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‘What’s Left Unsaid’: Evelyn Ashamallah Captures Magical Memories in Art

The Egyptian artist Evelyn Ashamallah tells her visual stories through parallel colour narratives in the paintings of her new exhibition, titled “What’s Left Unsaid”.

The exhibition, which will run until December 7 at the Access Art Space in downtown Cairo, presents 40 paintings summarizing Ashamallah’s long artistic journey.

Memories of the simpler life of her childhood have a strong presence in Ashamallah’s work. The artist, who is 73, was born in Desouk, in northern Egypt, in 1948.

“I lived in Desouk, the most prominent city in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate, in Egypt’s Delta, where the Nile River is greatly wide,” she said. “I was always close to the Nile and green fields. This impresses my imagination with unforgettable festive scenes, both popular and religious.”

From Journalism to Art

Ashamallah studied photography at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and graduated in 1973.

She then began a career in journalism, writing for Rose El-Youssef magazine while practicing her art and participating in group and solo exhibitions. Later, she quit journalism, feeling satisfied with her paintbrush alone. Between 2000 and 2002, she served as director of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art before she resigned and devoted herself, once again, to art alone.

“The paintings culminate a stage … in which I moved from magical figures to weaving letters into them, giving my stories the form of painted letters to write a summary of my own philosophy and legacy.”

Evelyn Ashamallah

Ashamallah belongs to what is known as the 1970s generation in Egypt, which was prompted by the defeat in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 to adopt a different trend from the realistic art that dominated Egyptian visual art in the 1960s.

She and others of her generation followed in the footsteps of artists like Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar (1925-1966) and Hamed Nada (1924-1990), who produced folk fantasy paintings with an Egyptian-styled surrealist touch. (See a related article, “A ‘Horizon of Infinity’: The Promise of Arab Abstract Art.”)

On her latest exhibition, Ashamallah told Al-Fanar Media: “The paintings culminate a stage began in 2015 and continued until 2020, in which I moved from magical figures to weaving letters into them, giving my stories the form of painted letters to write a summary of my own philosophy and legacy.”

However, Ashamallah does not categorize her art as part of the Hurufiyya movement, which uses elements of traditional Islamic calligraphy within the context of modern art. “I am keen to paint freely without committing to a style and to paint spontaneously with the aim of introspection of the self,” she said.

Scenes from Childhood

Ashamallah does not separate her current exhibition’s works from a previous series of paintings titled “Desouk Icons”. In those works, she drew about childhood memories, highlighting the names of the children with whom she shared her early joy. However, the influence of Hurufiyya is less prominent in them, giving more space to the power of imagination and elements of exotic worlds.

Gallery: Images from ‘What’s Left Unsaid’

Ashamallah begins a painting without a plan. “I do not have a clear conception or a preliminary layout. I rather work in complete freedom to present a style of parallel visual narratives highlighting my obsessions,” she said. “I have a lot of stories to tell in the paintings that always contain magical beings that imposed themselves on the work.”

With perseverance and deliberateness, she continues her art, affirming the privacy of her worlds. “I work quietly so as to achieve what I want in my work,” she said. “I usually start when a small spark ignites my imagination in a new moment.”

Ashamallah acknowledges her gratitude to the folk traditions she remembers from growing up in Desouk. Her memory “still holds “many stories that deserve to be told,” she said.

She explained: “The simple Egyptians produced common rituals in which it is difficult to consider the difference in religions. The religious Mawlid celebrations [of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday] and Sham El-Nessim celebrations [an old Egyptian spring festival] were an occasion to display all the exotic, now unbelievable, elements.”

“The simple Egyptians produced common rituals in which it is difficult to consider the difference in religions.”

Evelyn Ashamallah

In all her paintings, the artist uses symbols of these festive scenes in a realistic, unsuperficial personification.

A Career with Many Honours

Other life experiences also influence Ashamallah’s work.

The many highlights of her career include participation in local and international exhibitions, several state appointments, and a grant from Egypt’s Ministry of Culture in 1994 to visit museums in Rome. She has also won several international awards, including the first prize in the 1992 competition of Germany’s International Faust Society for her representation of the Homunculus, a small, flame-like human being created by a character in Goethe’s “Faust”.

“I am still rich inside,” she said. “I can still produce more in the hope of expressing all my visual reserves.”

Visitors to Ashamallah’s “What’s Left Unsaid” exhibition feel the strong presence of explicit shades of yellow, green, and blue.

“Egypt enjoys bright sunshine most of the year. So, it is natural that my colours come so bright,” she explained. “I always start my work with the colours I know in a natural response to my memory.”

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The common themes that inspire Ashamallah’s work are more than mere repetition, she says. “It is important to highlight the uniqueness of your work. This uniqueness is not repetition,” she said. “I paint for my own mood; it is my space for joy I seek to involve others in.”

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