With a painterly practice which amalgamates both an expertly acquired artistic education with imagery that pays testimony to her Egyptian roots, Tahia Halim has become a profound fixture within Middle Eastern modernism. Beginning as an apprentice under artist Hamed Abdallah – who would later become her husband and then pursuing a career at the esteemed Academie Julien in Paris, Halim’s interpretations of Egyptian folk culture and rural life manifested themselves as beautiful stories across her canvases. Despite the many accolades for her paintings, one of the greatest recognitions of her talent was when she received the first ever Guggenheim prize in 1958 at the peak of her career.
In this unique work, entitled Al Murakib (The Boatman) the artist harmonises a unique technical practice with deeply personal imagery. Through the use of earth inspired pigments in hues of brown, white, blue and black, the artist produces a rich impasto technique on the canvas. Layering these colours to produce highly textured surfaces, Halim has become renowned for producing visual narratives of Egyptian stories.
Despite hailing from a privileged family, Halim occupied herself with a deep understanding for her Nubian roots. The felucca a traditional Egyptian boat - a subject of great interest to Halim - references the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser (a body of water accumulating from the waters of the Nile which went on to submerge a major part of Nubia, situated on the Egyptian-Sudanese border). With a fascinating folk culture and identity of its own, the entire town was disjointed and uprooted by this disaster. To document and create visual diaries of this culture, a rare few artists had the opportunity to create a record of the way of life in this town that was soon to disappear. Following in this example, Halim travelled there in 1962 in order to better understand this soon to disappear region, making it the foundation for her paintings. Transforming her canvases into both a celebration and means of preservation for the Nubian way of life, Halim’s works are a visual diary which documented this ancient town before it vanished.
Its narratives, imbued with the artist’s passion for the subject matter as well as her impasto technique enabled the creation of modernist works with an unparalleled visual story. The compositional harmony of Halim’s canvases are simultaneously rooted in her figuration. In The Boatman we are guided into a visual representation of daily tasks as we see a traditionally dressed man, closely accompanied by a goat companion on a typical felucca. Boasting a style which was deeply informed by the Coptic way of painting, she paid little attention to actual proportions by instead focusing on the creation of harmonious colours, figural compositions and thickly painted textures. Almost flat in appearance, this two-dimensionality references Ancient Egyptian artistic practices that were of deep significance and inspiration to the artist. Presenting her stories with an ease of exaggeration and beautiful technique, Tahia Halim has the ability to create painted compositions which not only do great justice to the beauty of its Nubian roots but also accurately represent her beautiful artistic technique.