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El Zaeem Ahmed: Philosophies in Ink

With Arts-Mart's Artists of Tomorrow exhibition opening today, we talk matters of the mind, heart and soul with one of the most-talked about artists in Egypt today.

We’ll be honest – El Zaeem Ahmed’s reputation precedes him. The 37-year old Egyptian artist is not only known for unique and striking portraits which seem to come alive at first glance, but for being a modern-day philosopher in his own right; a man that can carry a conversation about the meaning of life for hours on end, drawing you in with existential questions only he seems to have the answers to. As one of the most talked-about artists partaking in Arts-Mart the Gallery’s Artists of Tomorrow exhibition, we were privy to these snippets of superhuman thoughts, as we joined him and the Arts-Mart crew at their warehouse ahead of the opening day to make the final selection of pieces to display. As we settle down, he starts off hot and heavy: “A person is a mixture of the things he lives amongst, and it starts from the soul. I need to know where my soul stands, and what can help me discover it. Through this I can know where I am when it comes to creativity. Many artists don’t own their souls, and this makes them copy other peoples’ souls.” It quickly becomes clear that his reputation is pretty accurate.

The Upper Egyptian has been exhibiting for years, starting when he was an undergraduate fine arts student at Ganoub Al Wadi University in Luxor. Though much of the art coming from Egypt’s culture-rich south are drenched in rainbow hues and ancient traditions, Ahmed’s has always stood apart. “In the village where I was raised, black and white were really clear to me everywhere. Even though there were so many colours, I would feel that because it’s always dark, people go sleep at 8PM, there weren’t any late nights or parties, and they would wake up really early,” he explains of his clear gravitation towards monochrome. The collection being displayed at the Artists of Tomorrow  exhibition are exclusively blank ink on paper, using what we can only imagine to be thousands of biro pens. “To be honest, I don’t count how many pens I go through, because when I’m working it’s as if I’m drunk. Can you ask a drunk person how much he’s had to drink?” He asks, without expecting an answer.

Having travelled far and wide with his art, El Zaeem Ahmed’s work has been acquired by collectors all over the world, including Holland, France, Germany, England, Spain, Japan, USA and Qatar, as well as gaining him coveted permanent spots in Egypt’s own Ministry of Culture and the Museum of Modern Art. However, as you could probably have guessed by now, accolades don’t really matter to him. “When I finish a piece, I feel like I want it to go away. It’s like a mother who’s always with her son. She wants him to go away for a while and then come back,” he says about his artistic process. “I consider my eye a camera and memories can bring you back to your childhood and then skip ahead to when you’re 80. Some paintings just happen; a painting could take a day and be amazing. But it could also feel like 20 years in the making. In the end, I’m a human. A human has a soul, a mind, a heart and emotions can fight each other.”

Though he comes across a free-spirited thinker, it’s hard to tell from his work. Instead of colours and lines that flow like his thoughts, he is a master of technique, shading, shadows and light. His portraits might have a caricature-like quality, but they undeniably exude both human emotion and action. Whether it’s an elderly man feeding the birds or a beautiful Nubian woman indulging in a slice of watermelon, he manages to capture the essence of Egyptian life without being overt or in-your-face. His characters don’t take walks on the Nile nor do they ride donkeys, nor any of that stereotypical stuff. Yet somehow his subjects are intrinsically Egyptian.  “I am proud that I’m an Egyptian because we have always had humanity. Nowadays they write all these books about psychology and philosophy… but the pharaohs have always done that.”

Among the rest of the artists at Arts-Mart’s Artists of Tomorrow his work definitely stands out, but then again, so does El Zaeem Ahmed himself. A man with no mental or artistic limits, though he is one of the older exhibitors in terms of age, his outlook suits Arts-Mart’s ever-adapting, vibrant and forward-thinking approach more than most; “When it comes to art I like to be adventurous,” he concludes. I don’t want someone to say something like “you are a painter, don’t be a photographer.” Who are you to tell me that? It’s all about thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. Arts-Mart are trying something new that hasn’t been done before in Egypt. I want them to try more new ideas. I like their craziness.”

For more about Arts-Mart and the Artists of Tomorrow, check out their Facebook page here.

Photography by Mahmoud Asfour.