Hamed Ewais (Egyptian, 1919-2011)
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Hamed Ewais (Egyptian, 1919-2011)

Al Aabour (The Crossing of the Suez Canal)

Hamed Ewais (Egyptian, 1919-2011)
Al Aabour (The Crossing of the Suez Canal)
signed and dated in Arabic (lower right); signed, titled, dated and inscribed in Arabic (on the reverse)
oil and wax crayons on canvas
48 ½ x 38 7/8 in. (123.4 x 98.8 cm.)
Painted in 1974
G. Naguib, Mohammed Ewais; Excellence and the Revolution (in Arabic),
Cairo 2003 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Tashkent, Exhibition, date unknown.
Cairo, Zamalek Art Gallery, Hamed Ewais, 2002.
Rome, Egyptian Academy, Hamed Ewais, 2006.
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Lot Essay

More than any other Egyptian artist, the late Hamed Ewais has come to be identified by art historians as a truly political artist. Having focused all of his works on subjects or narratives related to the cause of the Egyptian labour class and political events that affected Egypt during his lifetime, the work of Hamed Ewais is one of the earliest acts of modern political expression in Egyptian art. Al Aabour ('The Crossing of the Suez Canal') is an outstanding and emblematic work of his oeuvre, characterized by its powerful composition and blinding colours, and impregnated with bold statements of nationalist fervor and support for the Egyptian working class population.

Born in Kafr Mansour, a small rural town in the Beni Souief district (South of Cairo),
Ewais was a humble metalworker in his hometown before he embarked on his artistic career in Cairo, where he enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in the early 1940s. He educated himself on the history and theory of Western art and pursued his studies at the Institute of Pedagogy in Cairo so as to engage in debate about art theory and practice in a less rigid setting than the traditional School of Fine Arts. Ewais hence found himself at the center of not only the artistic scene but also at the forefront of politics as the revolutionary fervor of a nationalist movement swept through Cairo.

Ewais' ideology was a reaction to the trends and developments of art that were taking place elsewhere in Egypt at the time. The activities of the Art and Liberty Group, a movement that was initially regarded by its founder George Henein (1914-1973) to be a political movement, ultimately served triggered the establishment of the Egyptian Surrealism art movement. Yet Henein's antifascist motives were considered by Ewais to be anarchistic and irrelevant to his own personal objectives. Therefore, along with a group of his contemporaries, Ewais sought a cause and a style that would focus on the common Egyptian man and that could be understood by a large audience. Alongside the sculptor Gamal El Seguini (1917-1977), the painters Yousef Sida (1922-1994) and Gazbia Sirry (b. 1925), Ewais formed the Group of Modern Art in 1947. They aimed to capture styles and subjects that were inspired by Egyptian folk and that tacked the cultural identity and the everyday life issues of the Egyptian people.
Ewais turned towards Social Realism in 1952 after having been exposed to the works of the Italian Social Realists being exhibited alongside his paintings at the Venice Biennale. Soon after, he painted Labour, which depicted a group of workers coming out after the end of their shift at a factory during a chilly winter evening. This painting won the 1956 Guggenheim Prize for work from the Mediterranean Region category. Thereafter, Ewais became a pioneer of Social Realism. He depicted the peasants, factory workers, farmers and laborers that constituted a large portion of Egypt's population as a means of highlighting the oppression they endured under the remnants of a feudal system that was implemented by former colonial presence in Egypt by both the Ottomans, and the British, respectively. Supporting Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arab movement, Ewais painted intricately constructed tableaux vivants of specific political events that greatly impacted Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s; specifically the two wars fought against Israel in 1967 and 1973.

To some extent, Ewais' aesthetics form the Egyptian counterpart to that of the murals representing scenes of Mexican labor class painted by famed Mexican Social Realist painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). It is very likely that Ewais was ideologically inspired by the latter yet his use of saturated colors and imbuing his works with light was influenced by first generation Egyptian artist Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964), Egypt's praised colorist. Ewais encountered Saïd when he moved to the master's hometown. Alexandria, to teach at Faculty of Fine Arts in the early 1960s.

Executed in 1974, Al Aabour depicts the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian military forces to seize land in Sinai. Marking the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, the events illustrated in Ewais' painting Al Aabour is a seminal chapter in Egypt's nationalist efforts against the earlier aggressions of the State of Israel in the 1967 war. Precision in military planning, along with combat engineers and water cannons, were used to attack the sand fortifications built by the Israeli army. The surprise attack ensured the successful occupation by Egyptian forces of the canal in the ensuing days, and with it, a victorious reclamation not only of land but of national pride. Al Aabour is meant to be a poignant celebration of the engineering power and military might of Egypt.

Central to the painting is a giant male soldier that looms over the Suez Canal, represented here with the tall rigs and assorted industrial structures built in the port town of Suez. This monumental composition with an imposing figure presiding over a smaller scale and intricate scene recalls that of Ewais' 1967-1968 painting entitled The Protector of Life, in which the artist paid tribute to President Nasser following the construction of the High Dam in Aswan. Set against a fiery red and orange sky, the colour of revolution, the protagonist of Al Aabour is about to plunge his pitchfork into the scene below him with his left hand and envelops it with a scythe, the symbol of socialism, with his right hand. His shoulders are strong, resonating the barrels of a tank, whilst his torso seems to be also made of military weaponry. The juxtaposition of the agricultural tools with a mechanical body both underscores and glorifies the soldier's origins as a farmer, represented by Ewais as one that protects the land both in combat and in solitude in the countryside.

The symbolism is direct and unabashedly proud, heightened by the vibrant palette. Israel is represented in an indirect manner with the scene of barbed wire and sandbags, that Ewais intentionally placed at the center of the composition to abruptly interrupt the Suez Canal construction in lower left corner and to cut short the calm blue waters of the Nile River at the center right of the painting. A sign in the middle of the piles of sandbags reads 'No [to] war' in both English and Arabic, hereby stressing a somewhat pacifist tone, that nevertheless denounces the tragic loss of Egyptian lives. Hope is represented with a small bouquet of white flowers that blossom out of the desert sands in the bottom right corner of the canvas. Al Aabour hence epitomizes Ewais' Social Realist approach, both artistically and politically, and has become an icon of Egyptian Social Realism.

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