'I see in you a talented artist who will give a universal dimension to Egyptian Art'.
(The artist, critic and academic professor Ahmed Sabry to Omar El-Nagdi, 1958).
Christie's is honored to have been entrusted with the sale of leading Egyptian artist Omar El-Nagdi's museum-masterpiece, Sarajevo, from the prestigious collection of Her Excellency Ambassador Francine Henrich. The Sarajevo triptych is undeniably the most important and the most ambitious work produced by El-Nagdi in terms of complexity, monumentality, expression and subject matter. Together with Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi's mural-size painting Sabra and Shatila Massacres of 1982-1983, that was acquired by the Tate Modern, London, in 2012, El-Nagdi's Sarajevo is without doubt one of the most poignant depiction of the horrors of war ever painted since 1937, when Pablo Picasso realized his iconic piece Guernica.
Shortly after it was completed in 1992, Sarajevo was exhibited at the artist's one-man show organized at Al-Ahram Gallery, Cairo, the opening of which was attended by Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sidky; Egypt's Minister of Culture at the time, Farouk Hosny; Omar Abdel Akher, Cairo' Governor; Youssef Afify, Giza's Governor and Ibrahim Nafaa, Chief Executive President of Al-Ahram. This event was filmed and reported by CNN and several European channels before the exhibition travelled to London.
Having started his artistic education at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Cairo under the tutorship of Ahmed Sabry (1889-1955), Omar El-Nagdi pursued his training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in 1959, where he studied frescoes and mosaics. Travelling between Venice and Rome in 1959-1960, Nagdi found himself at the heart of the avant-garde artistic, musical and intellectual circles of these enchanting cities, with Italian 'metaphysical' painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) as one of his most influential mentors. Before even turning 30, Nagdi was already praised as an established artist by contemporary Italian, Greek and English press, earning him the designation of the 'Egyptian Picasso'. His fruitful encounter with the Roman and Venetian art scenes led him to participate to several group shows alongside 25 international artists, amongst which Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) in Sardinia (Italy) and Saragossa (Spain) in 1961.
As indicated in the triptych's title, the subject matter refers to the atrocious tragedies of war that ravaged Sarajevo during the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian conflict between 1990 and 1994, and particularly to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Bosniak and Croat population by Bosniak Serbs, mainly taking place in Eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian Institute in the UK recorded the destruction of almost 300 Bosniak villages by Serb forces around Srebrenica during the first three months of the war, between April and June 1992. This led to the displacement of more than 70,000 Bosniaks and the massacre of around 3,200 Muslim Bosnians in that short period of time. This turned out to be only a prelude to the dramatic Srebrenica genocide of July 1995, during which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred by the Bosnian Serb Army led by General Ratko Mladic. Meanwhile, Sarajevo was under siege from 5th April 1992 until 29th February 1996, the longest siege to date in modern history, counting more than 10,000 victims and being hit by more than 320 shells per day. Like many Muslims around the world, Omar El-Nagdi deeply felt the persecution of the Bosnian Muslims. Their ongoing massacres by Bosnian Serbs, starting in 1992, profoundly affected the Egyptian artist and urged him to react to these monstrosities by spontaneously expressing himself in his monumental composition of Sarajevo.
The pictorial vocabulary and compositional virtuosity used in Sarajevo is unique in its violence, as it translates the artist's feelings of anger, shock and compassion as well as being a visual requiem of the actual contemporary deadly events raging through Sarajevo and its surroundings in 1992. In Sarajevo, El-Nagdi transcribes literally the chaos of war, isolating each disproportioned figure onto the canvas yet bringing them all together through the agony expressed in their faces.His figures, or rather creatures, appear inhuman and sometimes resemble more to animals rather than people, showing how the sufferings and torturing of war has stripped them bare of their humanity and dignity. Each movement, each body part and each expression scream out onto the canvas, such as the hand reaching out of despair from the canvas at the lower edge, between the central and right panels, or the frightening bulging eyes of the figure in the lower right quadrant of the triptych, who is staring right out to the viewer, or the disturbing detail of the two feet hanging at the upper edge of the left panel.
Although El-Nagdi is often known for his colorful folkloric depictions of daily life scenes, Sarajevo demonstrates that he also excels in capturing the essence of these people's pain as each part of his monumental composition depicts a different distressing angle of this outrageous slaughter. Producing such a large-scale triptych with such aggressive images not only shows the artist's commitment to denouncing the atrocities of the Bosnian War but it also unavoidably engages the viewer by provoking profound feelings of revolt and opening his or her eyes to the reality of these unforgivable crimes.
With slaughtered figures flooding out from El-Nagdi's canvas, it suggests that the massacre has no end. Sadly, the artist proved to be right, as his figure on the left panel of Sarajevo appears to have unknowingly announced the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, as it carries a sign with blood-red Arabic writing, that can be translated as 'a nation is being slaughtered and its people are becoming extinct'. In terms of palette, El-Nagdi immerses the entire blood-bath scene in a beautiful and almost surreal turquoise-blue light on a warm ochre background, confirming once again the Egyptian painter's prodigious mastery of color.
Sarajevo joins the series of iconic worldwide-known museum masterpieces that depict the horrors of war and that visually scream out the great artists' reactions to historical events contemporary to their time. 17th century Flemish diplomat master Peter-Paul Rubens depicted many war scenes, amongst which his famous vast composition entitled The Consequences (or Horrors) of War painted in 1638-1639, currently exhibited at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, or his two elaborate versions of The Massacre of the Innocents, one dating of 1611-1612 in the Art Gallery of Ontario, the other of circa 1637 from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Omar El-Nagdi breathes in a similar energy as Rubens in his figures and in the drama of the scene with the virtuosity of his brushstrokes and his intricate composition. However, El-Nagdi abandons the classical perspective, the linear structure and the realistic characters of Rubens' paintings, opting for a more dislocated and absurd composition, inventing his own representation of the people. It is therefore not surprising that El-Nagdi's Sarajevo has always rightfully been compared to Pablo Picasso's most notorious monumental painting, Guernica, painted in 1937, that prominently hangs today in the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid. Whilst the 20th century Spanish painter denounced the horrors of the Nazis' mass destruction of the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, El-Nagdi depicted the massacres of the Bosnian War in Sarajevo. Both mural-size masterpieces are strong political statements and feature unprecedented images of violence, that resonate the dark and brutal depictions of death and destruction found in Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya's renowned series of 82 prints, The Disasters of War, executed between 1810-1820, showcased in the Prado Museum, Madrid. It is undeniable that El-Nagdi greatly admired both Picasso's way of representing humans as dismembered, animal-like, surrealistic creatures, and Goya's crude and factual depiction of the consequences of the so-called Dos de Mayo Uprising of 1808, when the citizens of Madrid rebelled against the occupation of French Napoleonic troops, leading to the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, raging through Spain. Sarajevo definitively inscribes itself as a continuation of world art history in which artists actively engaged themselves with contemporary conflicts of their time, using their paintings and visual vocabulary as their powerful weapons.
A comparable and almost contemporary mural-size masterpiece to that of El-Nagdi's triptych is Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi's impressive polyptych depicting the Sabra and Shatila Massacres, painted in 1982-1983. It was also executed by a Middle Eastern Artist who witnessed from a distance the tragic murder of between two and three thousand Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in and around the refugee camps of Southern Beirut in 1982. Like Sarajevo, the panels of Sabra and Shatila Massacres express the artist's disgust and outrage to the 1982 slaughter, but also his compassion towards the victims. Both Azzawi and El-Nagdi pay tribute to their forerunners Pablo Picasso and Francisco Goya in their high-impact images of war, sufferings and death. Nonetheless, whereas Azzawi's intentionally chaotic composition overflows with figures and shapes, El-Nagdi's is to some extent more structured in its linear succession of victims. Azzawi was much more inspired by the monochromatic black and white tones of Picasso's Guernica, sparsely adding some discrete colors to his composition. El-Nagdi has a more coloristic approach to the theme as he meticulously paints with a rich palette of warm brown, ochre, maroon, turquoise, royal blue and beige pigments. Whilst Azzawi takes Picasso's Surrealist depiction of figures and animals even further towards abstraction, El-Nagdi brings it back to its more figurative roots to highlight the absurdity of these humans who are being treated with such inhumanity. Together with the Tate Modern's Sabra and Shatila Massacres and the Museo Reina Sofia's Guernica, El-Nagdi's Sarajevo is the most oustanding and provocative painting of the horrors of war of modern history.
El-Nagdi's Sarajevo is an unprecedented example of its type in the History of Art not only because of the artist's unparalleled imagination of the scene, but also because of its unique subject matter. El-Nagdi, a Muslim Egyptian painter represents the slaughter of his Bosniak brothers in Sarajevo and its surroundings on the traditionally Christian format of the triptych, a theme that no other artist has ever dared to paint on such a vast scale. Watching the horrors of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict from a distance, El-Nagdi was also able to infuse his painting with an extraordinary beauty despite the violence and inhumanity of the scene. The frieze-like aspect of this monumental painting, enhanced by the alignment of elongated starving and dying figures, features such vitality rendered through El-Nagdi's colours and brushstrokes. At the same time, the liveliness and energy of the scene conveys a sense of eternity, in that these victims of the Bosnian-Serbian massacres will become martyrs, with their haunting eyes staring out to the viewer. El-Nagdi's intricate calligraphic work in the background of the central and right panels pays homage to Islamic art and architecture, emphasizing the cultural, historical and religious relationship between the artist and these persecuted Bosniaks. Sarajevo triptych acts not only as the artist's weapon and word against the atrocities of the Bosnian-Serbian war, but at the same time it is a spectacular memorial to the Bosniak population that unavoidably impregnates forever each viewer's spirit with its powerful pictorial language.