By Sara Elkamel
In her latest collection, Cairo-based artist Souad Mardam Bey meditates on contemporary socio-political life. Through a series of large-scale portraits, where the subjects' eyes are covered in large sunglasses that
obstruct their vision in some canvases, their bodies covered in multiple layers of clothing in others,
the artist tackles pop culture and captures the uncertainty pervading everyday life in the Middle East.
Born in Damascus, Syria, Souad Mardam Bey first came to Cairo in 2000 after living in Beirut for many years, and enchanted by its enormity and vivaciousness, decided to stay. The artist is a fan of cosmopolitan cities, where cultures, ideas, and faces converge.
Throughout her career, Mardam Bey has developed a visual language that is reminiscent of a daydream. By producing large-scale, enchantingly textured paintings with subjects that stare one into submission, the artist is able to pull you into an alternate world.
But while painting this collection, the artist could not escape the daunting reality of life surrounding her, where contradiction, in politics, culture, and wardrobe, pervades the street. The result is a mostly monochromatic series that depicts the frenzied scenes she witnesses everyday, where people create their own illogical lifestyles, demonstrating a clash of modern and conservative influences.
The chaotic environment in which we exist today saddens the artist. "It is dark, it is opaque, and it makes me uncomfortable," she says. Mardam Bey has always been taken with the street, and even in the simplest alleys in Cairo, she would spot the richness of human nature and the city's cultural diversity.
As if fighting against the overpowering madness of today's street, in her artwork, Souad Mardam Bey seeks harmony, be it in monochrome or in her deep enthralling colors. Whether the subjects are human or fantastical characters emerging from her creative mind, it is this constant pursuit for harmony that dominates her entire oeuvre.
Mardam Bey is captivated with the power of portraiture. In her paintings, these subjects that are normally in motion, are rendered transfixed, "frozen." An obsession with wardrobe recurs through her body of work; she clothes her subjects in ornate hats and cloaks, which at times, are a simple result of her fascination with color and design but at other times reflect deeper, cultural aspects.
In previous exhibitions, Mardam Bey painted subjects with spellbinding eyes, their irises exuding a faint melancholia, as if they were seeing into a bleak future that we could not yet see.
The glasses that cover the eyes in this new series perhaps challenge this clairvoyant disposition; the characters roaming around this collection are as clueless as we are. Their sight is interrupted, but not completely blinded, by these elaborate sunglasses.
"The glasses symbolize our blurred vision. There is a veil between reality and us. What is it?" Mardam Bey asks. The accessories that appear in different shapes stand for the surreal nature of modern-day life. In this interplay between pop culture and the artist's ethereal characters, the artist probes questions about reality.
Abandoning the rich color characteristic of previous collections, most of the paintings in this series are black and white or covered in soft hues. The artist says a simpler, less chaotic palette served to spotlight the subjects and composition.
Painted in mixed media and oil paint on canvas adorned with the artist's signature geometric and floral motifs, the compositions of the elongated canvases, which are evocative of the illustrious pose of supermodels, are juxtaposed here with a fashion style that Mardam Bey finds hideous and weird, where veiled women wrap multiple, multicolored scarves around their hair, and cover their bodies in mismatched layers of clothing. As such, the artist depicts the phenomenon of the veil not as an item of clothing but rather as an entire wardrobe theme, and perhaps an entire cultural trend.
Meaning is to be found in the elimination of color. Mardam Bey mutes the multihued costumes of the people she observes on the street, in effect stating that she is disturbed by the mess of color they create. Once again, the artist puts a mask on reality.
"I tried to harmonize things myself," she says. "I wanted to paint them in black and white because in reality, these women do not have the slightest harmony in their wardrobe."
Artists are always affected by the environment in which they exist, the artist believes. But she says the passage of time, and the accumulation of knowledge across time, is what enriches the artwork most. Through pixilated layers of color, Mardam Bey continuously seeks to add a vintage feel to her paintings, capturing the stamp of time on canvas. In a way, her artwork evokes the sense that it has been painted long ago.
But unlike previous collections, which appeared as reveries on canvas, this series is very pertinent to the here and now. This collection needs to be read against a larger socio-political cultural backdrop, where uncertainty prevails. The series is in essence a visual musing on the awkward fashion of contemporary Middle Eastern society, and by proxy, on the equally discomfited political atmosphere.