CAIRO—When Ibrahim El-Bridy passed an old woman selling coloured cloth scraps in a market in El Marg district, northeast of Cairo, he never imagined her wares would change his life and career. But within a few years the popularity of the clothwork-on-canvas characters he created from the scraps enabled El-Bridy to win the 2017 State Encouragement Award in Arts.
El-Bridy, who is 58, was born in a small village in the Gharbia Governorate in the Nile Delta, where most of the inhabitants grow jasmine.
He went to Cairo to begin his career as a cartoonist but was not satisfied with the success he achieved in that arena. Then came the chance meeting with the saleswoman in El Marg. Her merchandise was attractively cheap; El-Bridy bought a two-kilogram bag for less than $1. At home, he laid the cloth in front of him. Several hours later, his first patchwork-on-canvas work was born.
El-Bridy created various shapes of cloth scraps on the canvases before colouring them. He presented the first of these works to his cartoonist friends. “Their reception was just amazing,” he told Al-Fanar Media at the launch of his recent “The Grand Night” exhibition at the Nout Art Gallery, in Cairo’s Zamalek district.
The exhibition displays dozens of artworks inspired by the carnival atmosphere of “The Grand Night.” The puppet operetta was first performed in 1961 during the heyday of Egyptian theatre. The poet Salah Jahin wrote the text, Sayed Mekawy composed the music, and Nagy Shaker was the chief designer.
The vivid colours of El-Bridy’s creations immediately recall the joyful operetta.
“The late great cartoonist Mustafa Hussein bought my first artwork, When he asked me to suggest a price for it, I said 15 Egyptian pounds. He laughed and paid a hundred pounds.”Ibrahim El-Bridy
“The for-fun artwork turned into a style and working method,” El-Bridy said. “The late great cartoonist Mustafa Hussein bought my first artwork,” El-Bridy said. “When he asked me to suggest a price for it, I said 15 Egyptian pounds. He laughed and paid a hundred pounds. I was motivated to continue because the materials were so cheap.”
As El-Bridy continued to make his patchwork-on-canvas creations, his friends competed to acquire them. When they asked him what he called his production style, he replied, “elmarg khet,” or “the threads of El Marg.”
From Cartoons to ‘The Grand Night’
El-Bridy remembers the night when his friend Samir Abdul-Ghani, also an artist and cartoonist, asked him to prepare a solo exhibition early in his career.
Gallery: Works by Ibrahim El-Bridy
El-Bridy has held four other exhibitions built on the world of “The Grand Night.”
Sixty years after Nagy Shaker produced the original puppets, he explained, “they have turned into eternal, inspiring popular visual icons for many artists.”
“The village is an essential factor in my formation as an artist who works in a spontaneous manner.”Ibrahim El-Bridy
He added: “Khaled Sorour used their inspiration in an exhibition with the same title, and the Cairo Opera Ballet Company has restaged the show. This indicates the operetta’s deep influence on Egypt’s popular conscience. It is still alive and is being reproduced to this day.”
El-Bridy aspires to arouse joy in the hearts of his audience. “I want those who see my paintings to search for their own images within them,” he said.
El-Bridy’s canvases do not follow mainstream artistic styles but are closer to folk art, though he does not feel comfortable about classifying them as such. Still, “this view makes me happy,” he said, “as the village is an essential factor in my formation as an artist who works in a spontaneous manner.”
He added: “This is not a defect. An innate artist does not follow the crowd or established artistic styles, but goes about his work in absolute freedom, liberated from academic standards and preoccupied with pleasing himself and his audience.”
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El-Bridy has succeeded in building his own artistic style, and hopes to preserve and disseminate it by holding workshops for young artists. Since 2005, about 3,000 university art students have attended his courses.
A selection of additional articles about art and popular culture from Al-Fanar Media’s archives:
- “Egyptian Universities Help Revive Traditional Al-Aragoz Puppetry”
- “Exhibit Offers a New View of Salah Jahin, Egyptian Poet and Artist”
- “Scholars Consider What Popular Culture Means in Egypt Today”
- “Egyptian Illustrator Sahar Abdallah Finds Inspiration in Modern Arab Poets”
- “Art Graduation Projects in Egypt Go On in Pandemic’s Shadow”