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Portraits of Cairo's young street artists

Lined along the gallery walls are bold, vibrant portraits by various artists not confined by convention. Noses are variably represented as triangles, rectangles, lines, ‘u’s, dots, and 7s. Mouths, of any color you please, reveal a wide range of emotions. Some images evoke the styles of prominent artists, like Chagall’s floating bodies, and Picasso’s misogynistic …


Lined along the gallery walls are bold, vibrant portraits by various artists not confined by convention.

Noses are variably represented as triangles, rectangles, lines, ‘u’s, dots, and 7s.

Mouths, of any color you please, reveal a wide range of emotions. Some images evoke the styles of prominent artists, like Chagall’s floating bodies, and Picasso’s misogynistic distortions.

Of course, the similarities are most likely entirely coincidental as the artists of this exhibit showing at the Townhouse Gallery are children aged eight to 14 who live on the street.

Artist and American University in Cairo professor Huda Lutfi organized and ran the art project for two years out of the Giza drop-in center, the Egyptian Association for Societal Safety.

“It was an amazing thing to watch, Lutfi says of the weekly, six-hour-long art sessions.

After the Ministry of Social Affairs shut down the center five years ago, these paintings were all that remained, and the resulting exhibit is entitled “On the Street, despite the fact that none of the pictures seem to actually depict street fare.

In fact, the characters in the portraits, who are either of the children or friends and family, do not appear to be anywhere really, except for languishing in front of a sea of red behind many of them.

“The colors were so vivid and alive because of their energy, explains Lutfi.

One head of orange hair is inexplicably upright, as if a fire sits atop the poor child’s head.

Others are better taken care of, sporting elaborate patterned coats, hats and jewelry. One woman’s body inexplicably angles off to the side.

Lutfi also mentions the use of sexually explicit features in some of the works. Male and female organs are painted brazenly in distinctive colors, especially startling as the depictions are all quite simple; simpler than the children’s actual ages and experiences.

“These children are often exposed to sexual situations on the street, explains Lutfi.

But it was crucially important to her that the children paint something which reflected their life experiences, and which they felt strongly about. “The emotional aspect is extremely important. She says children tend to draw the pyramids or other iconic images which they are detached from.

She feels the “stunning results exude through the paintings. “It’s very fresh .The color choices are fantastic. You can feel the emotion coming out of them.

Lutfi’s role in the sessions was to teach the children the process of painting, such as color theory, painting technique, and basic instruction on how to use paint not smudge the final product.

She also sought to nurture a sense of enthusiasm in the children.

Lutfi also critiqued their works, suggesting areas which needed their attention.

Despite the closure of the center, Lutfi is proud of what the children gained from the experience: “They acquired self-confidence . skills, and experienced the great pleasure of painting.

She also says it was significant that their works were recognized and “admired greatly in two previous exhibits in addition to this latest one.

Publisher Sherif Boraie has compiled a book of the children’s scanned artworks, including still-lifes and other works, available for sale at the exhibit.

“On the Street will be showing at the Townhouse in conjunction with a photography exhibition on street children until April 29.

Proceeds from the exhibition and book will be donated to an Art Fund for street children.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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