Strange, Surreal, Serene: An Eerie Look at One of Egypt’s Most Diverse Digital Artists
23-year-old Mahmoud Soliman uses his fear, anguish and raw human emotion to leave a beautiful scar on history.
I was never that much of an appreciator of the arts; that’s something you’ll see me saying often in these 'artistic spotlights' that I make a living off of. That being said, though my (let’s say limited) scope doesn’t manage to infer the subtleties and nuances of what makes a piece 'good',one thing is certain; straying from the norm, even if it is outwardly repulsive, is almost always akin to a gust of fresh air.
You’ll walk through Egypt’s many galleries and showrooms, art exhibitions and installations, only to find that, for the most part, there’s not much in the way of diversity. Aesthetic is something most artists (as well as regular Joe Schmoes) cater to, too excessively; the human aspect of expression easily gets muddled and lost in the process. This is something that a young man in Alexandria learned after a few long years of terrifying exposure, and out of the mélange of misery, fear and crippling depression he’s been marinated in, Mahmoud Soliman more than deserves a handshake and a how-do-you-do.
”I didn’t start painting or drawing or any of that from a young age; we had an art teacher at school that scared the shit out of us, and you could say that that whole experience left quite the bad taste in my mouth.” Mahmoud was originally a screenwriter and poet to begin with, an avid one at that, and for a time, that gave him enough satisfaction to continue. It wasn’t until a nondescript (by choice) 'major event' in his life took place, turning him away from writing altogether. “I still don’t want to go near writing; it’s something I used to love, but it’s linked to something distressing now, and I’ve distanced myself from it.”
Clinical depression set in and Mahmoud found himself at a loss for activity; idle hands are always the devil’s playground and he couldn’t handle getting looped into his own head’s vicious cycle. “All I had was a laptop with an early version of Photoshop on it and I had no idea what I wanted, how I’d do it or what any of these tools even did. I just googled a bunch of guides ritualistically to get the basics and, after getting decent enough footing, I’d wake up every day with a drive to want to create something on Photoshop.”
"The only scene I remember from a particularly daunting nightmare..."
It wasn’t just about producing something like this or that, something nice or aesthetically pleasing; I wanted it to say something, shock onlookers, or at the very least, leave whoever’s looking at it questioning what the hell they just saw. No edginess intended.
The latter sentiment couldn’t be truer; I’d stumbled upon Mahmoud’s work just scrolling through Facebook and, although it passed me by at first, I scrolled back up to look at what this was. “Social media is terrifying; I’d just produce a random doodle I’d done after however long it took and post it, go to bed, and wake up to between 600 and 1,000 likes and a tonne of comments. It was, and very much still is, daunting as all hell; people genuinely seem to enjoy what I do and you never get used to that kind of feeling.”
A Short Visual Story
The thing about digital design, at least to Mahmoud, is that it isn't constrained by many guidelines or schools of thought; you essentially just scribble and doodle your way to a vision, zooming in on any and every detail you think needs work. What took me a fair distance aback was that he’d do what he did (at first anyway) by just using a mouse; to put this level of difficulty into perspective, imagine trying to perform open heart surgery with a spatula hooked to a fishing rod.
El Naddaha - Done entirely with a PC mouse.
Drawing faces wasn’t an easy task; I had to go to book vendors here in Alexandria to get as many human anatomy books as I could. It was the only way I could properly draw a person in any feasible way.
Some pieces took Mahmoud three or four hours, some less, some more, but after a considerable amount of feedback, he’d spend over 12 hours a day, forgetting to eat, drink, barely remembering to go to the bathroom. “It didn’t feel like work at all; life would pass by and I’d be on Photoshop just having the time of my life."
My first most viral project was just a simple homage to Om Kalthoum; I like her, and I wanted to see what I could do to pay respects. That thing went around the entire country like wildfire; I’d find it on T-shirts, notebooks, even in Khan El-Khalili. It was at that point that I realised (while still terrified of it all) that I was onto something.
Mahmoud's tributes to Om Kalthoum made quite the rounds around the country
Mahmoud wasn’t too keen on getting paid for his art either. “I didn’t want to monetise it, however miserable that decision may have been financially. I’d only ask to get paid if it was a design I’d do strictly for somebody else. A job is a job, but my own pieces? I wasn’t really into the concept of somebody putting a piece I’d made about suicide on a t-shirt.“
The Idiot who Dreams of a Happy World
Eventually, Mahmoud would find himself drawn to the world of writing in a way he hadn’t pondered at all; he got into designing covers for various books and literature by Egypt’s burgeoning young writers. This, however, didn’t come without a number of disheartening hurdles. “I’d gotten in contact with a few publishers, mostly ones for children’s books and colouring books, because I saw it as a challenge for what I had to offer. I’d send them my portfolio to check out, but I’d always get the same response; this is impressive, but this would terrify children. Go figure.”
Various book covers Mahmoud created from 2016 to 2018
There was this sordid reaction I’d hear from folk I’d offer my work to; they’d say that what I had to offer was phenomenal, but then they’d tell me that drawings and artworks like these just don’t sell, regardless of how intricate or beautiful it is. Most just wanted design work, photo manipulation, airbrushing, that kind of thing.
"Never has he harmed or sinned, and yet his days were never light."
When asked about the kind of reception he’d receive in Egypt’s unfortunately stagnant art scene, he didn’t have much in the way of positivity to say. “It’s no surprise that these galleries and exhibitions all over the country, for the most part, are just a business catering to the current zeitgeist. Besides just meeting demand, most of the communities and galleries in the current art scene are a closed circuit; they just cater to each other, instead of trying to present their work to a wider audience. What’s the point of creating anything artistic if it’s just to appease a tight-knit circle of connoisseurs?”
Kimo and his Target
People would take my work on social media and turn it into a meme, and instead of taking offense, I would laugh and go with it, and they’d eventually try to hunt down who made it in the first place. It’s a criminally underappreciated tool.
Can you see me?
Mahmoud is currently a senior at an Alexandria-based agency and for the most part (besides the ennui of existence), he’s doing far better than before. Through social media, self-discovery and a drive to push through the seemingly endless sea of triviality and misery of life, he managed to carve a niche for himself in a world that isn’t too hospitable to the different. “These old men and women with their galleries and exhibitions would lose their minds if they’d just take a look at the kind of insane creativity all over social media. It is a treasure trove for the arts and a platform that more and more people should explore, exploit and appreciate.”
Main image: What the Psyche Hides