Art Travelling in Cairo: Ibrahim Khatab

Safarkhan Gallery, Zamalek Cairo

For some time now, I have been thinking about how contemporary Egyptian artists have retreived the motifs of ancient Egypt into their own work. ‘Egyptomania’ in the 19th century led to the mass appropriation of Egyptian motifs into European art, literature and architecture.

In the modernist era, Egyptian artists sought to come to terms with their own visual history as well as their landscape, developing new visual ideas that adapted, but did not copy from, European antecendents.

Today, the Egyptian artist is comfortable with the ancient past as a motif running alongside the subjects and imagery of the present, but now the issue is how to bring something fresh to it. After all, Cairo’s museums are crammed with gorgeous Pharaonic-era artefacts, and Luxor is a huge open-air museum of stunning tomb paintings, grand temples and immense statues.


Ibrahim Khatab is one contemporary painter who uses the medium of paint in a sculptural way, combining textures and pigments expertly with great sensitivity, in large compositions that seem at first abstract then, as the eye adjusts, reveal the emergent forms of ancient Egyptian imagery. Embedded deep in the swirls of colour, these archaic and archetypal forms of gods, animals and humans are both familiar and dreamlike. Some of the paintings embed or overlay Arabic texts, merging the ancient and the modern, sewing past and present together across history.

Khatab’s work demands that you spend time with it; it is gentle on the eye and the soul but it embeds itself deeply. The more you look, and let the paintings drift into your consciousness, the more the archetypal forms assume their power. They have a certain magickal quality that goes well beyond the artistic or the decorative. They evoke deeper consciousness.

Text from the Gallery:

Ibrahim Khatab

‘Safarkhan has the pleasure of unveiling the fifth consecutive exhibition from one of Egypt’s youngest and brightest contemporary talents, Ibrahim Khatab. ‘Adam’ is an honorific commemoration of the First Man, and the letter aleph, the singular sources of the powers of creation and communication respectively. Inspired by the greatwisdom of ancient Farsi poetry, Khatab’s latest collection captures the purity, love and source of light that isrepresented in the universal figure of Adam, God’s first creation that spawned mankind. Khatab’s works explorethe notion of Adam as the aleph,they are inextricable from one another and divinely- as both are progenitors the former of genesis, and the latter of the gift of communication, in
speaking and script. The first of creation is represented by the first letter of the alphabet and is his namesake, this remarkable fact remains curiously true not only in Arabic and English, but the lingua francas of antiquity in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and indeed most of the world’s diverse existing modern tongues, by no coincidence.

In the artist’s own words, ‘Adam’ is partly inspired by the lyrical wisdom of famed 13th century Iranian poet Hafez Saadi Shirazi, who wrote; “On the heart’s tablet, there is nothing but preceding the letter aleph. O’ whatmust I do? And my teacher taught me no other letter.” The significance of this is best understood in the fact that the aleph is the only letter in the Arabic script that cannot be conjoined to another letter following it. It purposely retains this divine singularity, to stand and serve as an eternal symbol of the transcendental glory of God. This isattested to in the Sufi tradition of Shirazi’s, those of the free spirit, who have attained the status of witnesses to Hisdivine power and creation. The curvature of the lower part of the letter indicates the path of all manifestations ofcosmic existence from the very highest to the most lowly. The letter aleph also represents the number one,symbolizing the immutable’