Before January 25th, Egypt’s street art basically consisted of random names, hearts, phone numbers, and obscenities, but the revolution not only brought about minor political reforms, it also inspired some of the world’s most expressive graffiti. Artists from all walks of life flocked to Tahrir Square to lend their voices and extraordinary talents to a downtrodden nation and tell people’s stories. Most of those stories were told with spray paint and stencils, but some of them were aptly relayed by Alaa Awad’s paintbrush and acrylic paint.
Once a brilliant art student, Alaa Awad is now an art professor at his alma mater, Luxor’s South Valley University, an Egyptologist, and an artist. It wasn’t until late 2011 and early 2012 that his graffiti gained worldwide recognition for portraying Egypt’s political turmoil following the January 25th popular uprising. His work has been featured in Denmark, Germany, and the US. As a bit of a revolutionary myself, I was a bit surprised when I heard that Awad was painting Bvlgari’s First Mall window display, to be unveiled on the 12th of this month; but, fortunately for me, he had it in him to break it down to me like I was a four-year-old. The artwork being created of the jewellery brand's glass windows is lead by Alaa Awad, with the infusion of some brush strokes by another local artist Mohamed Al Sodany, and the CEO of Bvlgari in Egypt, Ahmed Farid, the entire project curated by Mona Said of SafarKhan Art Gallery. I got to sit down with the primary painter behind the piece to find out more...
How is this different than your street art following the January 25th uprising? Your work back then had all these Pharaonic elements. Also, why did you decide to do something so divergent from your usual work?
What's different here are the subject and the place. I'm doing Bvlgari’s window at First Mall, and the subject is jewellery, so it's a far cry from the revolutionary themes in my previous work on Muhammad Mahmoud Street. I participated in the protests; I wanted to share my feelings with people and I wanted to express our feelings as a nation - it was personal. This piece is not about us as a nation - it’s international. It has been done before by Bvlgari London, so it has to appeal to public taste. But I also integrated Pharaonic elements such as the tree of life, the Lotus flower, and Cleopatra. I'm an artist - I can do other things beside the revolutionary street art, you know. I wanted to do something different. All my work had been about the political turmoil the country has been going through, even my work in Copenhagen and the US was about the revolution.
What would you say your most personal piece has been, or the dearest to your heart?
My work on Muhammad Mahmoud and in Tahrir Square, because I really believed in what I did. I wanted to communicate people’s frustration and convey our great heritage, like Hara'er (which literally translates to free women), which depicts women holding papyrus as an indication of women’s role in society and to promote their rights, and El Na’ehat (the mourners), which portrays the Upper Egyptian traditions of mourning the dead. I might have done more technically advanced work, but these are dearer to my heart.
How has your teaching experience affected your work and vice versa?
I teach in the Department of Mural Painting; graffiti and street art are forms of mural paintings that promote positive self-expression. My work has taught me how to interact with people in general, outside of galleries and universities, and how to communicate with someone who doesn’t have an academic knowledge of art. It helped me both technically and on a human level as to how to communicate, something I could have never achieved in galleries and other artistic circles. It gave me experience, so I was able to better teach and direct students by giving them specific advice based on real life experience.
Who is your favourite artist?
I love all artists but, if I have to play favourites, I would say Amedeo Modigliani. I admire his work a lot.
What art movements influenced you the most? Actually, what schools of thought would you belong to?
Again, I love all forms of art, but Symbolism and Abstract art are my favourite.
Why brushes and acrylic paint? Even your graffiti and street art has been done with paintbrushes and acrylic paint.
Because I’m a painter. I love to paint with brushes and acrylic paint, and to draw with charcoal pencils rather than spray paint and stencils. Brushes and acrylic paint give more lively results; much of it has to do with better technique.
What was the inspiration behind your Bvlgari project?
I love jewellery. To me, it was about beauty and elegance which are staples of human civilization. Jewellery is art, there’s no doubt about it. Ancient Egyptian queens would wear jewellery that later served told women’s stories from that time. Tutankhamun’s mask is entirely made of gold and it is one of the world’s most valuable works of art. When Mr. Ahmad Farid (artist and Egyptian franchisee of Bvlgari) offered me the job, I was very excited because it would be about women, beauty and jewellery which all have their roots in Egyptian heritage and civilization, but it is also about the whole world.
When you’re alone, what inspires you to paint?
It’s my hobby. I have been painting and drawing since I was a kid. I translate my thoughts and dreams and emotions. I could be very happy and paint in my atelier. It’s a hobby that has become a career.
Did you ever consider another career?
I have wanted to paint since I was a child. When I understood the concepts of ambition and career, I thought of other things, but nothing worked out except for me to be a painter and to be very free and do what I want.
How would you like your art to influence Egyptian society?
Painting contributes to society by introducing beauty and art into people’s lives. Art mirrors society’s civilization because art and civilization go hand in hand. We have a great civilization that could really help us avoid disasters and make great art; Ancient Egyptians depicted goddess Maat, the personification of truth and justice, in their murals to convey their aspirations and their reality.
Photoshoot by MO4 Network's MO4 Productions.
Photography by Muhammed Mortada.
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