While it would be hard to limit Hany Rashed’s diverse career to a few walls, the selection of paintings displayed on the walls of his new exhibition show the evolution of his skill and style as time challenged and changed both him and the world in which he resides.
Hany Rashed is not a typical artist. Blonde curls frame his bony face and his eyes nearly jump out of their sockets in excitement as he holds a paintbrush as if it were an extension to his long fingers. Full of life, the artist changes and evolves over time, recording his changing perceptions of reality in colour. And the result is two decades of raw, dynamic, and candid art. He has a personal relationship with his art; it gives him life.
Rashed’s assortment of art, Salata, shows range and progress. The body of work is a retrospective topped off by his most recent revolution-related works. Working like a carefree, creative chef, making art throughout the years has yielded a timeline of artwork resembling a bowl of salad – spontaneous, diverse and colourful.
Hany Rashed’s art deals with the essence of people. He tries to explore what it really means to be human and creates colourful pieces that resemble parts of a puzzle.
His career kicks off with an abstract phase, followed by an experimental period where he starts to grasp the fundamentals of art. The artist has painted Egyptians and Europeans, models and policemen, and his artwork somehow breaks barriers between these different worlds. He mastered collage and currently enjoys working with monoprints. The only constant throughout Rashed’s career has been ‘change’.
His most recent monoprints capture the essence and motion of a people’s uprising. In his unorthodox style, he produces typical snapshots from the protests in a refreshingly unique manner. Using a multicoloured palette, Rashed’s monoprints evoke nostalgia – how appropriate for the upcoming anniversary of the January 25 Revolution.
Protesting and painting his way through 2011, consumed with hope at times and frustration at others, Rashed has witnessed his country change. Now it is a time to reflect on his revolutionary year, and his evolutionary career.
At work, Rashed is focused and animated, attacking his own paintings with deliberation and spontaneity. He holds the brush with confidence, pauses in the middle, takes a good long glance at his progress, then pounces. Rashed believes rationale is disruptive to the creative process and that colour supersedes thought.
Five years before Egypt’s revolution broke out on Police Day in reaction to flagrant brutality and corruption, Hany Rashed, at the prime of his career, painted a policeman with his back turned. Part of a solo show at Mashrabia art gallery in downtown Cairo, the painting appeared in newspapers and on exhibition invitations.
Soon after, Rashed was called in for an informal questioning session over coffee with state security officers. He was bombarded with questions. An officer asked him whether the artwork was infected with symbolism, implying that policemen had turned their backs on the people.
Rashed remembers a piece of advice the state security officer gave him: "He told me to 'stick to painting belly dancers and pretty ladies'.”
Scared into submission, the artist, alongside many of his contemporaries who were similarly registered in the state security’s phonebook, strayed away from expressing political messages camouflaged as art.
Rashed travelled through Europe and painted, focusing on Sweden’s nature and Italy’s cultural dynamics. “I felt trapped because I couldn’t paint my own society. I was an Eastern man trying to illustrate the Western world,” he remembers.
He used white paint to cover the faces of westerners in his collages. He could not relate to their identity. On January 25, Rashed shed his fears on home soil and risked his life to express himself. He has chanted in Tahrir Square since the onset of the revolution. He wanted freedom and would no longer compromise on his right to express himself.
And since January, Tahrir Square has emerged as a scene for thwarted artists and a cultural hub. But as the revolution veered right and left over the following months, Egyptian art struggled to stand on firm ground.
For most of 2011, Rashed was paralysed, this time not by fear, but by a surge of inconsistent freedoms in his country. And as the political landscape shifts, it has been hard to keep-up, let alone express his opinions through art.
As the sun sheds light on his face, he tells his story. “My story with art is a strange one,” he begins.
Rashed suffered a tragic experience in his late teens when his baby sister lost her life in his arms. After a series of melancholic months, his father forced him to work at Maspero, the state TV building, as an electrician. He was always backstage meeting an eclectic crowd of people, which proved very inspiring for him.
He picked up a pen in his free time, making doodles that his colleagues admired. He called them “mere scribbles” but his co-workers soon decided he was an “artist.”
One day, a photographer working with Rashed broke into his secret drawer and showed his work to Mohamed Abla, a painter known for supporting budding artists. Abla fell in love with Rashed’s work and called his home to invite him to his studio in Hussein, the old Islamic district of Cairo, where he would help nurture his talent.
“I remember the smell of paint, the arches on the walls,” he remembers, his arms drawing arches in the air. Ever since, he has been captivated by art.
But in 2011, two decades later, after a meandering career and revolutionary events, Rashed was at a loss for what to express through his art.
With the ouster of a dictatorship, artists believed they’d found themselves in possession of unprecedented freedom, and some of them felt overwhelmed.
Rashed admits that despite the surge of freedom, artists remain at a loss at exactly how to use it. At first the unprecedented liberty seemed enthralling, but the following months unveiled new obstacles.
Nevertheless, it was in the first days and weeks after the revolution that most of the artwork was emerging freely from the square, though understandably it was also very literal. “Art documented the revolution, it celebrated it, but there was no message,” Rashed remarks.
The message behind Salata seems to be revolution, but also evolution. As an artist, Rashed has changed over the years, and in 2011 he perhaps changed more than ever. Art is a dynamic force, working to change its surroundings while being unavoidably affected by the context in which it appears. Rashed is still changing, in the mess of colour and the mess of politics, and his artwork is likely to keep evolving.