A solo exhibition by painter Mai Refky is currently on view in one of the small galleries at the impressive Gezira Art Center in Zamalek. Refky’s work is showcased alongside a host of other artists, including Walid Aouni, the director of Cairo’s National Modern Dance Company, contributing with a set of abstract visual works.
Ten paintings by Refky form a series entitled “Portraits of Thought, providing pensive portrayals of people doing just that: thinking. The works themselves, however, are lively and robust. The execution is on a wordless, and – forgive the expression – “heart-centered level.
Full in character, Refky’s portraits overwhelmingly materialize in the color red. From orange to maroon hues, the painter’s subjects are strongly doused in the color that most immediately contradicts the downcast eyes and mood of her contemplative subjects. And yet it works.
The portraits on display are large. The small room containing them threatens to do them a disservice, with paintings up to 180 by 120 cm hung closely together, dueling for space under low ceilings. The predominant color and proximity of the pieces bears the danger of pulling the works indistinguishably into one another, a mass of red and similarly positioned models. Despite the dangers, the overwhelming atmosphere in the space is peaceful, the paintings are as reflective as their subjects.
Within the context of this short review, it would be too much to spring into a discussion about the “death of painting in the West. It would also be too much to open a diatribe about Egyptian contemporary arts practices and the place of painting within it. However, with those two points in mind, this reviewer can attest that Refky not only does the medium of painting a service in her endeavors, but, with time and further development, could one day earn a place within the legacy of the best Egyptian painters of the 21st century.
The paintings can be examined on different levels. The first and previously noted is Refky’s navigation of primary colors, which she manages to undertake subtly. The second is what appears to be a still evolving exploration of form. For the most part, the paintings are grounded in art class model drawing, yet with significant embellishment.
The artist’s studies of Islamic art and architecture comes through, most notably, in two pieces called “Confusion and “Chaos, where the subjects are surrounded by mosaic patterns and Islamic flower motifs.
Those paintings in which the artist does not provide this ornamentation seem a bit bland in comparison. A pair of untitled works, hung cleverly in unison, depict what appears to be the same man, the pieces nearly mirror images of the other. Behind both there is a short wall of stripes; one might deduce it is the fabric of a sofa. His face is not detailed; he is portrayed in a dark, muted red. Though pleasantly modest and simple, the underwhelming works silently attest to the fact that Refky’s subjects are at their best when doused in blood orange or otherwise exploited, and given the attention of whimsical touches.
“Graffiti, the only other titled work in the series, is a case in point. A man, who could be the same man of the other series, is physically outlined in the linear sketch strokes that mark the series. Yet he is distinct for several reasons: The painting is bathed in a simple flowered background with occasional elaboration of the blossoms that line his perimeter. This serene backdrop is then fiercely contrasted by strong abstract brushstrokes radiating from his center, creating a tangible tension around the man, deep in thought. What comes most strongly into focus after these aspects are the turquoise patches that line his arms, like so many of Cairo’s buildings in moments of colorful decay.
Without these embellishments the work might be lost. However, even in the most simple of Refky’s paintings, something immediate and authentic comes through in the faces of the models. It is not easy to dismiss portraits this intimate, most notable in Refky’s female subjects. However ordinary their form is, the artistry of the painter imbues each with that quality that training alone cannot bestow: A tangible humanity.
A price list for the work hangs on the wall of the small gallery, reminding the viewers that art is not always for art’s sake. Whether the destination of these pieces is a gallery collection or someone’s living room, the artist appears to be on the right track toward the former in her titled works.
When the details of the environment overwhelm her subjects, pieced together from an Egyptian context, the faces represented become more vivid. The more steps this artist can take towards filling out the lines of the sketches, she can support what is already her clear and demonstrated ability to exalt human form and feeling.
Gezira Art Center, 1 El-Sheikh Al -Marsafi St. Daily from 10 am to 2 pm and from 5:30 pm to 9 pm, except Fridays. Tel: 2737 3298.