What do an apple, a loaf of bread and a bullet have in common? Mohamed Riad Saied: one of Egypt’s most distinguished late artists and certainly, Egypt’s surrealist painter by excellence during the second half of the twentieth century.
Highly imaginative and classically inspired, Mohamed Saied Riad (1937 – 2008) is best known for striking and bizarre juxtapositions of images, mixing Egypt with the rest of the world; and the past with the present. With a PhD in art restoration, Saied produced distinct paintings embracing qualities of Renaissance and Baroque art that depict fragments of our subconscious and the relationship between the real and the unreal, to create a sense of phantom reality. The effect is raw and blunt Surrealism reflecting the human condition tormenting.
His version of Egyptian surrealism is a contextualized authentic voice, and not merely imitative of Salvador Dali or René Magritte, though the influence is recognizable; and offers its own chapter in the grand global story of Surrealism.
Riad Saied did not shy away from the boldness of the expression or the strangeness and even oddness of the visuals, particularly at a time when the Egyptian environment was prone to other, more classic art movements, such as calligraphy and a return to figurative neo-Pharaonic styles. His artworks are the full, unashamed, and unrelenting expression of our humanity, with empty arcades, elongated shadows, mannequins, and animals among others, that he arranged to paradoxically convey a feeling of freedom.
Employing extensive symbolism in his work, Saied used three hallmark elements in most of his paintings: “An apple, a loaf of bread, and bullets.” The apple symbolizes Adam’s apple; the loaf of bread, life; and the bullets, of course, symbolize wars, explained Saied. The apple is particularly a recurring image in Saied’s works, suggesting that life must win over ‘heavy’ themes such as war and poverty, thus using it to symbolize hope and love.
Even though Saied obtained his degree in a Western country (Spain), it has always been important for him to incorporate Egyptian elements in his works (the Sphinx in particular). Egyptian culture and the volatile Middle East situation (Palestine specifically) are perfectly articulated in his paintings, such as in the one that depicted al-Aqsa Mosque (Dreams at Al-Aqsa Mosque, 1973), with the men in traditional Egyptian clothing, and the children throwing rocks at settlers. Other paintings depict the shortage of bread (i.e. survival) during the difficult riots Egypt witnessed following the increase in prices and the reduction in food subsidies during the late 1970s.
Riad Saied used Surrealism as a tool of thought, and extended it to writings as well. According to his numerous writings about the philosophy of art, Saied sought to express the human role in art by taking us on a journey through the history of Art to tell the story that little in fact has changed – from the cave man who celebrated his survival victories of hunting depicted on the cave walls, passing by ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Copts, the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo eras, and up until the early twentieth century with Picasso’s Cubism and Surrealism where the human figure is no longer existent in its original form as in the ancient eras, but rather the human emotions and the “impressions” that cast upon us when we look at the piece of art. The human remains to be the main focus/axis of his artwork through, and that art is also the most accurate historian of human life. In Saied’s own definition of art – inspired by the British figurative painter Francis Bacon – the human being is the sum of the surrounding nature, circumstances, reality and annuity; more so, the struggle for freedom.
Born the year Egyptian thinker Georges Henein formally introduced Surrealism in Egypt in 1937, Mohamed Riad Saied took part in the 2016 exhibition When Arts become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965), which commemorated the legacy of the Egyptian Art and Liberty Group. Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Salah M. Hassan, Ehab Ellaban, and Nagla Samir, the traveling exhibition explored the evolution and history of the Egyptian Surrealists and their remarkable legacy in both Egypt and international surrealist circles. Saied’s large oil painting The Guard, from the 1970s, was instantly recognizable as being one of the offspring of the featured avant-garde Egyptian surrealist precursors of the 1930s and 1940s such as Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel, and Kamel Telmissany – albeit with further influence by Spanish painter, Salvador Dali and Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico.
Riad Saied graduated with a bachelor degree with honors from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1964. In 1976, he obtained his doctorate degree in Art from the Royal Academy of San Fernando for Fine Arts in Madrid, Spain. Keen to expand his skills, he earned three other diplomas in Painting Restoration, Wall Painting and Graphics, all from the same academy in Madrid. After he returned to Cairo in 1977 until 1988, Saied was professor of Oil Painting and Restoration at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University in Cairo. He then traveled to Kuwait where he taught at the Faculty of Education, until he returned to his home land in 2005 to focus on his paintings and research.