Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern Art specialist Hala Khayat discusses the Egyptian artist’s masterwork
‘There is a saying in the Arab world when you are trying to talk
to someone but the person is not really listening,’ says Hala Khayat, specialist in Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Christie’s in Dubai. ‘We say
he is giving me “an ear of mud, an ear of paste”. The title of this work by Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar
comes from this expression.’
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1925, El-Gazzar is today considered
one of the pivotal figures of 20th-century Egyptian art.
With a style derived entirely from his own imagination,
rather than modern or contemporary trends, his paintings
are full of a rich symbolism that is deeply embedded in
Egyptian folk culture. At a time when poverty was at a
high point in the country, El-Gazzar was one of the first
to shed light on the suffering of Egypt’s marginalised
people, many of whom sought solace in witchcraft and magic.
An Ear of Mud, An Ear of Paste was painted in 1951,
just two years after El-Gazzar’s imprisonment for another
work, Popular Chorus, whose foregrounding of poverty
was interpreted by King Farouk as a critique of his rule.
One year later, in 1952, King Farouk would be overthrown
in a coup d’etat that marked the start of modern Egyptian
governance and led to the end of British occupation.
‘At the time that El-Gazzar painted this piece, everybody else
in Egypt was painting flowers and happy street scenes,’
Khayat explains. ‘But El-Gazzar was interested in conveying
deeper messages, and he continued to do so despite the
explicit disapproval of King Farouk, who wanted him to paint
the pyramids and the Nile and the beautiful boats. That’s
what makes him so interesting.’
In An Ear of Mud, An Ear of Paste, the central
figure, a beggar, is shown in a crouching position. Reflecting
the Arabic saying from which the title is drawn, the
figure’s ears have been drawn on the same side of his
head, as if to emphasise his inability to hear or participate
in any larger political discussion. Further reinforcing
this sense of isolation, El-Gazzar sets the figure in a
tomb-like space whose shelf-lined walls are filled with
‘When it comes to Egyptian artists, there are only a handful who truly make you think. El-Gazzar is certainly one of them’ — Hala Khayat
‘El-Gazzar is saying that, sadly, the beautiful Egypt everybody's waiting for has not yet arrived. But he has a deep love for his compatriots, and here he almost makes a religious icon of the country’s marginalised people. It’s an intriguing work to look at: the central figure may technically be alive, but — a point underscored by the dead bodies surrounding him — is he really “alive” in a more fundamental sense? Still, alongside the bleakness there’s somehow a sense of peace, and an optimism that a better future is yet to come,’ says Khayat. ‘There’s something magnetic in it.’
El-Gazzar produced around 300 to 400 drawings in his short lifetime — he died of a heart condition at the age of just 40 — but only around 100 paintings. Of these, some 25 are with the artist’s family and 30 works are in public institutions, making paintings by the artist highly sought-after on the secondary market. ‘A painting like this one, which has so many important symbolic elements, is rarer still,’ the specialist clarifies.
‘In thinking about art from the Arab world, Egypt is key — it had one of the first art schools in all of the Middle East. You cannot be a serious collector of Arab art without collecting Egyptian art,’ says Khayat. ‘And when it comes to Egyptian artists, there are only a handful who truly make you think. El-Gazzar is certainly one of them.’
An Ear of Mud, An Ear of Paste will be offered on 24 October in the Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art sale in London.