A Journey Through the Nile, Abu Dhabi Art: Adam Henein, Omar El Nagdy, and Mohamed Abla

15 - 22 November 2022
In the formative years of her journey, Maliha Tabari, founder of Tabari Artspace, frequented Egyptian studios, becoming acquainted with the renowned late artist Adam Henein (1929-2000), as well as emerging talents that later formed the first generation of Middle Eastern artists. Twenty years after the opening of Tabari Artspace, the journey circles back to Egypt.
Egypt is geologically a desertic country where water, the source of life, can be found in every corner. The Nile river crosses multiple cities in addition to two seas (the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea) and many lakes (e.g., Lake Nasser in Aswan). The Nile is lost between buildings in Egypt's capital, Cairo, and it lounges at luxurious spots and popular venues. In Aswan, it takes on a different character. As it travels to Upper Egypt, the riverbed becomes wider and changes color from blue to green to yellow. The different layers come together harmoniously, contributing to the spirit of the place: the waterscape, the vernacular architecture, and the extreme hospitality of the people. The behavior of the water is reflected in the pace of life in each place. It contributes to the nuances of culture and affects people and their artistic expression. 

Modern art, as a key channel for visual expression, was particularly practiced at the beginning of the early 1900s. This was due to Egyptians lingering for a modern nation and aspiring for a cultural decolonization after many centuries of foreign occupation. As an artistic reaction, it was led by a number of secular liberals thriving for freedom of expression in search for their national identity. The first generation of modern Egyptian artists was inspired by their ancient Egyptian heritage, deviating from any African, Arab or religious models. This renewed esteem to Ancient Egyptian roots led to symbolism referencing ancient Egypt or rural life.


Among the Egyptian artists represented at Tabari Artspace are Adam Henein (1929-2000), Omar El Nagdy (1931-2019), and Mohamed Abla (1953-). Henein, who has been known for his sculptural work since the 1950s, grew up in a family of silversmiths from Asyut and lived in a high-density neighborhood of old Cairo called Bab El Shaariyya. Having lived in both Egypt and France, Henein’s paintings and sculptures were internationally recognized for their use of ancient Egyptian themes and traditional materials. In the 1990s, his expertise as a renowned sculptor led him to become head of the design team working on the restoration of the Great Sphinx of Giza. In 1996, he established the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) in Aswan, a city famous for its granite quarries since antiquity.
Henein’s body of work interweaves universal themes such as motherhood, birds, boats, and prayer with references to Egyptian icons such as pyramids, obelisks, ancient Egyptian kings, queens, and hieroglyphs. His work was deeply rooted in traditional Egyptian materials, often using granite and bronze in his sculptures, and papyrus and natural oxides found in Egypt in his painting. Henein, now considered the most influential Arab sculptor of modern times, is the artistic heir of the acknowledged father of modern Egyptian sculpture Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934). Both artists’ sculptural body of work stands out for its’ simple shapes, solid lines, and coherent formations, which gave the works their unique character. Much like the sculptural work of Ancient Egypt, both artists created stylized human figures and animals. 
The sculpture currently in the Tabari Artspace collection is that of Umm Kulthum (1898-1975). The Egyptian singer, songwriter and film actress, given the honorific title "Kawkab El Sharq” (the celestial body of the east), is considered a national icon in Egypt, where she has been named “Egypt's Fourth Pyramid," among other honorific titles. 
Challenging popular figurative traditions and encouraging stylistic and technical innovation, the Neo-Pharaonic phase was quickly replaced with new trends (e.g surrealism, cubism, dadaism, and abstraction). Through this experimental phase, artists established the foundations of art criticism and pedagogy, and they started to publish art journals. They also founded the Art and Freedom group in 1939, which would be the Egyptian counterpart of the European antifascist resistance rallying for the freedom of expression. This generation promoted a modern form of Egyptian art that blended global concerns and local heritage instead of rejecting every foreign link.
With the lives of Egyptian people as his subject matter, artist Omar El Nagdi painted in a colorful, pictorial style. He was mentored by the famous academic painter and art professor Ahmed Sabry (1889-1955) at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo. Later, El Nagdi focused his study on frescoes and mosaics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in 1959, where he met with avant-garde artists. With his art, he tries to document the culture of the masses with the hope that it will resonate with the people.
El Nagdi’s work is highly influenced by expressionism, cubism, and fauvism. In his paintings, El Nagdi illustrates the jovial atmosphere of Egyptian festivities and their traditions. His compositions are dynamic and immersed in social traditions. In his joyful paintings, El Nagdi communicates the peasant life of Egypt, and pays particular attention to color and geometric shapes in his compositions. His flat and linear style is reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian art, especially when it comes to the angular way he chooses to draw faces. In many instances, El Nagdi celebrates the humble peasant and the concept of family.  
Mohamed Abla’s people are not far from El Nagdi’s Egypt. Abla creates imagery that spans a range of artistic styles. From realistic depictions of people in Cairo streets and along the Nile, to abstract sceneries in modern Egypt. He spent his childhood in Mansoura, and then moved to Alexandria, where he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Alexandria. Whether observing his early watercolors, chaotic painting, nostalgia, or the depiction of life on the Nile, Abla has been devoted to tolerance and diversity and has promoted freedom of expression. As a multidisciplinary artist, his goal is to familiarize his audience with every aspect of Egyptian society. Abla possesses an original visual language allowing him to express his views through his artwork. His abstract portrayal of Egypt and its people offers insights into the country's rich heritage.
What inspires Abla are stories of people that he depicts with complexity and humor. Stories are what motivate him to paint, whether it is an individual or a collective story, such as the revolution that took place at Tahrir square in 2011. To this day, Egyptian artists serve as essential storytellers when it comes to illustrating the realities of each time and commenting on it through their choice of topics and techniques. At both a local and international level, their work serves as a window into the daily life of people and the different socio-political movements.