To produce his stunning representations of modern daily life, Egyptian artist Guirguis Lotfy employs traditional techniques of Coptic art, ensuring the transmission of this unique craft to future generations.
Since the fall of Pharaonic civilization, Egyptian art has been in continuous transition, a process tied to sociopolitical change. By AD 300, Egyptian art had embraced the traditions of Greece and Rome, after which Coptic and eventually Islamic customs produced radical cultural changes. With every new era, although innovative techniques and ideas expanded Egypt’s cultural traditions, certain fundamental elements were, nonetheless, preserved, endowing Egyptian heritage with a massive spectrum of cultural icons.
Coptic art developed in Egypt primarily between the first and third centuries AD, perhaps initially as a way of resurrecting national art – or, as Josef Strzygowski, said, as a ‘re-orientalization of Egypt following the Greco-Roman domination’. Etymologically, the word ‘Coptic’ has several connotations depending on whether one is referring to a people, a language, a religious ideology or an artistic style. More commonly the term refers to the native Christians of Egypt, stemming from the Arabic word quft, from Coptic gyptos and from Greek agyptios, which simply means Egyptian. ‘Coptic’ in all of its forms thus refers to an identity. It seems plausible, therefore, to argue that Coptic art, since its early development, has been intrinsically engaged in the assertion of a purely Egyptian identity, a cry for recognition from the underbelly of a fragmented society – fragmented, in the sense that it is difficult to separate the many inﬂuences that have shaped Egyptian cultural heritage.
A prime example of Egypt’s multifaceted cultural heritage would be the famous Fayoum Portraits, a series of wooden mummy portraits dating to the third century AD and found in the Fayoum, an oasis 130 kilometres southwest of Cairo. These were mounted onto cloth and usually buried with the dead, depicting a frontal portrait of the head and upper body in encaustic or tempera techniques. These portraits were a Coptic tradition, inspired by the much older Pharaonic practice of mummification and Greco-Roman styles of portraiture.
Nowadays, one rarely speaks of contemporary Coptic art in a non-religious context, as the general attitude towards traditional art forms evokes an obvious rupture between modern Egyptian culture and the more traditional ancient crafts. Interestingly, however, a number of contemporary artists remain dedicated to their Coptic predecessors. Guirguis Lotfy, a contemporary Alexandrian painter, reinvents ancient Coptic traditions as he portrays his daily sourroundings. Lotfy uses the ancient egg tempera techniques in his work, a tradition usually associated with ancient Egyptian coffins or the famous Fayoum portraits. Lotfy uses this particular method to depict a two-dimensional set of ‘local’ characters and iconography within extremely dense canvases, accurately transmitting the congested Egyptian experience of today. The artist describes this technique as ‘a very precise medium, because the paint dries very quickly and it is impossible to retouch’, giving the work a very calculated feel. Consequently, the artist has no room for error.
In May 2013, Lotfy’s work was displayed in a solo exhibition at ArtTalks Gallery. The exhibition’s title, ‘Heya Di Masr Ya Abla’ (This is Egypt, Abla) – also the name of one of his paintings – possibly refers to the famous ending of Kamal al-Sheikh’s 1978 film about the world of espionage between Egypt and Israel. The exhibition generated much interest in the artist’s work, especially as his strikingly packed canvases and simplistic depictions subtly shed light on the disparity within Egyptian society.
Generally, Lotfy depicts heartfelt scenes from his surroundings, taking inspiration from his Neighbourhood (2010), a street wedding, a Moulid (2010) and a Visit to the Zoo (2008). As he presents his version of Masr, he reveals a particular set of non-religious traditions and beliefs that have become an integral part of the Egyptian experience, such as the Kabsa (2009), a legend that states ‘that no man who has just shaven his beard or has just crossed a river is allowed to visit a woman who has just given birth, or else she won’t be able to become pregnant again’. Lotfy’s painting of the Kabsa, shows a ritual that is believed to protect a woman from the curse. Such scenes are, according to Lotfy, intimate moments that he has witnessed or experienced, scenes that belong to ‘his rich traditional cultural heritage’. Together, these constitute what he identifies as his Egypt.
One of Lotfy’s few oil paintings on canvas, The Fortune Teller, depicts a woman seated at its centre, as if gazing at her own destiny, while another woman holds an empty cup of coffee, staring at her with wide-open eyes. In the right corner, a child plays with a colourful ball, tilting its head towards the viewer. When asked about this painting, the artist simply states that in his neighbourhood ‘everybody believes in magic and legends up until today’. The beauty of Lotfy’s work lies not only in his representational methods, but also in his ability to capture ordinary scenes, while subtly transmitting the extraordinary stories that lie behind them.
A second painting in the series is also entitled Fortune Teller (2010), although in this case the artist has used tempera on treated wood. When comparing Lotfy’s tempera works with his oil paintings, one notices the striking vibrancy of colour in the tempera works as opposed to the less contrasting nature of his oil paintings. This piece portrays a couple sitting on a bench in what seems to be a park, while a woman sits on the ground, her hand lying on a few seashells that she has placed on a piece of paper. All of the characters seem static as they face the viewer. Compared to the oil version of the Fortune Teller, the general air of this painting is less mystical, showing a variation of the act of fortune telling within different environments. While the oil version seems much more intimate, the tempera painting gives the impression of a photograph, a delicate documentation of a day in a life.
A Night in Al Hussein (2010), a tempera and gold-leaf painting on treated wood, is a densely populated piece. It presents a number of characters sitting in a traditional coffee shop, all facing the viewer. As in many of his paintings, Lotfy meticulously translates the scene so that it fills every inch of the canvas. He refrains from creating a three dimensional illusion, but rather, assures the dynamism of the painting through the tilting of the characters’ faces. The homogeneity of the characters, however, does not overshadow their individuality, as they each perform their own distinctive tasks. All of the elements are in the foreground, equally distributed throughout
the canvas, providing the painting with a simplistic and even ornamental air. Lotfy’s disinterest in depicting reality through the use of depth and perspective creates an air of mysticism around his otherwise common subjects. As the artist himself says, he is ‘depicting [the] light [that comes] from people’, much as saints were once portrayed in ancient paintings.
In light of the recent destruction of Coptic churches and institutions, and the polarization that has been imposed on many Egyptians, Lotfy’s work makes a crucial statement on the nature of Egyptian society, bringing forth its homogeneous character. In paintings such as The Bakery of Love, in which a group of neighbours gather to prepare for a religious festival, regardless of their religion or creed, Lotfy subtly demonstrates the intertwining of religion and tradition, a key factor in maintaining the mosaic-like nature of Egyptian society.
As tempera works and encaustic paintings usually remain intact for long periods of time, Guirguis Lotfy’s detailed representation of his contemporary environment will eventually be passed on to future generations. This particular attitude evokes the master-disciple relationship, usually at the backbone of any inherited craft, as the master passes on his knowledge to future generations, keeping the craft alive and the traditions intact.
All images are courtesy of the artist and ArTalks gallery.
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Sama Waly is an Egyptian visual artist and researcher. She holds an MFA in Film, Video & New Media at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is engaged in several projects in the fields of visual arts, social development, graphic design and cinema production. She has also been involved in research on a number of historical and artistic productions and continues to write independently on Egyptian cultural history.