CAIRO: I splashed some colors from a tumbler. Smeared the drab world with emotion. I charted on a dish of jelly the jutting cheekbones of the ocean.
“In the beginning of my life, I have read these versus, written by an unknown English poet, when the impact of war influenced the English artists, says Hassan Seliman of his favorite poem. “During more than 50 years, I have been fascinated by it. I never asked myself what it means (but I believe) it is an outcry in a gloomy, dim night, shouted by a lonely man, and its meaning and music reawake in me the will to struggle and toil.
As one of Egypt’s most celebrated artists, Seliman, who was born in Egypt in 1928, is more interested in the emotions art evokes, rather than the meaning behind it. For him, the aim of an artist must be to make the public feel what he feels.
Having grown up in turbulent times, living through the 6th of October war and the oppression of the Nasser era, Seliman was deeply influenced by his surroundings, people, and the conditions and events the Arab world faced during his time. He certainly has a colorful history, laced with an undercurrent of loneliness and solitude, as is felt in his latest exhibition of flowers, fruits, pots, jugs and kettle still-lifes at the Opera House.
While masterful in their composition, the various shades of black and gray pastels of his still-lifes, seem to be the impressions of a man that has been alone in his thoughts for a long time. The gloomy pictures are perversely cheerful in the way that they do not hide the loneliness that is sometimes comforting, a state that most can attest to and can remember with brilliance.
“We must stop hiding ourselves behind false works and false meanings, he says. “As lonely as I am, and as lonely as the English poet was, we find ourselves forced through darkness.
Seliman was strongly influenced by his family, who left a recognizable print on his life and his work. His uncle, Ahmed Fakhri, the famous archeologist, bestowed upon Seliman the passion for art and culture. His father was also interested in Islamic art and it is from him that Seliman was able to grasp the characteristics and esthetic values of such art.
Having grown up in Taha Seoufi, a district that was mostly inhabited by foreigners, Seliman was granted fluency in several languages and was raised with an appreciation of cultural divides.
Prior to enrolling in the Fine Art University, a painting department in Cairo University where he graduated in 1951, Seliman wanted to become a writer.
While he chose to pursue his artistic career, to the gratitude of the Egyptian art world, Seliman still managed to pursue his other passions.
In 1977, he established the Gallery Magazine to publish the works of young poets, writers and artists. He also taught in the architecture department in the University of Blasimburg in Virginia, United States, and taught in the cinema institute at the Barbra Academy in Milan in 1966.
In the fifties and sixties, Seliman designed some of the costumes, light and décor of plays that were shown in the national theater.
And in between that, he still managed to find time to obtain his PhD in psychology, and wrote six books, three of which were on the psychology of line, movement, and texture.
While Seliman’s life work is without a doubt that of a true professional, some of his critics have accused him of being too commercial, stating that he has succumbed to the commercialism of the times, spurting out works that are aesthetically pleasing but without the deep, vividness that was once his claim to fame.
“On the contrary, says Nihal Wahby, the organizer of his latest exhibition and one of his pupils. “Each of his pieces has its own personality. Nihal was quick to point out that Seliman is a dedicated artist who can spend up to a month working and reworking one piece. In fact, according to her, he spent this last year touching up the pieces now displayed at his latest exhibition.
“He spent this whole year making adjustments to his pieces, without creating a single picture this whole last year, she says.
According to Nihal, Seliman wants a younger generation to own some of his work, as he appreciates the idea of an educated youth placing their life savings to own some of his work. To soften the financial difficulty in purchasing his pieces, Seliman has opted to use pastels as the medium of choice in his current exhibition, as pastel works cost considerably less than oils, as most art connoisseurs know.
We can hope that all artists are as commercial.
Hassan Seliman’s latest exhibition begins today at the Hanager Art Gallery in the Opera House and will be showing until March 14, 2006.