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Seeing Riham El-Saadany as she moves amidst her paintings, art fans can tell they are about to explore a very special world. Her vivid colors match her cheerful daring character
by Hania Moheeb
An enthusiastic artis, in her early thirties with short, yet rich experience with art and life, Riham is racing with time to reach there, where the world is all hers.
Most of her work involves women; a trait that can pretty much classify her as a feminist; but she refuses however to be classified as such. El-Saadany believes that being a woman makes her more capable of expressing women’s issues, pain and aspiration. To her, the term feminist can imply being against men by default while she insists that she is not.
In her world, her women vary from elegant and proud, to sad, strong and daring. Some have horns over their heads, sometimes with golden splendor to stress vividness and audacity, “The horns are not a very good symbol in the contemporary Egyptian culture, but in the history of art, horns were a symbol of power, strength and pride. I draw women with horns because I see women as strong and powerful creatures,” says El-Saadany.
The female faces and figures are sometimes placed in elegant enclosures where El-Saadany plays much with perspective, creating with the different levels and the unusual placement of elements and false dimensions that captivate the eye, admittinh that she is still experimenting with this technique.
Going through her paintings, it is also evident that El-Saadany is infatuated with the works of Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954). “Frida was very daring; she tackled issues unacceptable in her time like homosexuality, and she crossed color and race barriers as well. She even drew her sister implicating that the sister betrayed her with her husband Diego,” says El-Saadany.
This boldness and daring attitude are traits that Riham does not lack. She started showing her paintings at a very young age, and having a solo show was not easy especially in private galleries. A gallery owner encouraged her to ‘break all the taboos’, but at the time, she didn’t figure out what he meant, because she was already non-fearful. “I had nothing to hide, I was already open about my views and beliefs, I had no taboos and I always bear the consequences of what I say and do,” Riham says.
Riham says she is quite infatuated with Egyptian mythology, though it doesn’t show much in her work. But she did bring that to light early in her career when she participated in an exhibition in 2003 on the dance of Isis and Osiris. In the show that was held at AUC, El-Saadany exhibited paintings where she used many symbols like fire and water to express how Isis mourned her beloved husband. But it’s not only about Egyptian mythology, Riham has a special passion for the subjecy in general. The second time she was commissioned for a big project, it was by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and she worked on depicting that Alexandria is immersed in the sea, creating mermaids and fantastic creatures coming out of it. “I love mythology, especially the Greco-Roman legacy, the things that I see in the museums and the mixing of animal body parts with human body parts. I love the symbolism involved,” says El-Saadany.
The Faculty of Fine Arts, where El-Saadany earned both her Masters and PhD, was a good learning experience for her. “I was very demanding as a student and I worked very hard because I wanted to learn fast and start working.” Strangely enough, the reason why she embarked on her first exhibition, even before finishing her studies at the Faculty, was an advice from one of its professors. When she went to invite him for the inauguration, he was surprised and was told, ‘I was just joking when I advised you to do so.’
However, El-Saadany has more esteem towards her mentors in Rose El-Youssef Magazine. She talks about her first job with much passion and how the famous illustrated magazine gave her the opportunity to know people who helped and encouraged her in the early years of her career.
“When I first started to work there, Mr. Essam Shawky realized I was a promising talent. He guided me to create characters; he would ask me to draw a sad nail for instance, or a recently widowed ant. I was surprised, but he got me into the feature story mood and it was really fun,” El-Saadany says. She goes on explaining how Shawky and the other senior colleagues arranged that her first exhibition is inaugurated by the great cartoonist Mostapha Hussein, a gesture that both surprised her and gave her quite a boost.
Shawky however, made it a point that she does not go on working with the magazine since he saw a better future for her. “I was angry at the time because he refused to give me a long term contract with the magazine, but now I know that he had a vision; he was far sighted enough to tell that I would have a better future elsewhere. We are still good friends and he still encourages me.”
El-Saadany speaks of her most celebrated pieces proudly; a series of fourteen art works titled: “People of the World”. Though her work was acquired by selective collectors in the Arabian Gulf area and Egypt, nothing matched the recognition that she got for her work embedded in the walls of Cairo Airport. In 2008 she was commissioned to carry out a large-scale piece for the then recently-inaugurated Terminal 3. The project encouraged Riham to put to work her extensive studies of the human figure and performance arts; she decided to work with human bodies instead of canvas and after painting the bodies, she photographed them. Those photos are now seen by thousands of travelers every day.
A gentleman and a baby girl are depicted with much passion in some of Riham’s works. In a painting that recalls the themes of Frida Kahlo, a surgeon operates on the heart of a woman who lies in his arms; It is just a painting within the painting that shows Riham’s studio and herself as the painter.
Riham’s husband is a great support; he was her doctor at a time when she was passing through a very severe health condition, then they clicked and got together. Dr. Nasser Abou Se’da, Harvard Professor and heart surgeon made a great change in Riham’s life that was not so ideal on the personal level. “He is very enthusiastic about my work and sees my potential. He pushes me tremendously, supports me and gives me the platform from where I can launch. He doesn’t put any obstacles in my way. I have to admit that for a female to have support in our society is very difficult without this platform,” she says.
“I never thought that motherhood would be such a special experience. Lillia is God’s gift to me,” says El-Saadany. The baby that is cheerfully depicted in a number of her paintings is her daughter, who is now seven years old. She is equipping her with the tools she needs to be strong, independent and a happy person and involves her in her work, social life and study. “We are more of friends nowadays. She carries my research papers and helps me with the application forms”.
In 2005, Riham launched her first exhibition in London, and she did it totally on her own; she feels so proud that no one had promoted her there. “I’ve been working from 2001 to 2013 and I did my masters and Phd, I had a solo exhibition every year, in addition to a huge number of group exhibitions, among them the Autumn Salon, Amsterdam Biennale (photography), a cultural exchange program with Spain and a show in Malta,” says El-Saadany.
Now, Riham is on the threshold of a new experience; she is moving with her little family to New York where she is looking forward for further success.