Modernizing Traditional Art

By Hania Moheeb


Magdy Mostafa
Using Multimedia in Installations

A year before he graduated from the Faculty of Art in 2003, Mostafa started working with multimedia, playing around with interactive sound, light, films and installations (3D artwork).

“I did 12 installations during the past few years. My objective is to have people interact with my work on various levels as I aim to leave an impact on the ordinary viewer,” says Mostafa.

Specializing in sound is not very common except in countries highly linked to technology like Japan, Germany and Spain where sound education was initially established. Mostafa studied on his own and attended workshops in Spain and New York, however, his experience in experimenting with sound, has always been in conjunction with a Sufi state of mind.


Projects and Exhibitions

His last work “The Surface of Spectral Scattering” reflects the landscapes and memories of Cairo, and compromises 650 square meters of black fabric, hand embroidered with lead lights to create a design resembling the map of Cairo, and is fixed on a wooden platform that is placed in a hall in Town House Gallery. The show is a play of lights synchronized with electronic sounds that the audience has to experience as they move on a specific path through a staircase that allows them to view it from above. “Sound was the base of this project where a multichannel sound dialogue between speakers that were placed beneath and above the platform and hidden in the architecture took place,” he explains.

In 2007, Mostafa worked on a similar project about Cairo titled “Madena” in collaboration with his late colleague and revolutionary martyr Ahmed Basyouni, who also worked with video and sound. The project included video, sound, light and a live performance, and through the use of computers, mixers and amplifiers, the artists broadcasted recordings that they believed were iconic sounds of Cairo that were recorded over one month.

A geographical map of Cairo was also fixed on the walls, as well as multi-size speakers that broadcasted soundtracks that corresponded to each particular area on the map.  When visitors moved close to the wall, they experienced a sound panorama of the city, but not all sounds were perceived simultaneously.  The video projection showed rhythmic movements of people in crowded and popular places.

This installation was shown in the Youth Salon in 2007 and won the Grand Award of Creativity Festival – Multimedia Interactive Project.


Creativity and Techniques

“I visit a place, receive its energy, study the architecture, acoustics and light and then design the installation accordingly,” Mostafa mentions when discussing how he tailors his designs to the given space.

This approach was adopted by Mostafa in a number of projects, most notably in his work titled “Transparent Existence” that was shown as part of an exhibition by Mashrabeya Gallery in 2010. The curator chose a very special historical building to display the art works of Samaakhana, a Sufi-dance theater from the Ottoman Era.

The artist searched the location thoroughly until he found a spot that included the remains of an old ablution fountain topped by a dome in the basement of the building. “I recreated the fountain with lights that interacted with sounds coming from a multichannel system: a combination of natural sound from the location, the sound of water flowing and old recordings of Sufi poetry from Morocco,” he explains.

Mostafa describes himself as an artist who thinks big. “Even before I graduated, my participation in the Youth Salon in 2002 was quite daring. I wanted to cover the entire building of the Art Center in Zamalek with sound. Luckily, I was able to convince the managers and I transmitted the sound tracks I had created for three consecutive days through the sound system already installed in the building.”


Sabah Naiim
City Life Painter and Artist

Though some artists tend to focus on popular folkloric themes like people in traditional costumes and traditional markets and bazaars, Sabah Naiim finds themes from everyday life in the city more honest and appealing.

Naiim, born 1967, got her Bachelors in 1990 and her Ph.D. in 2003 both from the Faculty of Art.


Early Career and Inspiration

Throughout most of her 21-year career, Naiim was concerned with the human body and its manifestations in everyday life. In the beginning, she focused on herself and on her own body and she worked on a variety of self portraits using photography and collage, before she started working on images of other people.

“I started by working with magazine clippings, later on taking the pictures myself, printing them and then drawing over them. Further on, I started printing the photos on big scale canvases, drawing over them with colors, ink, and acrylic,” she says.

In 1998, changes in Naiim’s life got her more in touch with the public spheres and she started picking up new interests. “I started focusing on people in the streets. I come from a popular neighborhood and so I use public transport and I walk a lot, spending time among everyday people who have many stories,” she explains.

Naiim used to roam the city with her camera taking hundreds of shots of people who grabbed her attention, and then she would print the ones she liked best. She would then add her guidelines and colors on those printouts, creating ornaments that separate the figures from the background to focus only on the bodies and their manifestations. “I would either create a different environment for those bodies or create a mood that matches their state of mind, sometimes trying to cheer them up and add some joy to their environment, whereas at other times, I would add more burdens and restrictions on them,” mentions Naiim.



The artist managed to make art her profession, which went hand in hand with her academic career. “Another problem with art education in schools is the system itself. Little attention is given to it, and they focus instead on driving students to get grades that are high enough to enroll them in medicine or engineering,” she says.

Just before falling sick with Hepatitis C, she had the opportunity to go on an art residency in London, where she stayed for a month before her experience was cut short due to her mother’s sickness. “At a certain point, I decided that I am not giving up, and I would sit on a chair beside my mother’s bed with small notebooks and colored pens and start sketching. I was trying to be optimistic and evoke goodness, ” she explains, mentioning that those sketches reflected an immense healing process.


When she had the courage and determination to resume her career, Naiim turned the small sketchbook pages into large scale canvases and put them on display in 2014 at Safar Khan in Zamalek.

She has also been taking part in group and solo exhibitions in Egypt since 1993. Starting from 1999, she went overseas; exhibiting in Milan, Rome, Venice, Dubai, Johannesburg, Tokyo, London, Paris, Denver, Beirut and many other cities.

“The Middle East is different from the US or Europe as our life is complicated and practicing art is also difficult. Abroad, artists can get commissioned by galleries to produce certain styles of art and they can live on it while in Egypt we spend money on art without being certain that we can turn it into revenue,” Naiim concludes.

5.jpgSameh Ismail
Adapting Calligraphy

“I believe that destiny plays a certain role in your choices; you might make a choice to take a certain route, but you do not quite know where it will lead,” said Sameh.

Early Life and Career

Fascinated by the handwriting of his calligrapher and Arabic teacher in primary school, Ismail attracted the teacher’s attention who later on helped him enroll in the Calligraphy School in Bab El-Louk as soon as he had finished his preparatory stage, which was the minimum requirement for the school. Over the next two years, he excelled as a student and learned other Arabic fonts like thuluth, diwani and farsi.

Specializing in graphics at the Faculty of Fine Arts with a focus in book design, posters, printing materials, logos and identity creation, Ismail’s passion for calligraphy grew. “I was challenged, just like many other colleagues, by the employment of Arabic text within the design. At that time, computers were not common and we added text to the posters through copying and enlarging the prototypes in the letterset collections. I realized then that I had an edge over my colleagues as I was familiar with calligraphy and I could work freehand,” he says.


He wanted to find ways to modify, develop and play around with the Arabic fonts. At that time, art students believed that Arabic script was dead and static, especially those used in typography, and if they used any of the more elaborate fonts like naskh, thuluth, farsi or diwani, it would impart a sacred touch upon the work. “This was a taboo: I could not make a poster to promote tourism in Sharm El Sheikh, for instance, and use the koufi font,” explains Isamail.

He knew he had to work hard to promote the idea that the Arabic letter can be just another graphic element of design, just like a tree or a model. To break the taboo, Ismail worked on the Arabic letters and their laws and aesthetics, trying to liberate them from the classic rules and make them more dynamic. To do so, he had to avoid the use of Quranic verses and focus on inspiration from Sufi poetry like Ibn Arabi and El-Rumi.

A great turning point that put the ambitious artist on the right track was his work with great film director Youssef Chahin on “El-Maseer” or “The Destiny” in 1996. He was about to graduate when he got this opportunity to work on all the calligraphy and ornamental elements of the film, from costumes to decoration.

“Chahin and Khaled Youssef handed me a box with twenty references on the arts of Andalusia, including its architecture, fashion and manuscripts, and told me to study them for four months before meeting again. This was a great learning experience where I realized that the Andalusian era was very rich and delightful, a very creative mix of European and Islamic arts,” he claimed.


Creativity and Technique

From 1997 until 2006, Ismail focused on studying Latin typefaces in an attempt to make an Arabic adaptation and create new and modern Arabic fonts while keeping an eye on what the Iranians and Lebanese artists were doing.

“The Arabic letter is intelligent, evolving and surprising – it changes form according to its position in the word – hence any program that would be developed to work on the Arabic typography has to give a variety of options to the artist. The Iranians were pioneers in developing such a program,” he mentions.

At that time, Ismail had moved from animation to graphic design in the Egyptian Television where he started learning about the rules, 3D graphics, motion picture language, music and timing.

In parallel, he was still working with many advertising agencies as a freelance designer, a calligrapher and a painter. “In 2001, designing El-Bait Magazine’s logo helped me gain popularity. I worked with them for several years and we used to revamp the image every three years, which attracted many advertising companies to me,” says Ismail.

Exhibitions and Achievements

Ismail, who started exhibiting his paintings in two solo exhibitions in 2007, was able to reintroduce the Arabic script to a large public over the years. His works are characterized by free flowing, elegant Arabic letters, interwoven with abstract forms and bright spots of color from time to time.

In 2009, he participated in several group exhibitions and got a residency in Barcelona, Spain.

Another important experience came about in 2008 when The Austrian Cultural Forum chose him to work on a joint Graffiti project with an Austrian artist. Ismail got involved in the choice of the location and for the first time in Egypt, a legal Graffiti project was carried out on a train carriage. The experience brought him to believe that this vivid art needs to be legalized to counter all the ugliness in our streets and to help deliver art to the layman. He is fighting for this cause through an official position that he now holds in a committee at the Ministry of Culture.