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Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2012
Issue No. 1103
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A bible of unity

Nader Habib visits a divine exhibition

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Every year on the first day of June Egypt celebrates the journey the Holy Family made to our country. According to Coptic tradition, this was the day on which the Holy Family arrived in Tel Al-Basta, in what is now the governorate of Sharqiya, having travelled along the Mediterranean in northern Sinai.

Biblical texts describe their flight from the oppression of King Herod:

"When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son'."

Matthew (2: 13-15)

From Bible to art, this famous story is now the focus of an art exhibition in Zamalek. The exhibition is organised by Ibrahim Picasso, owner of the Picasso Art Gallery, and involves the work of 25 artists, Christians as well as Muslims.

The exhibition has a political side, says Picasso. "For a long time I have taken my 'Egyptianness' for granted. I didn't think that the day would come when Egyptians started to think of themselves as either Muslims or Christians."

Picasso has made a similar point before. In 1998 he organised a show called "Coptic Scenes" in which nearly 40 artists took part. He is, therefore, accustomed to displaying spirituality through the eyes of the leading artists in this country.

The artist Gamil Shafik says that Egyptian artists, regardless of their religion, are attuned to the country's diverse religious legacy. "For a long time, this country has been multi-sectarian," he says. "As a nation we are at ease with mosques just as we are with churches. Those who admire the Mosque of Sultan Hassan are often just as thrilled by the sight of the Hanging Church. Both are part of this multilayered legacy our forefathers handed down to us."

Shafik is aware that other biblical figures feature prominently in Egypt's history. Joseph was brought to Egypt by slave traders, and Moses was raised by a ruling family. In modern times, intellectuals and politicians escaping persecution in their countries have found home and support in this country.

"Now the Egyptians are polarised. People are starting to think of themselves either as Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood members or liberals. But I want us to become just Egyptians," Shafiq said.

It used to be that Egyptians would gather around radio sets on the first Thursday of every month to listen to Umm Kalthoum. As Shafik says, this is the kind of art that unifies, that makes us all feel we belong.

In his painting, Shafik uses pieces of wood that have drifted to the shore. These fragments look ancient; they catch his eye and inspire him to shape them into art.

"I collect driftwood, because it comes from boats that sank perhaps hundreds of years ago. I use bits of this wood in my work," he explains.

For this exhibition Shafik has depicted the ancient god Horus with the Virgin Mary, an image that blends Christian and pre-Christian traditions.

Wagdy Habashy's portrayal is of Joseph leading the donkey on which the Virgin Mary is travelling, the baby Jesus in her arms. Also in his painting is Salome, a young woman believed to be a blood relative of the Holy Family, who is tagging along behind.

Habashy notes that the portrayal of the Holy Family against a familiar Egyptian background, such as images of the Nile, the Pyramids, and the countryside, is common in this exhibition. The artists, whether taking a surrealistic, folkloric, or romantic approach, take nature to a rarefied, spiritual level.

Hani Hanna, whose sermons in support of the revolution brought him widespread recognition among the younger generation, says that Egypt has always offered sanctuary to people escaping injustice.

"Abraham escaped to Egypt, just as many others did before and since. Egypt has for centuries offered home to people fleeing oppression," Hanna said.

He sees the exhibition as a call for peace and multiculturalism. "The visit is symbolic, because it shows that Egyptian civilisation is all embracing. There is a tradition of multiculturalism in Egyptian society, a tradition that has shaped the psyche of this country."

Artist Gamal Lam'i says that we need to start thinking of the country's future.

"The future of Egypt is not in the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood, nor is it subject to the whim of a repressive authority. We want a democratic leadership that can lead us forward. This country belongs to everyone, not to the MB alone," Lam'i says.

According to Lam'i, Egypt needs to assert its tradition of tolerance and diversity. "How can we import ideas from places such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia to a place such as Egypt, which had been around for 7,000 years? If the MB takes over, the Copts will have no place in Egypt. Egyptians will have no place in Egypt. The MB embraces a revival project that is extremist and Salafist at heart. They want to revive the caliphate," Lam'i adds.

Lam'i, who believes that art must inspire people, not just entertain them, has depicted Mary seated under a date palm. His piece, he tells me, symbolises the Qur'anic verse in which the Virgin is told to shake the tree so that the dates may fall down for her to eat. Using an ancient Roman technique, Lam'i paints with oxides and beeswax.

Another artist, Adel Nassif, uses egg tempera, a technique also attributed to the icon painters of antiquity.

"I have been involved in Coptic art for a long time and have some experience of icon painting," he says. "The paintings I have produced for the exhibition involve the use of egg yolk and natural oxides, just as the ancient icon painters did," Nasif says.

In his piece, Nassif depicts a pharaonic girl welcoming the Holy Family, with birds flying overhead and fish visible in the river.

"The visit of the Holy Family to Egypt is an occasion for blessing, which is why we see birds in the sky, fish in the river, and shade beneath the date palms," Nasif remarks.

Archbishop Martyrios, speaking on the opening night, said that the diversity of themes reflected the diversity of Egypt. Art was a language that spoke to all of us, he added.

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