Despite his tragic death at the young age of forty, Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar is unquestionably one of the most important figures of the Egyptian Modern art movement. His legacy has left behind a national artistic wealth that has only recently been acknowledged and appreciated. He developed a unique and powerful style that combines derivations from fantasy, strong awareness of his environment and social-political statements that are infused with philosophy and symbolism. El-Gazzar was a member of the Contemporary Art Group, established in 1946 by Hussein Youssef Amin, who sought to come up with a definition of their surroundings and project it in a novel fashion. The group formed to revive 'genuine Egyptian history' through the employment of contemporary popular trends, from both the Arab and Western worlds and traditional folk symbolism. As a result El-Gazzar chose particularly to depict ordinary working class people and through his strong line and colour, these depictions were meant to give the 'popular' characters a certain nobility.
Digging of the Suez Canal from 1965 is a study for perhaps one of the most monumental and referenced works ever to have been painted by the artist, that is now part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo. The painting was commissioned by the Maritime Museum in Alexandria to honour one of the most important events in Egyptian history, and accordingly acknowledge the contribution the Canal imparted to both Egyptian trade and industry, particularly at a time of political instability in the country. However, it was precisely the socio-political issues following the Revolution in 1952 and the Suez Canal Crisis that inspired El-Gazzar in 1965.
In the present work, the viewer gains a rich insight into the artistic vision and creative process behind the artist's work. Much like the final work, one sees El-Gazzar depict a dramatic illustration of masses of helpless Egyptian fellaheen heightening the tragedy of forced labour. As if trails of working ants, he fills the composition with chains of people surrounded by camels, donkeys and machinery that seem endless in their sheer number, offering a sense of tragedy that alludes to the endless plight of the working class. The elaborate assessment of geometric depth of perspective emphasised by the long and curved lines heightens the underlying feeling of a difficult and long-winded path, a metaphor, once again, of the never-ending struggle. There is an element to his drawing that harks to the archaic style of hieroglyphs and Ancient Egyptian wall carvings and paintings and thus hints to the passage of time - after all the Suez Canal was originally used by the Ancient Egyptians before it was officially developed during the Khedive Ismail reign. Within the drawing El-Gazzar pays particularly special attention to the facial expression displayed on the workers' faces. The viewer's eye is especially drawn to the expression of torture and sadness that fills the man's face at the lower left of the composition. The other figures, writhing in both pain and sadness of the heavy load they are forced to carry pushes the viewer to sympathise with their tragedy. Unlike many of his works and general style, in this work El-Gazzar implements a sophisticated level of anatomical accuracy when depicting these figures. The realism he has chosen to use deepens the realism of the social justice that El-Gazzar sought to achieve. Although the construction of the Suez Canal came half a century before the Revolution in 1952, this work metaphorically pays tribute to the revolutionary principles to deepen equality and eliminate class difference that had been thriving in the Egyptian society for centuries.
A testament to his ability to impart a sense of socio-political statement, even into a work commissioned by the very regime he questioned, Digging of the Suez Canal is undoubtedly a seminal work in the artist's oeuvre and in both Egyptian artistic and social history.