With her “Landmarks of Estrangement” exhibition, the Iraqi artist Afifa Aleiby has finally realized her lifelong dream to display her paintings in Egypt.
The exhibition, which will run until the end of this month, opened on November 7 at the Picasso Art Gallery in Cairo’s Zamalek district. It displays 30 paintings chosen by Aleiby to summarize her long and diverse artistic career.
Afifa Aleiby was born in Basra in southern Iraq in 1953 and started her art studies at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts. She later moved to the Soviet Union to study monumental art in Moscow. After ten years in Russia, Aleiby moved to Italy to continue her studies. She also worked in Yemen before settling in the Netherlands.
Aleiby has participated in art exhibitions around the world. The United Nations acquired one of her paintings, donated by Dutch feminist organizations.
“Since my beginnings, my dream has been to present my works in Cairo,” Aleiby told Al-Fanar Media. “Finally, the dream came true.”
She added: “The exhibition represents a great song of joy, as this is my first visit to Egypt. I was deeply touched by the people’s hospitality, and artists’ interest in my work and eagerness to attend the gallery.”
“The most notable influence in her career came from her stay in Italy after she left Moscow. We see the modern Italian school touch on Aleiby’s works, especially in her still life works.”Bassem Tawfik
A Paris-based Egyptian critic
Afifa Aleiby’s Landmarks
With a notable dramatic glimpse, the exhibited paintings seem like successive narratives, depicting women in many situations, with a clear emphasis on the movement of their limbs. A monumental style dominates Aleiby’s works, reflecting the influence of her training in Moscow, besides an emphasis on playing with mass, lines, and light source.
Her art defies simple categorization, however. A mural at the entrance to the exhibition hall highlights her many artistic landmarks.
“Aleiby’s intellectual and cultural diversity is one of the dilemmas we face to classify her creativeness,” said Bassem Tawfik, a Paris-based Egyptian critic. “We cannot definitely attribute her to a particular art school or current.”
In the gallery’s brochure, Tawfik wrote: “In terms of the measurements of Aleiby’s works, they are aptly Soviet, distinguished by the structural solidity of the monuments and statues glorified in that era, with the bodies fluctuating between strength and fullness. The arms sometimes get fatter than European standards.”
However, Tawfik asserts that while this Russian influence left its mark on Aleiby, it did not consume her imagination. “The most notable influence in her career came from her stay in Italy after she left Moscow,” he added. “We see the modern Italian school touch on Aleiby’s works, especially in her still life works.”
Paintings by Afifa Aleiby
In turn, Aleiby admits that all her life’s stations had an impact on her creative output. “I don’t put my work in a certain category,” she said. “I work on topics that interest me personally, and try to express them in my own way.”
Aleiby says the monumental style influences her work in terms of scale, feelings, and masses’ solidity. For the Cairo exhibition, however, “I worked on relatively small and medium-sized works, to ensure easy shipment and transportation.”
Religion and the Surreal
Emad Abou Zaid, head of the department of criticism and art appreciation at Helwan University’s Faculty of Art Education, believes that Aleiby’s paintings carry a simplistic touch that takes them to a surreal horizon.
“That surreal feature is confirmed in this exhibition’s paintings,” said Abou Zaid. “A feminine touch dominates all the paintings, confirmed by an insisting presence of soft limbs and fingers, in most of them, to the extent that they, along with closed eyes, might be the works’ most prominent feature.”
“A feminine touch dominates all the paintings, confirmed by an insisting presence of soft limbs and fingers, in most of them, to the extent that they, along with closed eyes, might be the works’ most prominent feature.”Emad Abou Zaid
A professor at Helwan University’s Faculty of Art Education
On the other hand, Yara Hatem, a teaching assistant in the mural painting department at Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, notes the influence of Renaissance religious art on Aleiby.
“Aleiby’s works pay special attention to the stances of the human element within each painting in general, the movements of the limbs in particular, influenced by the iconographic art,” she said. “This is notable in offering poses expressing an analogy with the icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.”
In her works, Aleiby focuses on the design elements, making the backgrounds almost abstract and flat.
Abou Zaid explains that her still-life paintings are unconventionally drawn from a bird-eye view to highlight the artist’s craftsmanship, and high technical skills by highlighting the decorative elements and design’s aesthetics.
Hatem also thinks that the light quietly enters the frame of Aleiby’s paintings, as if passing through clouds that reduce its intensity. “She even resorts to using moonlight in some paintings,” she added.
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On the color space, Bassem Tawfik, the art critic, thinks that Aleiby uses a contrast of green and yellow shades, and sometimes approaches, with this chromatic technique, the Fauvist school, but with greater intensity. “This energy of color adds joy to the works and resists the bleak atmosphere that dominates the work’s themes,” he said.