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Egypt and the Mind of Adli Rizkallah’s
By Simone Fattal
A retrospective show in Cairo from October 1 and until November 15, 2000 featured 600 works by Adli Rizkallah. Rizkallah is a painter and works solely in watercolors. Especially today when artists tend to mix all mediums in the same work, his loyalty to watercolors is unique; he is a man of an infinity of works in one medium.
This huge retrospective took place in a lovely building for special exhibits in the Opera Compound in Cairo. The schedule included several public meetings on three different Sundays during which poets, critics, and writers could visit and exchange ideas with the artist. I attended one of those meetings, where poets were leading the discussion. In the course of the open house Rizkallah explained that this would be his last exhibit: that he was tired and from there on he would show his work only in his studio. Whether or not he will abide by his word, I was very lucky to be in Cairo to experience such an event.
Adli Rizkallah was born in the Said, the deep Egyptian countryside, in Anboub Al Hamam, a little village located in the region of Assyout. He spent his early childhood there and was deeply affected by the colors and scents of his village. The village theme is unmistakable as soon as one enters the exhibit and begins to follow the thoughtfully planned progression of works.
Early on one encounters a large collection of works depicting women and men in their gellabias, dancing (whirling, sometimes levitating) in the midst of palm trees, by the river. Sometimes the pyramids lull in the background. How can I describe the sensitivity and the delicate colors of these images? They capture the distinct palette of pinks and whites found along the Nile. In the Orient, the sun is so intense that it overpowers all colors, leaving only hues; Rizkallah capably captures these hues on the paper. I suspect his use of watercolor results from his absolute devotion to rendering the colors of Egypt, for watercolor more than any other media gives a vivid color while staying delicate.
The palm tree is central in Rizkallah’s works, just as it has a central place in the life of the Egyptian Said: it provides a roof, soil, food, and play. They are a challenge to little boys like Rizkallah, who admits he could never climb them —something that he never recovered from. Flowers emerge as another recurring theme in the retrospective. His depictions of flowers have the same rare and fragrant quality as the palm trees. They appear on the page — and suddenly an intense red salutes the presence of some other element. Could it be the fragrance? The flowers mingle with the pyramids or the characters. Rizkallah is forever experimenting with the focal point of the light on terrestrial objects, and you find them interchanging, standing on top of each other, flowers at the central axis of the pyramids, a pyramid with wheat in its middle.
Rizkallah’s family moved to Cairo when he was still a child. The little boy was most distressed by this turn of events, as was his father. Rizkallah’s father was a weaver and a proud and knowledgeable peasant who had to interrupt his trade, but the mother was adamant; her eldest boy had gone to town to work and the whole family had to follow as she was homesick for him. Rizkallah and his father would live each year yearning for their village, waiting to return as soon as school ended. When at last they climbed on the dark green buses, muddy and full, the voyage provided Rizkallah with these scenes I am describing — the road by the Nile and the palm trees — scenes that will never leave his imagination and would become the center of his work.
At school he started drawing very young, and his teachers encouraged him. Rizkallah declared his intention to be an artist early on and indeed he succeeded in convincing others, proving that he could render anything as exactly as possible. He received scholarships and thus could pursue his art studies; he started with engravings. He was also a great reader and writes in his autobiography that words were as important to him as images.
He could make a living by illustrating the magazines he had loved as a child: Samir, Sindbad, and Mikki. Later he was instrumental in designing children’s books and illustrating them. Dar El Fata, a defunct children’s publishing house, would not have made the same impact without him.
In the wake of 1967 War, a defeat that changed the life of all Arabs, Rizkallah settled in France for a while, seeking to escape the depression that followed that setback. He had learned all he could studying at the School of Beaux-Arts and the School of Coptic Art, where he met prestigious artists including Wissa Wassef. So for several reasons Rizkallah needed some distance, and in Paris he found his true voice. He spent a few years there and then returned to Egypt never to leave again, determined to live by the inspiration and the essence of his work.
Once he found his true voice, he never again departed from that route. All his efforts to capture the light along the banks of the Nile led him to render prisms, diamonds, or crystals. White on white surfaces depict the transparency of crystals over a dark background. These huge works, which one encounters immediately upon entering the exhibit; are supposed to be seen last, but because the building’s rooms open on one another they are visible all the time. One circle around them while touring the entire exhibit, but at the end, one realizes how truly extraordinary they are. It feels as if Adli Rizkallah is present, there at the apogee of his work.
Around the corner another surprise awaits you. Dark, menacing animals stand on the head of a wretched creature. Depression had struck and Rizkallah warded it off in a matter of a few weeks through painting. He deposits his demons on paper and they leave him alone. Another very unusual subject is the struggle between a child and her father. Rizkallah admits that he is an overprotective father and that his children are forced to battle with him in order to assert themselves; he documents these struggles in a series of large, dark, very unusual works.
The next room explodes with abundance and an orgiastic happiness, with women sitting, their sexual organs sublimated, enlarged, and colored with the brightness and warmth of fire. Rizkallah has witnessed the births of his children and I think these “nudes,” concentrated on the depiction of the genitals, are his memory of those fateful moments. He magnifies them, portraying the figures at ease and without any
shyness or reticence.
"Rizkallah has in fact painted one thing throughout his whole life: Egypt. His whole work captures its colors and its themes."
One needs to experience the whole exhibit again and again in order to come to terms with its richness and importance, as well as to comprehend the whole and moreover the road to the masterful crystals. Suddenly one understands, and the pieces of the puzzle come together, and a picture rises to the surface. Rizkallah has in fact painted one thing throughout his whole life: Egypt. His whole work captures its colors and its themes.
The woman or mother is the essence of Egypt. His whole personal life is truly Egyptian, deeply rooted in the problems of the country. He credits much of his understanding to the magazine Sabah Al Kheir, which under the masterful guidance of writer Ahmad Baha Eddine and painter Hassan Fouad glorified the simple life of the simple man — the fisherman, the villager. They taught him to be at one with his roots and the importance of expressing them. His series on villagers, a family of Egyptian peasants, come from those roots. Baha Eddine and Fouad gave him “permission” to work from his roots without limiting himself. Rizkallah’s villagers have a sufi dimension, for the men are often seen in a zikr.
Throughout his career he mingled and worked with the other artists, writers, and publishers of Egypt.His work inspired Edouard al-Kharrat, one of the leading Egyptian writers to write “Taawilates,” a volume of poetry. These poems are a rough word equivalent to the watercolors, the way Alfred Stieglitz did photographic equivalents to Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings.
Rizkallah draws from his environment not only his themes but his methods. His eye is that of a sufi, for whom a flower is a flower and a woman is a woman, but they are also visions. The disturbing series of men being attacked, or holding beasts on their heads shows how deeply he can delve in the human psyche. He calls this series the depiction of anger.
The fragility of watercolor speaks to the fragility of all things at the same time it depicts the permanence of stones and structures, simultaneously rendering the evanescence and solidity of all things. He has mastered this ambiguity and apparent contradiction.
Rizkallah’s autobiography, “Arriving at the beginning In Life and in Art,” was published by al-Hayi’a Al-Masria Al’Alma Lillkitab.
Although I had met Adli Rikkallah in Paris in 1977 where he was exhibiting in the Left Bank Gallery La Roue, only by seeing this retrospective have I discovered the key to his work and its importance. I had to wait to see the whole work in its maturity. As an artist, Rizkallah tells his secrets.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)