Salam Yousry: The Extraordinary, the Ugly, and the Very Personal
by Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani
The first time I saw a painting by Salam Yousry, I was stunned. The work was radical, distinctive, and somehow intimate and apologetic. I was looking at an astonishing painting with a unique style that combined twisted body shapes and expressive lines like I had not seen before on the Egyptian contemporary art scene. Who is the artist, I was impatient to find out? Was that specific work I saw, a one-off? I began researching the artist and his work.
Born in Cairo in 1982, Salam Mahmoud Yousry Helmi, known as Salam Yousry, is more than a painter. Multilingual and multi-disciplinary in his practice, he is a producer, a documentary maker, an actor, a theater director and performer, a writer, a music composer, and a visual artist. Yousry graduated with Honors from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, specializing in painting in 2004. Between 2001 and 2007, he exhibited his paintings in the faculty’s collective shows in Cairo and various solo exhibitions in Egypt and Europe. Then, he took a 10-year break from public shows and focused on filmmaking and theater production. Only in 2017 does Salam Yousry return to exhibiting his paintings.
Strongly influenced by the Jugendstil movement, the German Art Nouveau, Salam Yousry is an outstanding painter with a unique style. His mentally charged creations and captivating canvases embrace figural deformation and a strong rejection of traditional (feminine) beauty criteria. Freed of the formal academic limitations, Yousry investigates not just the human figure but also human interactions, experiences, and sensuality. His adventurous and bold work puts Yousry in a league of his own since the contemporary local scene has been conditioned to a certain figurative style repeatedly produced by various artists and widely displayed over the past years. Whereas a few artists may play around with deformation, they lack Yousry’s spontaneity, intensity, and depth, making Yousry’s raw and authentic. In this context, spontaneity needs to be understood as the attempt to express highly personal narratives and meaningful thoughts rather than speed in the drawing. In fact, Yousry spends months thinking of the trajectory of every painting. He puts random ideas on paper, builds a storyboard in his mind and studio, and creates a concrete series of sketches before producing his paintings.
With a high degree of candor and the use of figural distortions in place of standard ideals of beauty, Salam Yousry’s (self) portraits will help re-establish the vibrancy of both genres. At times, classic elements appear in his work, giving the profoundly intimate imagery a broader, metaphorical message on the human predicament. Yousry’s subjects are piercing investigations of the models’ minds, and his drawings commonly exhibit subjects viewed from above or sideways and bereft of secondary qualities commonly represented in the portrait genre.
Forty (40) is Salam Yousry’s number of years on planet Earth. The exhibition with 15 paintings and 20 sketches takes us on a personal investigation down Yousry’s memory lane. Vibrant and more minimalistic than earlier works, Forty (40) takes a step further by incorporating what some may call figurative aberrations, which comprise elongations, malformations, and transparency. His new body of work, with its unusual level of emotional candor and employment of figural distortions in favor of traditional ideas of beauty, show vigor to tell the story of a childhood and adolescence lived in Cairo at his Faysal apartment, at the Frères School, or the faculty. It also depicts the many people and moments that impacted his upbringing and career path the most.
Yousry’s portraiture, which typically shows himself or people close to him, frequently exhibits his subjects in a story Yousry wants to remember from a far gone past. The intensely emotional, often unnerving expression Yousry developed is gripping, with its inquiry of his sitters’ inner lives and mental reactions. One of the most notable pieces in the exhibited series, 1981, shows Yousry in his mother’s womb and a prominent father reaching out with a protective hand. The 250x150cm painting sets off the narrative of Yousry’s life. Playfight, My Aunt, Feast, and 1992 depict various memories at the beach or at home celebrating a Coptic feast. “Lina” appears in more than one painting, making her a consistent link and a mysterious woman in the artist’s life.
A 21st-century Egyptian mixture of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele with Yousry favoring a vivid palette and glinting, patterned surface areas, Yousry’s paintings in Forty (40) feature an unprecedented sense of psychological incisiveness, enable the vibrancy of figurative art, especially portraits, and present an innovative and refined approach to the bare human form that will confound local academics, traditionalists, and progressives. An Expressionist painter par excellence, Yousry’s work is noted for its intensity and its rawness through the twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize his paintings and drawings. With its distorted lines and extensive show of figurative emotion, his unorthodox art and style go against rigorous academics, mixing linearity and subtlety. Some may describe Yousry’s work as monstrous, frightening, with a concentration on nudity, revelation, and deformation, if not ugliness. Yoursy celebrates “Le laid est beau,” [The Ugly is Beautiful].
Yousry’s biggest visibility to date came from the “Doko al-Jidran” exhibition organized and curated by ArtTalks in solidarity with Palestine in May 2021. His participation with two paintings, Art Teacher and On Stage, both produced in 2019, revealed Yousry’s profound use of private iconography and allegory to the regional public. The Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah acquired Art Teacher.
Forty  displays the maturity of an artist who is fully in command of his abilities and now has a personal story to tell. Salam Yousry is on the cusp of major success and recognition, and I am delighted that he returned to painting!