Educating the peasants about politics through visual art

The Revolution in the paintings of the Egyptian artist and journalist Mohammed Hajji

By Iqbal Tamimi


Educating the public about politics in general and about the revolutions in particular in the Arab states has been done in the past through written texts, distributed in secret, in fear of oppressive authorities and their censorship. Written texts have been always considered dangerous, and in most cases if one was caught red-handed reading or acquiring an eye-opening source of knowledge that contradicts the state’s version, the individual who dared to seek the truth will eventually end up in prison. Books have usually had direct messages that have no other interpretations; added to that a large percentage of the Arab populations, especially those who live in the countryside, are illiterate and susceptible to political manipulation since their only source of information is state owned radio stations and television channels. For those reasons, art seems to be the most suitable tool of raising political awareness because of its ability to disseminate hidden messages and symbolic meanings and hints open to many interpretations. Mohammed Hajji, a 71 year-old multitalented Egyptian artist, chose journalism to be his outlet following his graduation from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1962. His forty-year experience of art projected visions surrounded by an aura of holiness and hints pointing to his Islamic and Arabic culture. His creative visual concepts became an extra lavish language that came within the reach of all Egyptians, when he used to express his political opinions through paintings printed in daily newspapers such as Rose El Youssef and Sabah Elkhair.
Hajji’s brush strokes reflected intense manifestations of the charm of the unreal, almost like treading into a fairyland paved with alphabet characters and codes. His paintings are inhabited by the deprived, the eloquent, abstract features and intense symbolism, and his colours celebrate life, courage and endurance. His latest paintings of the Egyptian People’s Revolution celebrate freedom by recreating art as a tool that fights tyranny, oppression, dictatorship and corruption, while his pre-revolution art was dominated by symbols, exactly as every tool of self expression used to be censored and every demand was camouflaged in visual art, such as in poetry where meanings were disguised behind crafted words. His paintings were an intense presence of alphabet characters, keys, codes, living creatures and shapes that seemed like whispering prayers. But after 25th January 2011 his art was resurrected through direct language that off its fear. His painting ‘The Wedding of Tahrir Square’ documented the marriage of a couple whose wedding was witnessed by the whole world while the media was reporting on the demonstrations. Hajji sketched the young revolutionary couple while getting married under a lush green tree, from which the Egyptian flag is hanging over their heads. In a second painting entitled the Cleansing, Hajji painted the Egyptian citizen dressed in white, raising the Egyptian flag; symbolizing Egypt’s shedding its old dictatorship and corruption, while his paintings of the Palestinian and Libyan uprisings reflected the intensity of expression, documenting a defining moment in the history of the Arab rebelling nations.
Hajji came from Sandoub, a village in Egypt, where beauty fuses the colour of the sky with those of the vegetation and the land. The illiterate peasants in his village grew up with a natural appreciation for shades and colours, which Hajji found a suitable tool to use for raising their political awareness and to educate them and rid them of poverty and the outcomes of the British colonialism, feudalism and the social retardation. The Egyptian artist and critique, Salah Beesar wrote: “Hajji started by drawing on the walls of the houses in his village, using primitive colours made of limestone that were often susceptible to nature’s erosion and weather factors. With the help of a team of educated people and a number of students, Hajji managed to publish the first wall magazine in his village. It was named after the village, the “Sandoub Journal”. The wall area used for the journal was initially 70 × 100 cm, but the size kept expanding until it became a 4 × 20 meters huge mural of wood grain, standing at the entrance of one of the village streets. The bi-monthly wall magazine kept educating the peasants regularly for ten years, until its publication stopped in 1968. This ‘wall journal’ experience is considered one of the most significant evolutionary media tools witnessed by the rural areas of Egypt.
During Hajji’s recurrent visits to his village, he was saddened by the erosion of the cultivated areas in the Egyptian countryside, and the shrinkage of cultivated traditional crops. His sadness was translated to one of his finest collection of paintings about the Egyptian countryside and the daily life of the peasants during the harvest seasons of wheat, rice and dates. According to the testimony of his colleague, the critic Mahmoud Baqsheesh, Hajji was influenced at the time by the artistic techniques of a number of art masters, of journalists and non- journalists, whose works of art were shaped by politics, such as Zohdy, Hassan Fouad and Mohamed Hamed Aweys. However, his exposure to the visual concepts of shape, nature and his attention to the effects of light and shadows over different forms, led him to adopt the academic classic styles of painting before thinking of rebelling against the artistic values that were adopted then by the majority of the revolutionary artists who influenced his choices at the very beginning. His next step was his participation in establishing of Almansoura Magazine while he was still an undergraduate student of Fine Arts. He described this stage as ‘a unique experience outside the capital city and a good model to follow for the regional press’, since he has chosen painted investigative journalism, where he used both skills of painting and commenting to educate the people who happen to be from different background. His investigative paintings had a documentary nature which was clearly biased in favor of the peasants who were living in Egypt’s countryside.
In 1965 Hajji moved to the forefront of press professionalism when he joined Rose El Youssef’ and Sabah Elkhair magazines, taking his artistic mission to a new level, from educating the locals in his village to a larger audience, while tackling the concerns of the whole country. In the late sixties Hajji started writing and painting a set of investigations, besides drawing a number of works of art to accompany series of stories such as The Stories of the Prophets authored by Mohammad Jad in 1969.
Since Hajji was brought up in a rural area of Egypt, where the Quran is the reference that inspires the people and governs their everyday lives, he was inspired by the Quranic verses which helped him create a series of paintings that were published by Sabah Elkhair magazine in 1970 alongside a series of articles written by Dr. Mustapha Mahmoud, entitled a Modern Interpretation of the Quran.
Hajji explained his artistic approach: ‘I have always translated my expressions of this world by paintings that do not reflect human faces; which has been associated with the call to Christianity since St. Francis called for the love of God through the love of his creatures. I have also kept away from the Islamic logic of painting, which implements contexts of decoration, visualization and simplification. The outcome was a symbolic language that responds to the mystical and spiritual images available in the Qur’an that enhanced my feelings of a mystical love and encouraged me to create 33 paintings inspired by 33 verses of Quran, which I have published in a book entitled ‘A Painter Contemplates the Quran’. This book has been published in three editions, Arabic, English and French, and still awaiting the approval of Alazhar for printing’. Following this experience, Hajji published the second edition of the his book entitled ‘Left Right’ which was drawn in black and white only, published earlier in 1976 under the title Al Are, which he describes as ‘an attempt to document a revolutionary art that fights all forms of the repressive regimes, the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ and the ones between’.
Hajji explained that his interest in the art of rebellion was triggered by what he described as ‘the heinous acts of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who was responsible for the death of many intellectuals, artists and musicians including the Chilean President Salvador Allende, the poet Pablo Neruda and the musician Kara’. And although Hajji has rejected over the years many invitations to showcase his works of art in an exhibition, he insisted on organizing a special exhibition in tribute to the Palestinian people, entitled “The people under siege”. In which he exhibited more than 100 paintings, screaming with pain and despair, caused by the brutality of the Israeli occupiers, and showing the tragic circumstances under which the Palestinian people are struggling to live while they are starved to death under the siege imposed upon them by the Zionist Israeli occupiers.
One of Hajji’s talents is his ability to translate the written texts to visual art. He managed to transform the novels of the Nobel laureate, Najeeb Mahfuz to 75 works of art. Hajji’s brilliance has not stopped at that stage. His lines, compositions and spaces met with the words in a book he compiled for 38 chosen excerpts written by 38 contemporary Arab poets, who wrote about the same kinds of pains depicted by the terrorism that he was painting. His drawings became the other side of the coin for texts written by poets such as the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish.
For Hajji, the revolution of 25th January 2011 is a dream came true; it was a revolution that was lead by the youth who sought change, it was a revolution by every layer of the Egyptian people, generations and communities. It was not the revolution of the hungry that would subside should the economic situation improve.
Strangely enough, his book ‘Al-are’ which translates as (The Shame) was first published in Tunisia. The second edition was printed in Egypt in 2010. The question remains, was it a mere coincidence that the first popular Arab uprising against tyranny erupted in Tunisia bringing down the rule of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the second Arab national uprising exploded in Egypt; bringing down the rule of Egypt’s dictator Husni Mubarak? Was Hajji anticipating the future of the oppressed people when he sketched his subjects in black and white to emphasize the tragic scenes and the images of the tortured innocent people, the genocide, injustice and oppression?
Hajji’s third stop was a book of illustrations of Libya, the birth place of Omar Elmukhtar who organized and led the resistance against the Italian colonization of Libya for nearly twenty years. Consequently Elmukhtar was captured and hanged by the Italians in 1931. Was it a coincidence that Libya happened to become the third Arab nation to declare its rebellion against oppression in 2011 following Tunisia and Egypt? This time Hajji abandoned his black and white and created a colourful epic of expressionism of a fine long multi-layered poem of colours, combination of elements and shapes that spoke louder than any words. In his book ‘Illustrations from Libya’, Hajji used more than 250 drawings of human faces which reflected the coherence and strength of construction, depicted by the similarities between the Libyan harsh and tough nature and the dimensions of its buildings, and its people.
Since the January 25th revolution in Egypt was brought to life through new media, social media, Internet, Twitter and Facebook, Hajji decided to share his works with the people using the same tool of communication, by making his book of illustrations ‘Left Right’, available online through
Facebook. No doubt, artists can educate people and be the silent revolutionaries.
tamimi@journomania.net

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