Architecture is the art that people live in. They see it everyday. So if you live in a beautiful city, it affects your manners, style and attitude. Farghali Abdel Hafiz, a seasoned modern Egyptian artist, has lately been working on a series of exhibits in which he tries to show the relationships of love, passion and art between himself and certain cities.
He started with Venice, moved on to Aswan, and last year he presented a series of astoundingly sensitive and nostalgic works on Cairo. This month he pays homage to Florence, a city that he first visited back in 1964, and which, since then, has become a living, breathing creature in his imagination.
The most conspicuous feature of Abdel Hafiz's city series is the successful use of several media. With oils, crayons, watercolors and acrylics, he creates exquisite, multi-layered works. The works that grab your attention in this exhibit are two huge canvases placed on two adjacent walls. The first initially gives the impression of a beautiful, bustling city. Using pastel crayons on top of the painted background, Abdel Hafiz adds in architectural details.
Every window and every line is accounted for. But these lines are not rigid; they are soft and malleable, as if they were breathing. The third layer of this work presents three human figures. On the left is a huge female figure blown out of proportion.
She seems like some ancient vestige from the past, dressed in Roman attire. On the right, another woman takes over the scene. She is swathed in a gauzy fabric and is holding a flower. Is she love, is she beauty, is she art? Maybe. In the middle, a third element is imposed over the painting. It is the image of a couple walking arm-in-arm. Executed in red and blue, the two people look like elegant fashion models judging from the stylized way they seem to be moving.
In this work, Abdel Hafiz tries to assemble all the elements that make Florence special to him, whether it is history, beauty or modernity. He recalls his first impressions of the city upon stepping off the train: "I paused and examined her profile and her features. She stood proud of her historic background and dignified beauty. I shared such pride, since I hail from a land steeped in history and civilization. It was a friendly encounter full of emotions teeming with waves and vibrations that stem from the depth of history."
To him, Florence soon becomes a woman to be wooed and loved. And in the adjacent canvas, he tries to put a shape to this woman. The canvas is transformed into a map of the city with a rich earth-colored background on which buildings and streets are drawn in thick yellow brushstrokes. Superimposed on a large section of the work is a voluptuous woman dressed in fashionable modern clothes. Although she is blond, her profile portrays an Ancient Egyptian face similar to those beauties engraved in our 5,000-year-old temples.
The smaller works are also fascinating because of the spontaneity and intensity of feelings divulged through the vibrant, powerful lines. And in these works, you also begin noticing some Florentine landmarks. Here the artist makes interesting use of white, which becomes more than just a color.
Abdel Hafiz utilizes a thick, dry brush to lay on the white, and then adds lines of blue and black on top of it. The result is new and fresh. Through his loving eyes we see lovers, we see joy, we see art in progress, and in every single painting, the elegant architecture of Florence is there. Sometimes it encircles the work, as if it is embracing anyone who reciprocates her love.
Scattered throughout the works are the sweet horse-drawn carriages Florence is known for. One of the most romantic of these is a drawing of a park in which the artist reveals the beauty of black wrought-iron designs. The curves and lines intimate movement and in the center he paints three pink roses. The juxtaposition is simply breathtaking.
Abdel Hafiz portrays the classic sculptures of Florence in a way that makes you forget these figures are statues, not the people of Florence. "Sounds emanating from its profound history and chants of its artistic glory found their way to my ears," the artist says. "I heard dialogues by Michelangelo and Da Vinci."
For Abdel Hafiz, "Florence is part of the spiritual energy that feeds my mind." After seeing the exhibit, his comment seems to crystallize.