Cairo artist Hany Rashed’s lockdown chronicle ’90 Days in the Studio’ is one of the most important art works of 2020
At some point in the first (and, so far, only global) lockdown, a meme whizzed around the planet. “We are all Edward Hopper paintings now,” it declared, compiling a montage of the painter’s signature urban scenes of lone people haunting empty rooms or vistas of deserted streets. As a representation of isolation, alienation and atomization, the meme could hardly be bettered.
Yet, looking back, that is not really what happened to us. The pent-up energy many experienced in the first lockdown was the story rather than the isolation, which was – at times – something of a relief. I enjoyed the quiet of a traffic-less city street during the morning dog walk; I reveled in being able to eschew the grind of errands; even the luxury of being freed from FOMO had a (short-lived but very genuine) piquancy.
But the problem was, what to do with all of our excess energy? Some folks – like me, it must be said – just sunk into a panic and spent a lot of time sleeping (which is what I do when I am stressed out). Others busied themselves with projects. And a few managed to produce terrific works of art. Hany Rashed is one of those.
I saw Rashed’s collection ’90 days in the Studio’ at the Soma Gallery in Cairo this past winter and, while I liked it very much and admired his painterly techniques, I was not able to write anything about it at the time. Seems the lockdown was too close; I had no ability to summon up any actual perspective.
Now, over a year and two vaccinations on from the first lockdown, I want to introduce this remarkable collection to you and declare that it is one of the iconic artworks of 2020. A significant body of work that needs to be seen as a cultural milestone of global significance. Because I don’t think any artist has captured the experience of the first lockdown as well as Rashed.
The lockdown was like nothing that had been experienced in modern memory. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker expresses the feeling perfectly when he writes, ‘the shutdown was like the closing iris at the end of the Chaplin film: less and less of the outside world peeking out through the aperture of sight each day.’ How to express that in art?
The collection’s title explains it: the 90 days Rashed spent literally locked in his studio – as everybody else in Egypt was locked down too – and expresses the timescale of how the painter gradually manages to visually articulate (is this a term?) the experience.
Part One is ‘Abstract.’ The painter plunging into the medium and smearing it across the surface. A cry of frustration. “What is happening?” The comfort taken in the familiar texture of paint when no other comfort is available. The comfort of creativity is genuine – the breadmaking, the knitting, the painting, the DIY that many of us did – but it was small comfort really when the threat of imminent death was being screeched at us by the hyperactive media. Rashed’s abstractions of colour and texture present an inchoate mixture of hope and fear, locating the beauty in the accidental line created by the smear of paint and the deliberate juxtaposition of hues. In these abstractions, new worlds are being made, coming into being, but what are they?
In Part 2, the ‘Figure’ appears. This bearded male is clearly Rashed himself, if you’ve ever seen him. But of course, the Figure is Everyman (and woman), yet the artist can only genuinely express his own feelings and sensations – and make them available and recognizable to the viewer. Rashed stands in an abstract wasteland, peering uncertainly around him at the expanse of red or blue, seas of uncertainty, deserts of questions. Or he is caught in a vortex, being buffeted around in a swirling wind or sea – destabilization and formlessness.
My god, I remember that feeling.
As the days in the studio go on, Rashed finds himself contemplating the Object (Part 3). Among all the things once seen, now only recalled and imagined, he shows us the airplane, the universal symbol of escape in modern times. Where do you want to go? Monte Carlo, Miami, Montreal, Magadan – the plane will take you there! Tellingly, it’s an American Airlines plane, with all its branded promises of liberation. But we know it’s grounded. The imaginary plane soars through stormy skies, swoops between interstellar clouds. Destination nowhere.
Finally, we arrive at Part 4, The Room. These are the images that made me think of the Edward Hopper meme. Because they look like Edward Hopper paintings in which something has exploded. Here Rashed’s pop art sensibility bursts out in an exuberant release of frustration, darkly comic and exquisite. A horse and its jockey take a hectic shower together in a small bathroom; a man watches an EgyptAir plane crash softly onto his bed. The bed is the site of many activities, including a boxing match, football games and a bicycle race. Here Rashed expresses perfectly that feeling of confinement we became so familiar with. Certainly, the imagination cannot be confined, yet it is tempered by and must acknowledge the absurdity of being just stuck in a room. The world explodes into Rashed’s Hopperesque life, raucously, uncomfortably, ridiculously. My favorites are the large dogs that plunge into the pictures, creating canine mayhem
If ’90 Days in the Studio’ was challenging to comprehend half a year ago, it is a collection of pictures whose time has come. Made in the early days of panic and frustration, the work moves from being a wordless shriek into the void to a life-affirming and thoroughly enjoyable ‘boom!’ of blowing up, crashing down, smashing the stasis, laughing all the while.
More Hany Rashed https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/artist-page/hany-rashed/