Ahead of his participation in Arts-Mart's Artists of Tomorrow exhibition, we sit down with one of the most prolific young artists on the scene today to talk street culture and the infamous Haram area...
Polite, soft-spoken and perfectly punctual, we meet Mohamed El Sharkawi as he joins the Arts-Mart team at their vast warehouse to curate the final selection of works ready to be displayed at their upcoming Artists of Tomorrow exhibition. He’s skipped a few hours from work – his day job is just as artistic and highly skilled as his canvases, as he works with a contracting company that restores and maintains heritage sites – though there’s no sense of urgency. Instead he exudes a calm aura, a direct contrast from his work which conveys complexity through colour and noise through texture and technique. Scenes of street weddings, hantoors, tannoura spinners and ahwas make his intrinsically Egyptian. We hazard a guess that he lives in one of Egypt’s notoriously over-populated areas, where the street is the extension of the home and Egyptian culture, in all its gaudy excess comes to life beneath balconies and on corners. “How did you know I lived in Haram?” he asks with a laugh. “Because you capture it perfectly,” we reply.
The Giza native has had some of the best success the emerging art scene in Egypt has seen in a while. Since graduating in 2002, he’s participated in countless exhibitions, both locally and abroad. But his talent had always been evident, even as a child. “My family are big art fans and one of very few families I knew of growing up that hung paintings on their walls,” he reminisces. This acceptance of art over what Egyptians tend to think of as ‘practical’ or ‘respected’ skills and trades certainly encouraged El Sharkawy to explore his own artistic side. However, unlike the traditional stereotype of an artist, El Sharkawy seems to pride himself of planning and organisation. While others will stand aimlessly in front of a canvas until inspiration strikes and sucks them in, this increasingly popular artist has well-thought out ideas and preparation rituals before reaching for the brush. “I like to organise my thoughts and ideas – when I improvise, I usually mess up! I have to sketch out the scene first to be able to place all the details on the real thing. And as you can see my work has a lot of details,” he explains. “Life in Egypt is messy and confused, our houses are really close to one other, our streets are crowded... I like this hustle and bustle. I like the details of our life, so I like to put them in my work. I love that when someone looks at one of my paintings, they get lost in these details.”
With the collection curated for the Artists of Tomorrow exhibition there is a clear focus on the festivities that never seem to end in Egypt, namely the infamous shaabi weddings. However, there is the odd moment of calm in a few of the pieces. “I might have a few paintings of the Nile and the rural life of Upper Egypt because, of course, the nature there is beautiful. However, I think in this exhibition you can see the how I’m affected by my environment… the busy streets and motorcycle gangs. I think it’s great when there are like 50 scooters, and they have the newlyweds one too! A few of my pieces feature these young bikers and I think the scream Cairo at night.” Indeed, the professional artist lives by night. “Since I work during the day, I only have free time during the night. I go home, eat, then sleep. Then I wake up again to paint, while I listen to classic Egyptian music. I like listening to the music on the radio; not knowing what’s next is great. The ups and downs affect my work,” he explains.
“People could see my paintings and think it’s all a bit childish and not too professional but I like that style. I like it simple. The more modern and abstract paintings aren’t my thing,” continues the visual storyteller. “The pioneers like Injy Aflatoun, Taheya Halim, Abdelhady El Gazzar have really influenced me.” With scores of his pieces already adorning the walls of art lovers both home and abroad, we imagine it won’t be long until his name is up there with the big shots too.
For more about Arts-Mart and the upcoming exhibition, check out their Facebook page here.
Photography by Mahmoud Asfour.