Sunday, 19 July 2009

Reem Hassan | Egypt

I would like to present a series of female artists from North Africa:

Firstly, here is an artist from Alexandria, Egypt:

Artist | Reem Hassan

“Reem Hassan: Tormented Soul Waiting for Resurrection” by Nora Amin

Though calm on the surface, Reem Hassan is one of the most restless artists of her generation. A lecturer at the faculty of fine arts in Alexandria, wife to artist Moataz Elsafty and mother of the fantastic child Ahmad, Reem is anything but traditional. She is one of the youngest scholars to have obtained a PhD degree in her branch (the title of her PhD thesis is “The influence of philosophy in shaping the contemporary visual arts”), one of very few artists in Alexandria to decide to create an NGO for arts and the dialogue of cultures, “Dwayer”, and a tireless initiator of new artistic projects in her native city.

Graduated in 1994, in the faculty of fine arts, university of Alexandria, Reem Hassan is a painter, drawer, video and installation artist, and more recently a performance artist. Her works inspire a kind of vigor that we so desperately lack in our daily life and in many contemporary art works. Reem’s paintings created between the years 2002 and 2006, are highly dramatic: the color and the shapes are playing so vividly to leave the eyes with such a dramatic feeling that never leaves them. I always felt many of her paintings would make fantastic posters for theatre productions, actually two of them were posters for my last theatre productions: “I didn’t get out of my night” and “Cat Dying”.

When I look to the scope of her works over the years, I can see a wide variety that intrinsically relates to her own personal itinerary, both as a woman and as a cultural activist. The body of her work shows an incomparable intensity and abundance, exactly like the range of her activities and achievements. In less than ten years, she participated in more than eleven collective exhibitions, among which exhibitions held in Tunisia, Bulgaria, Argentine, Jordan, Austria and Italy. Besides that she offered seven solo exhibitions held between Egypt, the Netherlands and Germany. She won several national and international prizes, such as the jury award in Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean countries, in 1997 as well as the Grand prize of Port Said Biennale in 2001, and the special award of the 8th Cairo international Biennale. She was an artist-in-residency in South Africa, the Netherlands and the USA, among other places. Her paintings are among the official acquisitions of many prestigious organizations, such as the Carthage local government in Tunisia, the Museum of Modern Art in Egypt and the Royal Museum of Jordan. The really amazing thing is that she managed to find time to teach painting and drawing to children in workshops at the Bibliotheca Alexandria and the Alexandria Atelier, and to contribute to development projects with her colleagues at Gudran association in Alexandria.

Reem believes that change is possible, that arts in Egypt can develop to an unlimited extend, and that arts education can create a whole generation of creative, critical thinking and liberal young artists. One thing she does little is talking, but a lot she does do. Reem has taken upon herself the responsibility of teaching her students at the university in the most unconventional way, she wants them to have their own way in everything, she wants them to have knowledge but to produce knowledge as well, she wants them to be active in their communities, she wants them to learn about arts all over the world, to go to workshops and festivals…etc. In short, she wants them to become agents of change, exactly as she is.

Her “Contemporary Human Being” paintings in 2004, oil on canvas, are so amazingly abstract, yet intense with the contemporary crisis of the human being, so often torn between external violence, personal sufferance and the endless existential dilemma. Although the figures are abstract, and not meant to express neither male nor female, the shapes and the colors are strongly suggestive of female identity. Going from less to more details, Reem’s paintings seem like emerging from the dark depths of a tormented soul. A soul that is so pure that it transparently reflects its own death, if not suicide, with an almost poetic eye.

The same serene sadness can be seen in her charcoal on paper drawings, yet most surprising is the black stain that will never leave Reem’s work. You will find the black stain, or a round dark shape, in her “Contemporary Human Being” (2004) paintings, in her charcoal drawings on paper between 1992-1994, in her “Black Points” charcoal on paper exhibited in the Netherlands in 1997,in her “Future vision” going back to 1996, in her “Triptych tones” paintings in 2001, in her oil on canvas in 2003, in her most recent work created and exhibited at Greatmore studio, in cape town, South Africa ( 2004), and in her colorful but tormented shapes in her -also recent- work exhibited at “Triangle artists’ workshop” in New York , USA ( 2004), in her “Contemporary Compositions” ( 2006) oil on canvas, and in “the shadow” ink on paper (2004).

The black stain could be sometimes interpreted as the trace of pain and sufferance, sometimes as the print of a dark memory (“From my memory” 2004, Cape Town, SA), sometimes as the ghost of a lost identity and sometimes as the shadow that links between most of Reem’s artistic itinerary. Indeed, black is the color when you want to create an unforgettable image, the contrasts with red and fushia will make it all the more unforgettable. The paintings of Reem, like her drawings, cannot be seen on the surface, and are nothing to “fill the space”, exactly because they are made to fill the soul, the inner- scapes, with questions, impressions and endless search…

It seems that Reem Hassan did not only express the crisis of the contemporary human being, she took it with her wherever she went. One who follows her work closely over the years, will definitely see her expressions becoming more and more complex, as if under the apparent abstract shapes and forms lies a true human identity seeking to erupt only when the time is right. I curiously looked and looked for female faces or bodies in Reem’s work, but I found none. I only found her beautiful face, clearly showing an Egyptian southern origin though living in the north, looking like an innocent and rebellious teenage, in one of her performance art events. You would never guess that she is 37 years old when you meet her face to face, I was personally astonished, but the more astonishing is the endless depths of her art work and of her personality.

The only full human figure that I found was in her most recent collage work, of painting and photography, created and exhibited during her residency in Capetwon, South Africa, Greatmore studio 2004. It was the nude figure of Norman ‘Offlen, her fellow artist, in a pose expressing isolation, depression, vulnerability and fragility, a kind of “near death” photo that Reem so cleverly surrounded with her painting. If you look long enough you will no longer be able to distinguish whether the figure is for a man or a woman. The human body is almost the same when it gets closer to its skeleton shape, due to old age or famine or disease, or mere depression. I thought the rebel in her had given up, or had given away to depression, but the conflict in any artist never dies, and the works of Reem never go to sleep.

In January 2008, she launched the first international workshop for female visual artists, in Alexandria. She initiated and coordinated the whole project through the newly founded NGO, “Dwayer”, which has in its board many promising artists coming from different disciplines in Alexandria. The workshop brought together more than 32 female artists from all over the world. It was a kind of little revolution in the city!! And the final presentation of the outcome of the workshop was a real reward for everybody.

Reem led the process of the workshop and tried to emphasize the necessity of artistic and intellectual exchange between female artists, especially when it comes to topics dealing with the image of women in their different cultures, the issues of women and how much realities lived by women are reflected in the arts. I personally found it very interesting to examine how the female artist herself represents the female identity in her work, how she as an artist is seen in her own society and how it is possible to read the difference between all that and what the media feed us everyday.

Reem often organizes art events at the Alexandria atelier for writers and artists, she and her husband being a active board member there. She was one of the organizers of “RAMI”, an international workshop on dance and multimedia, the first workshop of its kind to be held in Alexandria, and bringing young artists from different countries along with the special expertise from France.

She is one of those artists who see an incredible richness in the dialogue of arts, this is why she supports events which focus on mixed media. Her dream is to combine her different talents in a theatre production where she would also become a performer. Performance is something that never leaves the imagination of Reem, which explains her gradual shift to performance art carrying with her the other talents. We can easily see the roots of this desire since her first exhibition in 1994, with the dramatic compositions and colors. I think that adding an aggressive performative component to her work would, then, be a natural development of her creativity, seeking to bring a more vital and provocative encounter with her public.

Reem Hassan is an unusual artist who has access to the three main channels that can produce change in the arts and by the arts: art education (via her job as lecturer at the university of Alexandria), art and development (via the projects of the NGO that she founded with her friends) and art creation. The three fuse so well and –together- create her signature, even if her art work remains fragments of a beautifully tormented soul waiting to resurrect in flesh and bone…

By Nora Amin

For more information about this artist go to Reem Hassan |

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