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French Version

'Cairo Stencils': Tough politics, fragile glamour

Egyptian-Armenian artist opens exhibition in Beirut

Chant Avedissian is stepping through the rooms of Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouch like a man eager for an escape route. An Egyptian-Armenian artist who divides his time between Cairo and Yerevan - in Cairo he works, in Yerevan he rests - Avedissian is in Beirut for the opening of an exhibition and the publication of a book, both of which encapsulate about 15 years of his work.

His appearance is unruffled and his manner of speech is soft and erudite. But in a few hours he'll be on a plane to Yereven and judging from the way his eyes periodically widen with exasperation, that flight time cannot come soon enough.

Avedissian's exhibition at Janine Rubeiz is triumphant, a solid start for the year in art and a bold show of more than 30 works which hold together, engage viewers, and yield multiple layers of meaning and interpretation. All produced in 2005, these pieces draw on a vast vocabulary of iconic images that the artist has honed into a powerful and loaded visual language.

Whether sketched from memory or unearthed from the pages of old photo magazines, Avedissian takes pictures of well-known political and pop cultural figures - Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Farouk, Umm Kulthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Asmahan, Farid al-Atrash, Fairouz, Hind Rostom - and turns them into stencils. Then, combining these stencils with a slew of other, more generic stencils of objects and symbols evoking everyday Egyptian life and history, he arranges elaborate patterns on recycled paper.

"They have to be interesting," Avedissian says of the figures he uses. Some reveal his personal preference, he says, "and some I choose for their political impact, their meaning and double meaning. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani," he explains, in reference to the nearly mythic 19th-century activist and philosopher, "is important to me because he is a part of this movement against colonialism, foreign influence, and imperialism. Umm Kulthoum is a symbol of militancy. She was a militant woman. People think was a singer. No, she was a fighter. She had this way of fighting and she used it to do something fantastic. She showed that nationalism didn't have to be cruel or tough. It could be soft, with diamonds."

Avedissian's art comes in two sizes: small horizontal stencils measuring 50 centimeters by 70 centimeters and made from pigments and gum arabic on recycled cardboard, and large vertical stencils measuring 150 centimeters by 250 centimeters and made from pigments and gum arabic on corrugated cardboard. The smaller works usually feature a single, central image set against a decorative background embellished with text along the bottom. The larger works function more like murals, pulling together disparate elements from the smaller pieces into all-over explosions of form, color, text, and subtext.

The exhibition at Janine Rubeiz is bolstered by Avedissian's book, "Cairo Stencils," edited by Rose Issa, a London-based curator of Lebanese and Iranian descent who is known for organizing such shows as "Far Near Distance: Contemporary Positions of Iranian Artists," and published by Saqi Books, which is year by year building a serious back-catalogue of books documenting the work of prominent contemporary artists throughout the region.

Very much a mid-career retrospective in print, "Cairo Stencils" offers a comprehensive exploration of Avedissian's work from the early 1990s until now, replete with short, clearly written texts delving into the precise iconography at play in his work and the symbols he uses to construct complex systems of meaning on a two-dimensional plane of ridged and fragile cardboard.

In the reception area of the gallery, Avedissian is pinched between two professors from the American University of Beirut who are asking him to lead a workshop for their students in the graphic design department.

"A workshop on what?" he asks.

"Your technique," the professors cry in unison.

"My technique, but this is easy. This is a half hour. I would like to do a workshop on how to choose a man, on how to choose a life," he says, deadpan, and then setting his gaze on the crowd-free terrace off the gallery, he adds, "But this requires five years of research." He checks his watch and stalks off for open space.

Although Avedissian recycles his imagery from one work to another, each of his pieces is unique. "I make one. Each is alone, created at that moment. It's like an architect who does a plan for a house," he explains. Certain elements are obvious and required. Avedissian simplifies them and makes them flat, without shadows, "like pharaonic hieroglyphs. Then step by step it becomes very sophisticated. The finished design is about color, placement, and composition. Your anxiety becomes how to put it all together."

Avedissian's grandparents came to Cairo to seek refuge from the Armenian genocide. Born in 1951, he grew up after the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the glamorous era of King Farouk, the last King of Egypt who was dethroned by the Free Officers' Coup in 1952 and exiled to Italy. He came of age during at a time when Nasser's charisma, along with his tough blend of Arab nationalism and socialism, was galvanizing public opinion all over the world (in addition to the image makers of the Nasser era, Avidissian's book is dedicated "to the women and men whose high hopes for their recently independent country and belief in their progressive future created a buzz and momentum that was shared in most of the developing world.")

In the 1970s, Avedissian studied fine art in Montreal and printmaking in Paris. He returned to Cairo in 1980 and took a job working with the groundbreaking Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, author of the seminal text "Architecture for the Poor."

"I came back from my Western studies," recalls Avedissian, "and saw this man working with history, tradition, architecture - it was a new way of seeing the country. He was a brilliant man. Through his vision, he was a very important man."

Avedissian insists he only helped organize Fathy's files and compile documentation on his buildings for a book produced by the Aga Khan Foundation. But clearly, his nine years with Fathy, who passed away in 1989, heavily influenced him and his work.

Avedissian started working with stencils in 1991. Before that, he says he was doing more traditional paintings. His current artistic practice, according to Issa's text in "Cairo Stencils," incorporates "more than twenty years of peripatetic research during which he integrated his formal studies in Canada and France with the iconographic heritage of unknown pharaonic artists; the geometric and abstract concepts of Arab architecture; the baroque and floral motifs of Ottoman textiles; and the glamorous 20th-century images of well-known figures in the Arab world."

Having retreated to the gallery's terrace, Avedissian is again pinched by admirers who are asking him to sign copies of his book. As he writes the place and date of each dedication, he says, with a wicked twist of sarcasm, "Ooh, Beirut, how chic."

One woman presses him for a more personalized missive.

"You know, hugs, kisses, love, something," she says, leaning toward him.

Avedissian winces and, leaning away from her, slowly spells out the words "with kindness." He checks his watch again.

What holds a viewer in front of Avedissian's work for so long is not necessarily the fact that his imagery is so familiar or so deeply beloved across the Arab world. The mechanism of that affection is clearly under assessment in his work. What captivates viewers is the sense that his imagery is unstable, under threat, and about to fall apart. Avedissian's treatment of Nasser, Arab nationalism, the High Dam, the Cairene cosmopolitanism of Farouk, the sexiness of screen sirens, or the sensitivity of Halim Hafez is not without nostalgia. But it is at the same time intimately aware of that the political strength of these historic moments cannot mask human fragility or the ways in which time, in the end, will render them all as delicate as crumbling paper.

Chant Avedissian's work in on view at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche through February 15. For more information, call +961 1 868 290. "Cairo Stencils," edited by Rose Issa and published by Saqi Books, is available in bookstores throughout Beirut.

Beirut,01 23 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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