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Egyptian Artist Omar Gabr's Latest Exhibit: A Tribute to the 'Ugly'

In the ‘Rembrandt's Brit Milah’ exhibit, Omar Gabr satirizes the origins of fine arts in a loud colourful ‘party’.

Farah Desouky

 Egyptian Artist Omar Gabr's Latest Exhibit: A Tribute to the 'Ugly'

Images by: Fares Zaitoon

Egyptian artist Omar Gabr brings out his toys in his latest exhibit, ‘Rembrandt's Brit Milah’. Amid a packed Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek, visitors walk into an overwhelming space filled with colour, texture, and sound—a satirical take on what Gabr and the curator, Farida Youssef, refer to as a re-examination of the origins of fine arts.

‘This project started as an examination of identity,’ Gabr tells CairoScene, ‘I was trying to find the Egyptian identity in our art because we’re always accused of having a similar approach to Western artists.’

While Gabr believes this search for the Egyptian identity isn’t resolved per se, it is what pushed him to look deeper within his context and has thus become the guide and inspiration for this visual language. The people and spaces Gabr inhabits, namely Shubra his hometown, are the protagonists in a portrayal that intentionally breaks any normative forms of aesthetic or ‘beauty’.

To Youssef, Gabr’s strokes, striking yet almost subversive at times, are a deeper look into exposing a harsh reality, which to her is where the beauty lies. 'When we first started working on the exhibition I noticed how eyes are central to Omar’s paintings,' Youssef tells CairoScene, 'It’s almost like the eyes in his paintings are judging me when I look at them, and in a sense they allow people to break away from their own judgments'."

Gabr takes us on a journey from the second we step foot into the exhibit between the origins of fine art and an almost snarky depiction of his skill yet refusal to paint for the sake of the aesthetic. The first painting visitors see at ‘Rembrandt's Brit Milah’ is a 19th-century painting, a replica of Girl in a Black Mantilla by Friedrich von Amerling. This replica, an easter egg positioned right by the entrance almost feels like decor, an out-of-place art piece that ironically pales in contrast to Gabr’s ‘party’ while historically definitive of the conventions of art.

The juxtaposition it creates, and the tension, Youssed refers to, leaves viewers in a position of reflection and introspection and raises the question of ugliness, a central theme of the exhibition. The materials Gabr used, and the faces he chose to paint as almost disfigured and alien-like, all play into this intention of portraying the ‘ugly’ and dismantling its connotations.

When asked about the use of toys and the perceived ‘unseriousness’ of it all, Gabr explained how to him humor is a serious way to express what he feels. ‘The toys, the airbrush style, and this kitschy aesthetic are elements we see in traditional moulids and malahy (Egyptian theme parks),’ Gabr reflects, ‘The toys somehow explain the tragedy when people visit and they focus on the toys they will feel that.’

In ‘Rembrandt's Brit Milah’, beyond aesthetics, the unsettling nature of these pieces confronts our moral compass. Gabr invites us to look inwards while adding a bumper sticker on what has long been perceived as untouchable sacred pieces of ‘fine art’. The exhibition is running till March 9th at Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek.


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