CAIRO: A range of exquisite oil-painted sculptures of the female torso greeted me when I set foot in Cairo’s Picasso art gallery to visit Egyptian artist Amina Salem’s solo exhibition “Il Torso” in early March.
Two years in the making, “Il Torso” comprised 48 artworks ranging from oil-painted polyester sculptures to paintings on canvas, linen, and other fabric, all with distinct pop-art feel and themed around different manifestations of womanhood.
Some of the torsos on display sported Salem’s reinterpretations of artworks by the likes of Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, Leonardo da Vinci and René Magritte. Others exhibited portraits of icons of music and cinema, including Umm Kulthum, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna.
“With this exhibition, I was trying to explore the history (of art) and womanhood, while also bringing in elements of my own personality,” Salem told Arab News.
Salem knew she wanted to experiment with torso sculptures, and started off by sketching the body of Venus, “the Roman goddess of love and beauty — herself the subject of many stories in Greek mythology.”
She shared that sketch with her friend, fellow artist and sculptor Ahmed Magdy, who transformed it into plain white 3D polyester torsos with black granite platforms.
“Polyester is break-resistant and not as expensive as bronze, for example,” Salem said, adding that she chose the torso “not only for its aesthetic value, but also because it embodies history and mythology.” But painting on an uneven surface was challenging in a variety of ways. “Very different from working with canvas,” Salem said.
Her idea was to use the torsos to experiment with multiple themes. One being the reinterpretation of a range of famous paintings by artists “who were very much preoccupied with the theme of women in their works. But I also allowed myself to experiment with these paintings; my depiction of the Mona Lisa, for example, was made with a hint of pop-art.”
While the torso sculptures were undoubtedly the highlight of Salem’s exhibition, the paintings on display were no less impressive in terms of technique. Here again, the artist’s appetite for experimentation saw no limits, manifest in her use of upholstery fabric, including Egyptian linen, as her canvas.
The paintings ranged from vibrant portraits of regular women and sketches depicting female celebrities “with a hint of funky” to a collection of works exploring the relationship between women and animals.
“I love for the women I paint to look their absolute best,” said Salem. “I enjoy painting powerful and confident women. Normally, I like to give my female subjects sharp features but some of my paintings exhibit softer, more romantic undertones.”
The sense of female empowerment that emanates from Salem’s paintings is in many instances accentuated with calligraphed quotes which “influence how you interpret the painting,” she says. For example, one painting in “Il Torso” included a calligraphed Arabic line that translates as, “I am mine before I am ever anyone else’s.”
“My paintings are contemporary and a bit funky, especially this year’s artworks, but incorporating calligraphy gives my work an Arabic twist,” Salem explained. “And sometimes employing calligraphy emphasizes this contradiction between both moods.”
While the artworks displayed in “Il Torso” spanned different themes and forms, they all celebrated women’s unequivocal strength as much as they honored their femininity. It was a natural progression of Salem’s earlier exhibitions, which also focused on the theme of womanhood and delved deep into the perpetual tension between women’s strength and fragility.
“‘Il Torso’ is my own contribution to the women-themed art that has flourished throughout history,” Salem said. “And it is proof that there can never be limits to painting the female subject.”