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New Egyptian Award For Art and Creativity Is A Flickering Light in a Melting Reality

In honour of Egypt's incredible surreal artist, Riad Saied, his son Karim has teamed up with ARAC Foundation to launch the first annual Riad Saied Awards For Art and Creativity in support of Egyptian surreal artists and for the revival of the lost art in our country.

You know the feeling when you've just woken up, without yet being fully conscious, and you imagine in your mind's eye an amalgamation of dreamy images - maybe a tree blossoming with black balloons, the street melting into your coffee cup, your arms turning from flesh to water, or having very deep conversations with bathroom cockroaches? Do not panic; you’re not mad, and yes, I believe you, you were perfectly sober before you slept. 

Those images you saw in that fraction of a second in your mind are called surreal images. Just like you can derive from the melodious term itself, surrealism refers to the mixing of some factual elements with fantasy. One of the pioneers of surrealism in art is Salvador Dali. For those of us who might not be familiar with the eccentric genius, Dali is the man with the one-of-a-kind thin handlebar moustache pointing upwards. You know, the man who drew melting clocks and blankets with facial expressions spread over a bunch of sticks in a desert. He is also the prolific writer who said that “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Who could have said that but the one and only Dali?

But let’s pause here and try to recall surrealist art around us here in Cairo. Did you find something? Anything? Sadly, the answer is probably a resounding 'no'. Despite being a capital bustling with all forms of life and art – all the way from the little ornamental details in an old building in Garden City to the numerous little galleries in Zamalek, the larger-than-life murals on the walls of The GrEEK Campus in Downtown, and the haunting architecture of the American University in Tagamo’ – you will not (easily) find surreal art in Cairo.

This has not always been the case, though. Artist Mohamed Riad Saied, Egyptian holder of a doctorate in art restoration, was among the most proficient surrealists not only in Egyptian history but modern history overall. His pronounced paintings depict a very rare coexistence of grave themes – such as famine and war – as well as fragments of our subconscious – such as self-imprisonment, yearning, sadness, and fear. The byproducts are staggeringly strange but raw - true reflections of the (agonising) human condition, such as a starving South African boy trapped in a bottle, a clothed fish, a hand holding a watching eye, or a couple of hands extending from a muzzle clutching on the crescent in the sky.

For all the artists reading this, shaking their heads in heartfelt disappointment over the difficulty in continuing what the late Dr. Saeid had started, be prepared for some terrific news. ARAC Foundation, an NGO founded in 2011, will be sponsoring and organising the first Riad Saied Awards For Art and Creativity, which aims at reviving surreal art among Egyptian artists and introducing a new art platform with a full sponsorship from academics, art collectors, as well as art galleries.

To find out a little about this award on behalf of our artistic readers who are probably squirming in their place in anticipation, I chat a little with Karim Riad, son of the late Dr. Saied, and one of the organisers of the award alongside ARAC Foundation.

After chatting a little about his artist father's highly impressive resume, Riad brings to my attention the frequency of mainly three elements in most of Dr. Saeid’s paintings : an apple, a loaf of bread, and bullets. “The apple symbolises Adam’s apple; the loaf of bread, the life of human beings; and the bullets, of course, symbolise wars,” Riad explains. Such elements are characteristic of the artist’s style, including the tackling of ‘heavy’ themes such as war and poverty.

When I ask Riad whether he thinks that surreal artist can be local, he agrees and says that “as you can see from my father’s paintings, Egyptian culture and the Arabic situation are perfectly articulated in his paintings, such as the one that depicted al-Aqsa Mosque, men in traditional Egyptian clothing, and children throwing rocks at settlers”. Riad adds that, even though his father obtained his degree in a Western country (Spain), it has always been important for him to incorporate Egyptian elements in his works.

However, Riad was similarly – if not more – aware of the crisis of an almost surreal-free Cairo. Upon asking him why he thinks this is, he replies that surreal art is not really approached mainly due to lack of teachers specialising in this genre, since surrealism requires greater mental effort and time than other genres. “Sure, you can learn how to paint a street or a pretty flower, but painting in surrealism is very different," Riad elaborates. "You need time to think in order to be able to create such pieces that usually evoke the mind. The themes portrayed will also be intimate to the country and related to it.”

Excited about the launch of the award, Riad does not expect there to be a great number of participants at the beginning, but is sure that the numbers will grow in the future. He explains that the jury will be composed of artists, academics of the field, as well as art collectors who will be choosing the winning participant of the award.

The three-level award is represented by three types of apples (Dr. Saied’s prominent item in his works), where the first prize is the Golden Apple and consists of a three-month full sponsorship of the winning artist, including studio expenses, drawing material, as well as an exhibition of their art following the three-month sponsorship period. The Silver Apple (second prize) consists of 10,000 LE and the Bronze Apple of 5,000 LE. Artists interested can register and find more information about the award through the artist’s website.

Surrealism as a mode of thought and expression, of course, extends to writing and even architecture. Some might shy away from the boldness of the expression or the strangeness – and perhaps even eeriness – of the message of the artwork. Surrealism is the full, unashamed, and unrelenting expression of our humanity. And Cairo, being the heart of so much beauty in all forms of art, needs to catch up. Surreal artists of Cairo unite; a trippy journey is about to begin.

For more about the award, you can visit the website as well as the late artist Dr. Saied’s Instagram account.