Egypt commemorates Saeed Adawi, the father of its modern art scene

The visionary painter died 50 years ago aged just 35 and Cairo is displaying his influential and compelling work, which went on show just once during his lifetime

Egypt commemorates Saeed Adawi, the father of its modern art scene

In February 1973, a mere eight months before his untimely death, the artist Saeed Adawi held the only exhibition during his lifetime to showcase his work.

His reputation has grown in the 50 years since his passing at the age of 35. Cairo is now showcasing 182 pieces of his art, spanning calligraphy, engraving, and painting at the Art Complex in Zamalek's Aisha Fahmy Palace.

Entitled Saeed Adawi: Sudden Absence, Permanent Presence, the exhibition is unprecedented in its scope and comprehensiveness. But what significance does it hold on the Egyptian and Arab art scenes?

The Alexandria-born visionary undeniably occupies an important place in the history of the Egyptian art. His determination to experiment helped liberate the country’s visual arts from the confines of traditional pairings of Pharaonic heritage and rural landscapes, bringing a modernity to the country’s scene.

Neither can his wider significance be overlooked, at the Arab-world level. Adawi introduced a revolutionary style that drew inspiration from the nuances of real life, inspired by open engagement with global art.

He was representative of a new generation of artists who revolutionized the perception and understanding of art. His paintings show glimpses of the early style of Morocco’s Farid Belkahia and Iraq’s Dia Azzawi.

Curiously, it’s doubtful that these two painters were even aware of Adawi. But they were also influenced by the same global artistic currents and were also trying to break free from the confines of traditional local and regional art.

A visionary and a pioneer

Often Described as “irreplaceable”, “avant-garde” and an “icon of contemporary Egyptian art”, Adawi founded an experimental collective alongside Mahmoud Abdullah and Mustafa Abdel Moati.

The depth and originality of his experimentation influenced many artists who are now considered among the pillars of modern art in Egypt, including Alexandria’s Seif Wanly.

Wanly likened Adawi to Van Gogh and Sayed Darwish, for "his time on Earth was regrettably short, yet he left behind an extraordinary and inspiring legacy."

Curated by artist and Art Complex manager Ali Saeed, the exhibition opens with a replica of the renowned “Abdel Nasser Funeral Procession”, the original being unavailable in Egypt at the moment.

Adawi introduced a revolutionary style that drew inspiration from the nuances of real life, inspired by open engagement with global art.

As I stood before the painting, I understood perfectly well why the curator was adamant about including it, even if only as a replica. This was one of Adawi's last creations, embodying the essence of the technical and artistic skills he had honed during his brief but impactful ten-year career.

In this painting, the viewer feels as if one world is bidding farewell to another. Adawi skillfully incorporates various signs and symbols, shaping his aesthetic world within an atmosphere of melancholy. And because he lived during a time of both hope and despair, this contrast resonated in his art.

Master of paradox

Today, we must look at Adawi from a different perspective.

What he did in his lifetime was exceptional. He propelled painting into the second phase of modernity, unlocking new horizons for the Egyptian art scene that had only been explored partially, selectively, and very hesitantly.

Adawi openly discussed his sources of inspiration, seamlessly moving between or mixing abstraction and figuration or expressionism and symbolism without drawing clear boundaries.

"The components [of my works] exude scents of the distant past," he once said. "They tell of ancient things, chariots and carriages, children's drawings, ancient oriental rugs, carvings of bygone civilizations, Muwashshah poetry, Friday prayers, vernacular architecture, circles of remembrance (Dhikr), witch doctors, the works of Fellini, Visconti, and Pasolini, Luxor, shrines, Mawlid gatherings, souks, holidays, and popular beaches...".

His time on Earth was regrettably short, yet he left behind an extraordinary and inspiring legacy.

Adawi's catalogue of influences is extensive and unique. His sources draw from the tangible and the abstract, the real and the fictitious, the visual and the textual, the lived and the imagined.

He did not hide the artistic forces that shaped his relationship with the outside world, or the deep inspiration that he drew from others – even those from different professions and backgrounds – and that shaped or changed his perspectives.

He captured everything he saw and heard mixing reality with dreams to astonish his audience.

Coastal modernity

Saeed Adawi's drawings – whether sketches or paintings on canvas or wood – leave viewers in awe, but they also reveal much about him.

Because he was from Alexandria, Adawi belonged to a different art school, within the context of Egypt's modern art movement. When I put that to the artist Farouk Hosny, his eyes lit up and he said: "He and I belong to the same generation", by which he meant: "We did the same thing."

There were, indeed, many common factors in the experimental artists who reshaped Alexandria's relationship with modern art, including Mahmoud Abdullah, Mustafa Abdel Moati, Farouk Hosny and Saeed Adawi.

Yet Adawi's aesthetic inspiration went beyond the coastal city, drawing from the larger realm of Arabic calligraphy, although he was not a calligrapher, and never tried to become one. Instead, he used letters, words, and phrases to form part of his visual experience as he drew what he saw. His life was filtered through his art.

I cannot overstate how fortunate I felt to have witnessed a complete retrospective exhibition of one of Egypt's most important pioneers of modern art. It was an enjoyable and enriching experience.

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