Saleh RedaThe Rebel
I was fortunate enough to have spent a considerably long time close to the great artist Saleh Reda. We had a lot in common on the intellectual level despite the age difference. Our families were quite close and we met in several gatherings at his house, which was frequented by a number of prominent artists such as Mohamed Taha Hussein, Farghali Abdel Hafiz, and Abdel Rahman al-Nashar to name a few. Those gatherings witnessed a number of intellectual discussions, chief among which were issues pertaining to the Fine Arts in Egypt, the relationship between the art scene in Egypt and its counterpart in the West, and the means to construct an Egyptian artistic identity. Saleh Reda was usually the one with different views, for he rebelled against traditional approaches to Art and believed that fine arts constitute the channel through which Egypt can stand on equal footing with advanced countries on the artistic level. I remember very well when I was in my final years of college the atmosphere of liveliness that pervaded seminars at the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo because of Saleh Reda's input as well as that of his fellow artists who believed in the inevitability of modernization and change. These included artists Ramzi Moustafa, Al-Sayed Khalifa, and Mohamed Taha Hussein in addition to art critics such as Sedki al-Gabakhengy, Ahmed Fouad Selim, and Hussein Bikar among others. This generation was influenced by pioneers in the Egyptian art scene and who were also their peers for a considerable time.
Saleh Reda was born in Cairo on February 28, 1932 and died on April 8, 2018. He studied at the School of Fine Arts from 1946 till 1951 and received a diploma from the Ceramics Department at the School of Applied Arts in 1957, the Kandidat degree, which is equivalent to a Ph.D., in ceramics in 1961, and a diploma in ceramic arts from the UK in 1963. He was also a professor at the School of Applied Arts in Cairo and was a role model for his students to whom he always listened and with whom he always engaged in fruitful dialogues. He hardly missed an artistic exhibition and was always known for honestly voicing his opinion about all the artworks he saw, especially with young artists to encourage them and contribute to the creation of a generation of brave artists that express themselves freely.
No introduction would possibly give Saleh Reda the credit he deserves, for this he would need volumes. Reda was an extremely prolific artist, demonstrated in the diverse skills he possessed. This was clear in the exhibitions he held in different art galleries in Egypt, especially in the Fine Arts Gallery in Downtown Cairo. His exhibitions, held under the auspices of writer and thinker Badr al-Din Abou Ghazi, boasted innovative concepts that played a major role in shaping the Art scene in Egypt. I always remember a saying by Reda about pursuing one’s dreams. Some might think that art is a reflection of the reality in which we live. However, art is a form of post-reality, a dream about the future. Who would be able to survive without such dreams? We are in dire need for changing our reality and shedding off the past. The roots of a tree cannot be seen with the naked eye, but the fruits of this tree are the ones that become visible. The new dream absorbs the old one and that is why we have to go on dreaming and work on turning those dreams into realities that in turn would give way to new hopes and so on. This process is passed on from one generation to another.
These words reflect Reda’s philosophy about the necessity of changing our reality through art and culture and the importance of not waiting for this change to happen on its own. I am reminded now by his paintings in the 1950s, especially one he painted following the 1956 Tripartite Aggression. This painting depicted popular resistance in the city of Port Said, against which the attack was launched, and portrayed a dynamic view of the strength of human will in effecting a real change. This approach could also be traced in his ceramic works, sculptures, and prints during this stage and in a way that demonstrates his ability to master different mediums, which he managed to tame and manipulate to deliver his message. Such skill is reminiscent of the works of Masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Joan Miro among others in addition to a number of Egyptian artists such as Salah Abdel Karim, Mohamed Taha Hussein, Ramzi Moustafa, Mostafa Abdel Moity, and Mostafa al-Razzaz.
Saleh Reda was able to merge his artistic vision with popular art, which was apparent in his printed work in the 1970s where he used recurrent circles lined up vertically and horizontally across large spaces as well as his sculptures in which he used positive and negative poles that complement each other as if part of one body. Like many artists, Reda was influenced by Islamic Art, quoting its essence in moving mass across space in a natural manner.
Art critic Ahmed Fouad Selim says, Saleh Reda exceeds structural time. His creative methodology is characterized by rationalism, yet his work reflects an effortlessness that cannot be traced in the works of other artists and is also devoid of arrogance. His works are distinguished with reduction, firmness, and a powerful presence. This particularly applies to the bronze work he created in the early 1980s. Melancholy that appears in his earlier works as well, which is clear in cutting diamonds in Fatimid Cairo bazars and the statue erected by the Nile in front of the National Bank of Egypt, inspired by ancient Egyptian art.
Among his most memorable works are the colored puppets he made of earthenware, which are considered a milestone in the history of modern Egyptian art. In these works, his ability to strike a balance between his sensual, intellectual, and mathematical skills is made clear. It is this equation that distinguishes Saleh Reda and highlights the diversity of his talents.
Saleh Reda's artistic career cannot be summarized in a few words. In fact, it requires volumes to thoroughly analyze the different stages of his art and to describe his rebellious ideas and his keenness on innovation. The efforts exerted by Saleh Reda and his generation deserve special attention in order to highlight their contribution in enriching the art scene and their struggle for breaking away from traditional approaches.
The great artist and dear friend Saleh Reda is deeply missed. We miss hanging out in your house and the discussions we had. We miss your revolutionary ideas and your rebellion against everything that is traditional. But your work lives on and your spirit will always be present among the coming generations to guide them and, in turn, to continue enriching Egyptian modern art.