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Klay Kassem’s Paintings Confront Patriarchy in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’

An exhibition of paintings by the Egyptian artist Klay Kassem, “Tales of Scheherazade”, is his latest to explore classical artwork in a modern style while preserving its underlying philosophy.

The show, at Cairo’s TAM.Gallery until September 25, takes its visitors on a magical visual journey, immerses them in the artist’s research into the world of “One Thousand and One Nights,” and confronts the theme of patriarchy running through the tales.

Kassem started by researching the folktales and in time became obsessed with tracking and tracing them.

“I devoted myself to reading the folktales’ scripts,” he said. “I also listened to the famous episodes written by the late poet Taher Abu Fasha for the Egyptian radio.”

Generations of Egyptians heard the broadcasts, which opened with the words Scheherazade used to start her stories: “I heard, oh wise and happy king, that … .” (See a related article, “In ‘Embargo,’ a Modern-Day Scheherazade Dares to Speak About Harassment.”)

“I devoted myself to reading the folktales’ scripts. I also listened to the famous episodes written by the late poet Taher Abu Fasha for the Egyptian radio.”

Klay Kassem

A photography professor at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Kassem is known for projects that research the history of classical artworks, then re-contemplate and simulate them in modern style.

Inspired by Opera

His previous exhibitions—inspired by two operas, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Verdi’s “Aida”—were remarkable visual experiences.

“My plan was to continue my project with operatic works with the amazing Italian opera “The Elixir of Love” by Donizetti, which I adore very much,” said Kassem.

“However, ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ took me away and made me choose their world to be the focus of my new project.”

Paintings by Klay Kassem in the exhibition “Tales of Scheherazade”
Visitors enjoy paintings in the exhibition “Tales of Scheherazade” at Cairo’s TAM.Gallery.

“I lived with the tales for a whole year, and reached a state of complete identification with them,” he said. “Despite being fascinated with the texts, I noticed their unfair view of women. This opened the door to more contemplations that are reflected in my paintings.”

The inequity faced by women in the world of “One Thousand and One Nights” is reflected in several of the exhibition’s works. In his contemporary treatment, Kassem sought to give his heroines a space for expression that was not available to them in the older tales.

In one painting, girls look out from palace windows, evoking the breeze of freedom in Scheherazade’s tales which saved her from murder at the hands of Shahryar.

In other images, Kassem empowers the princesses and fairy girls by enabling them to lead festive processions, as in “The Return of Princess al-Jawhara” and in a painting that celebrates a “love journey.”

Paintings by Klay Kassem in the exhibition “Tales of Scheherazade”
“Scheherazade,” 2021, by Klay Kassem. The paintings reflect the folk heroine’s “strong intuition and ability to captivate” her oppressor, says Kassem.

Heroic Stories About Love

Kassem thinks the tales have a connection with heroic stories about love. For that reason, they can represent a woman as a witch, a tender lover, an angel with bird wings, a mermaid, a cactus flower, a full moon, a daytime moon, or a rose of sleeves.

The paintings’ themes and motifs are inspired by “the Nights tales’ legends and wild imaginations on land, sea and sky,” says Kassem. Much of the their drama was inspired by the radio episodes of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

He believes that the tales enriched his imagination and entire scenes settled in his mind and came out in free art patterns and brush scratches on the canvas.

Among such themes, Kassem cited the mythical winged birds and marine creatures that communicate with humans, and tales of bold exploration, such as the adventures of Sinbad, the Sailor, echoed in the exhibition.

The imprint of Scheherazade can be traced from one work to another within the tales she related to the king, a concept developed in the paintings.

Dream-Like Flashes

“My task is not to convey the stories as they are, but rather to edit their vocabulary in a contemporary way to take on a new narrative dimension,” Kassem said.

The paintings seem closer to dream-like flashes. However, the artist intensified his expression of the ambiguous fairy tales through his abstract style. He also confronts the stereotypical portrayal of Scheherazade and her heroes by liberating them in a remarkable theater-like scenery while keeping them with blurred features and masked faces.

The paintings depict the love by which Scheherazade captured Shahryar’s heart, thanks to her “strong intuition and ability to captivate him with tales,” says Kassem.

Viewers cannot miss the motifs from ancient Egypt, notably the Ankh or the key of life, besides the free-floating water hyacinth on the Nile.

“The presence of Egyptian symbols is authentic and extends throughout my art project,” said Kassem.

“In these ancient symbols, I find overwhelming visual and philosophical dimensions that move from one experience to another,” he added. “My lengthy Ph.D. dissertation in 2012 was on The Impact of Ancient Egyptian Art on Contemporary Art in Egypt and Abroad.”

“My task is not to convey the stories as they are, but rather to edit their vocabulary in a contemporary way to take on a new narrative dimension.”

Klay Kassem  

Besides the visual vocabulary, colors give the works vitality that pervades the tales. The colors range from solid dirt shades to brighter hues, in harmony with the paintings’ themes.

“The details of the tales drive my colors. I did not pre-determine a palette or color choices, I let the colors accumulate as stories and layers accumulate in a literary text,” Kassem said.

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While not usually in favor of decorations, Kassem made abundant use of them in this exhibition, imitating the spirit of the One Thousand and One Nights.

“I added oriental motifs to the details of some paintings,” he said. “While preparing for my works, I had a look at the images and legendary ‘miniatures’ in the Persian epic Shahnameh in order to embrace that vast world’s spirit.”


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