Nada
From Al-Ayn Al-Ashiqa.
Cairo: The General Egyptian Book Organization, 1976.
Translated from the Arabic by ArteEast
The work of the painter Hamed Nada is of great interest to many scholars of modern Egyptian painting. Born in al-Khalifa district close to the Cairo Citadel in 1924, he was one of the most active members of The Contemporary Art Group [Jama`at al-Fann al-Mu`asir], which organized distinguished exhibitions in Cairo in 1946, 1948, 1949, and 1951. He was also one of the members whose work was exhibited in Paris in November 1949 – a relatively early time in the history of the artistic awakening in modern Egypt.
Throughout 30 years of artistic fertility, Hamed Nada’s work is noteworthy for its loyalty to “the Egyptian Spirit” equally in form, color and subject matter. Also noteworthy is the artist’s faith in […] the land where he was raised, and the deep cultural history that shapes it.
If one of the most prominent trends in modern Egyptian art is the inclination towards folk subject matters, Hamed Nada […] is a pioneer in this realm. He tied his technical expertise to images and reflections that explore deeply the folk environment where he was born and raised.
The Tragic and the Comic in Folk Subject Matter
Hamed Nada discovered his characters early on in his career and soon after knew what he wanted to say through his art. The years from 1946 onwards were years in which stagnation and immobility had the upper hand over the Egyptian soul. Day workers, those strong men, found work once a year. What else could they do? They could only take refuge in mosques and coffeehouses, and find a shelter in begging and asking for charity. Many of them made a living through pretending to be dervishes, or feigning mental illness or a handicap. Beards were grown and prayer beads got longer. In order to get a livelihood, the life of jugglery became widespread because of unemployment and stagnation over sidewalks, street corners and poorhouses. The artist had to scream at the people: Wake up! Life is going by while you sit on straw chairs sinking lower in a drowsiness somewhere between deep sleep and awakening. Dysfunctional gestures, parted mouths, dropped lips, stretched hands. Nada’s scream was social, and in his background looms the image of the social reformer demanding a change in the conditions of his society and reality. The subject matter for him was human existence in its concrete visible reality.
In a visit to the painter Hamed Nada on the 24th of August 1968, he talked to me about his beginnings. He said: I was living in al-Baghala (1). My father was a Sheikh, and thus I was surrounded by a religious environment. My father used to speak to me a lot about insane saints and dervishes. So, like everybody else, I would kiss their hands, seeking their blessings and wanting to satisfy God and the jinn as well. My more critical nature took over as I grew older. I also read voraciously in psychology, and fell in love with Freud and Adler’s analyses of pathologic behavior hiding behind a veil of normalcy and familiarity. Then, I started to recognize the tragicomic contradiction between appearance and reality of life in the folk milieu. I also realized the amount of sterility and emptiness in the characters of the people who sat for long hours in coffee houses smoking shisha solemnly, drinking cups of tea, gazing absently at a distance. I would go to do whatever I had to do and come back to find them sitting on their chairs, without the slightest indication of movement, as if they were made from the same rock from which ancient Egyptian statutes were carved, as if they were persons whose destiny is made of granite. Those totally shaved heads, zalata [pebble] as people called them. Those palms with thick fingers. Big feet in cheap red and yellow slippers – all seemed to me to contain some comic contradiction. Many manifestations of folk life started to give me a smile, but whenever I contemplated them, I shook my head in sorrow and compassion.
In this context, Hamed Nada likes to tell a cherished memory that demonstrates how far the characters he used to draw in his early paintings are able to simultaneously enchant hearts and inflame the fire of rejection and rebellion deep inside. He mentions that in a party at the School of Fine Arts where he graduated in 1951, he brought a band called “bandira.” The band, with its colorful banners and loud music, went through the streets of Zamalek. The doormen [lower class] of this aristocratic neighborhood gathered around the singers, the dwarfs, and the drummers. Then, that clownish procession entered the school with its clamor rising up. This aroused repulsion and gave rise to signs of protest on the part of intellectuals and the bourgeois people who were present, in spite of the fact that all of them belonged to the same nation. This is the story told by Hamed Nada, who inspired `Abd al-Hadi al-Gazzar and other members of The Contemporary Art Group to join him in exploring the strange aspects of folk life, and investigating the tragicomic sides in the folk milieu and its characters.
Between Surrealism and Expressionism
In fact, Hamed Nada is more of an expressionist than surrealist, though he’s often described as one. He is more attached to reality than to the products of the unconscious, visions of the imagination and dreams. Maybe this confusion is the outcome of the close proximity of Surrealism and Expressionism. The art critic Herwarth Walden, who coined the term “expressionism,” included within it all opposing reactions rebelling against Impressionism between 1910 and 1920, including Surrealism, Cubism, Abstraction, and Fauvism. We find this confused inaccurate understanding in all early writers who were interested in Expressionism. However, after the term was used for some time to refer to all modern art movements that emerged between the turn of the twentieth century and World War I, we have come now to be more precise in our use of the term. Thus, we use “expressionism” to refer to a style of art that emerged after Impressionism and sought to restore interest in the element of human drama in the painting, and to replace the logical form with a romantic illogical one.
It is important, nonetheless, to point out the surrealist elements in Hamed Nada’s art since he says in an interview that “any work of art that does not have surrealist elements is no work of art. In other words, no matter what color or direction spontaneous expression takes, a work of art can’t be devoid of the artist’s subjectivity if it is true art” (Watani Newspaper 1-11-1959).
Like surrealists, Hamed Nada did not naively accept that everything is in its logical place, as academicians and those whose emotions and visions are fossilized at the level of pure reality claim. At the least, Nada tried to test the ties between things by attempting to shake their roots through showing an object in a place where it doesn’t belong or putting it in a dysfunctional situation (like a broken water vessel, and a shisha with a folded hose.) This would lead to the effect surrealists seek, i.e. trying to shake people out of leading an unjust life because it is founded on givens accepted without thinking.
In his artistic expression, Hamed Nada uses some symbols he derives from folk arts, contemporary folk customs, magic, ancient Egyptian religions, as well as his personal visions.
Nada particularly likes the cat, and frequently includes it in his paintings. He finds in its physical flexibility and agility the possibility to create aesthetic forms. He also uses this animal as a symbol because of its dual nature, which suggests the intermingling of two worlds. In his 1948 painting “The Cat’s Sleep,” (in the collection of the Museum of Arts in Alexandria) Nada penetrates to the depth of the nature of this simultaneously tame and wild animal. Thus, he portrays it stretching in a beggar’s lab, a beggar who has rough features, wearing a dark garment, lying on the ground, resting his back and head against a wall decorated with childish paintings behind him. […]
One of the most common metaphors in Hamed Nada’s work is the gaslight. It is a means through which the artist expresses human beings’ limited scope of vision. The outside world is a clearly demarcated lighted space followed by extended darkness. In the darkness, there are ghosts, reflections from the inner world, inclinations of the soul, fears of the heart, devilish visions like those of Hieronymus Bosch. A few steps away lies the kingdom of darkness. Beasts are waiting in the shadows to thrust their claws in humans. But these hostile beasts are not at all part of reality. Rather, they are visions of pathological spirits, and infirm crippled souls. They are the paralyzed visions that make the world appear hostile, unjust and oppressive of humans. How strange, humanity crushes itself! The stagnant part of human beings keeps the pure part captive, and destroys it under the axes of delusions, fancies, and fears!
Focusing on Human Beings
Many of Hamed Nada’s characters are silent, absent-minded and gloomy. There are no smiles on their lips, no happiness on their faces. Nada’s characters are ruined men, sentenced to death, waiting for the hour of execution, human herds driven to their slaughter. They keep appearing and re-appearing. Some hiding their faces with their hands, as if keeping the light when it gets sharper off their eyes. Even children and teenagers look like they have aged though they are not past their childhood and adolescence. Everybody wears folk garments, is barefoot, or wears cheap slippers.
Hamed Nada focuses on humans. He is not a painter of natural scenery, nor of silent nature. He is a painter of human beings surrounded by darkness and dust, whose only refuge is to retreat to a narrow corner, or be restricted in a limited circle of light. Neither their vision nor their wills reach beyond that besieged world. We feel that well in, for example, the 1947 paintings “The Shadow of the Slipper” and “The Dervishes” as well as in the 1948 paintings “The Sparrows” and “The Cat’s Sleep,” and, generally speaking, in most of his work. He only draws human beings and only adds to his paintings a limited number of house objects like a chair, a gaslight, a cracked water vessel whose mouth is covered with a big stone as proof that it contains no water and that it is no longer performing its function. His scenes are generally neither wide nor spacious. They are like the light of a gaslight, concentrated within limited space which is often an almost empty room, or merely a corner in a room. He often uses the wall as a background on which he lays out some primitive decorations or fills it with holes and cracks, or places some reptiles like a lizard or a gecko. He does not choose these reptiles haphazardly, but because of their roots in folk beliefs, in which they are symbols related to sex, fertility, sterility, as well as the violence and evil deeply concealed in the depth of humans. Sometimes, Nada also puts his characters in forms that pulsate with loss and isolation without surrounding them with his usual walls bearing folk decorations.
The horizon line is usually low and very close in Nada’s work, to the extent that it makes the viewer almost touch the characters and mingle with them, almost hearing their voices, and premonitions. This is how the characters’ hollow, complaining and accusing gazes silently penetrate to the depth of the viewer. There is an air of silence engulfing Nada’s internal scenes. It is as if a conversation has happened but we were too late to catch a word of it – or as if words have died before getting born, their corpses reflected in the sad eyes and the bent necks.
In his work, Nada emphasizes a personal understanding of form, and depends on still figures. His characters are motionless without a stir, perhaps without the hope of an active life being blown into them. In spite of their repeated appearances, his human figures are both artistically and psychologically charged. They are works of a tragic nature, but with neither lecturing nor attempts to justify. They evoke neither compassion nor pity. Nonetheless, questions surface in the viewer’s mind, and answers vary, soon sinking to the depth like a rock thrown in tumultuous water. […] The characters’ dusty heads carry within them, or so it seems, unknown and unfathomable secrets. Their poses are minutely studied, and their ruthless stillness increases their mystery. However, Nada’s characters beg for no charity. They have primitive pride in spite of everything, though something about them, perhaps in the surrounding environment, compels you to sympathize with them, and urges you to investigate their social and human conditions.
(1) An old neighborhood in Cairo of the kind popularized by Naguib Mahfouz [Translator’s note].