Sameh Ismail and The Documentation of Memory
He opened the door to his art studio, smiling. The warm welcome he gave is quite unusual from an artist to a critic. I was, in fact, first welcome by the sound of mellow music that crept into my soul. I shied away from asking him who the composer was, for I believed it to be a superficial question that would disrupt the ongoing welcome. The first thing I laid my eyes on was a group of sketches spread over the wall in a charmingly random manner. Some of them he drew on paper on which text was written earlier and/or which date back to different times, hence breathing a new life into them. He used pencils that were about to perish, yet still retained the energy to give. He wrote and drew bewildered letters looking for a safe exit as well as liberated ones that celebrate their freedom after breaking out of the incarceration imposed on them by rigid traditions. They are paintings that resemble blogs and momentary impressions, sparks of light that overwhelm his soul and demands that he documents them on paper. These sketches constitute his way of thinking about art and through art, through letters and from letters.
On a table, I spotted clippings and colored papers that he pulled apart and tore through. Because papers are his life companions, he calls them “soul mates.” It was then that I understood how shredded paper is never less worthy, for he will give it a new life and bestow upon it new aesthetics that supersede its static beauty. With paper and through paper, he deconstructs to reconstruct and this is how the collection displayed at the exhibition, which is based on paper compositions, came into being.
In different places, color tubes retired and stayed silent. Some of them he squeezed until the very end so they hid from him while others he made sure to keep alive. There are also several empty cans that seem to be smiling as their role ended, hence are able to run away from him. I saw brushes of different shapes and sizes. I held one of them and it told me it has always been his confidant and never let him down until the very day he left it to dry. It bore with him and was certain he would come back, and when its hair started falling because of his emotional outbursts, it still did its job and refused to be replaced. Colors were spilt on the floor, forming an unintentional abstract piece of art. He seemed to like the spill for it left a memory he might want to summon back one day. It was a rebellious studio organized in accordance with the different phases of the artistic process, the passion that drives it forward, and the interaction between the artist and the canvas. This is a studio that is in no way conventionally organized and by no means abides by prevalent norms.
Music accompanied me throughout my tour at the studio. When I saw the paintings to be displayed in his latest exhibition, entitled The Documentation of Memory, I realized that music is the protagonist and the intellectual mentor. In fact, he told me he never changed the music throughout the time in which he painted this collection and music is indeed received emotionally in the first place. The paintings are more like the musical abstraction Wassily Kandinsky employed in his art. As a musician playing drums and other instruments, Sameh Ismail is aware of the complementary relationship between music and abstraction, for music produces abstract sounds that are liberated from the dominance of reality and in abstract art it is necessary to elevate color system to the level of musical notes.
Sameh Ismail’s paintings are based on his belief that art is the music of the human soul. He created a new aesthetic language in which he detached himself from visual reality, representation, and imitation. He broke away from all forms of academic subordination, which is demonstrated in the way he handles the geometric formulation of letters and colors. His attempt at defying givens and traditional visual solutions took him four years after his last exhibition, held in 2015 and entitled Safe Exit. He refused to repeat himself or create stereotypical works because he is a real artist who respects his art and his audience. He realized that breaking tradition requires a number of attempts so he continued putting his thoughts on paper until he lost his artistic memory and discarded all of them. “I’d rather suffer from artistic Alzheimer than repeat myself,” he once said. He, therefore, decided to liberate himself in order to delve into emotional memory and explore aspects of his soul that might not have had a visual presence. His impressions came to life through a new language that he inscribed on the canvas and made visual.
Ismail paid special attention to the richness of the surface of his paintings, which is demonstrated in the use of several layers and diverse color shades. He gave his surfaces a history and time, hence creating a virtual world whose secrets are not reachable except through adventure, experimentation, and abstraction. He created art from the aspects of emotional existence. He was unable to take letters off his memory so he developed them and they appeared more mature than in the previous exhibition, for they are located in between color spaces and lines. Letters might be mysterious as far as their identity is concerned, but they are still malleable and liberated.
The stages of composition in Ismail’s paintings demonstrate that he has listened attentively to his emotions and intuition. This is manifested in the directions of colors and the movement of letters to the right and to the left and the intersections of lines as well as additions, omissions, ellipsis, destruction, and construction, all in accordance with the demands of his intuition. Those brush strokes are, therefore, a direct response to the psychological dimension and those color touches constitute the interception of signals in order to confirm or change the artistic action. Color spaces draw closer or grow apart and at times overlap in order to create of mystery an aesthetic value.
The artist offered in his paintings artistic scenes that resemble in their implementation his treatment of the paper material he used, dreamy and lyrical scenes in which the structure and lighting of most colors are simplified and in which those colors are given free rein in their quest for a space to inhabit. If we observe the path of a color in one of the paintings using insight rather than sight, we notice that sometimes it hides in the folds of the letters and in between space as if looking for warmth and emotional depth. The artist constructed several geometrical borders, yet gave colors the freedom to move spontaneously and stripped geometrical shapes of restrictions or rigid composition. He blended the organic with the geometric so that both of them exist harmoniously. He used scratches that are at times superficial and at others relatively deep, hence creating an effect similar to that of shapes engraved on historic walls, giving the impression of ruins whose essence no one knows except the artist that created them and which are the only remnants of memory that are left for documentation.
The documentation of emotional memory is that main focus of this exhibition. It is a daring artistic adventure that depicts a world robbed of time, space, and objectivity, a world of invisible emotions and impressions rendered visible through tangible materials. It is a kind of beauty that is neither coincidental nor haphazard, but rather one that is the product on an immense human energy and a profound emotional experience.
Suzy Shoukry - Artist and Art critic