Upside-Down – George Bahgory Retrospective 25 Jan - 20 Feb

George Bahgory: Hurriyyah, Fann, Hayah.

Never have I been able to find, collect, and gather as much material for any Egyptian artist as for George Bahgory. In my wildest imagination, I never imagined that I could have access to such rich and extensive history and documentation. It is both mindboggling and revelatory. No other Egyptian artist seems to have triggered as much interest in his life and work as Bahgory has. It is invaluable, and I am privileged to be surrounded by close to one hundred items: Books, monographs, exhibition catalogs, pictures, photographs, black and white and in colors, alone or with other people, posters, calendars even. It is never-ending, heavy, and dusty. So, where does one start? And more importantly, what is there to add?

Edward Kharrat wrote about George Bahgory [2010]. So did Abdel Ghaffar Shedid [2017], the French cartoonist Plantu [2012], Ahmed Megahed [2021], scholars like Nadia Radwan, Noura Moualla, artists like Adel El Siwi, ministers of culture like Tharwat Okasha [al-Infigar al-Mobdi’ee,], to name a few.

George Bahgory is widely known as a cartoonist, but he is much more. A prolific multimedia artist, Bahgory is a painter, sculptor, poet, and writer. His media is as diverse: Sculptures, paintings, sketches, lithographs, tapestry, collage, drawings, using oil, watercolor, coffee, china ink, pen, and pencil; on canvas, paper, filter coffee, clay, bronze, stone. Bahgory was dubbed “The Picasso of Egypt,” “Picasso of the Arabs,” “The Painter Between Two Riverbanks,” “The Master,” “A Unique Phenomenon,” “The Rebel,” and “The Beethoven of Fine Arts.” As someone who claims to have been born twice, the first time in his native Egypt on 13 December 1932 and the second time [une deuxième naissance] in his adoptive France on 25 August 1969, George Bahgory is bold, frank, and never hesitates to fight for free speech. He was in trouble with the government of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anouar el-Sadat. He appreciates all women, repeated senior year in high school three times (1949, 1950, 1951), prefers to draw upside down, and is still active to this day, painting, touring exhibitions, socializing at the young age of 90.

I go through the thousands of pages I am blessed to have and discover many facets unknown to the public. For example, Bahgory has over 1,000 sketchbooks or “carnets de voyage,” as he likes to call them, stored in his atelier. In there, you can meet his humble family: his mother Elisse, his father, Abdel Messih, his older brother Johnny, his sister Evelyne, his wife Nitokriss, and the rest of his private tribe from cousins and nieces to next-door neighbors. Another example is that his name Bahgory derives from “Bahgora,” the village where he was born next to Luxor in Upper Egypt. He also writes his names in different ways. George. Georges. Bahgory. Bahgoury. al-Bahgory. Or is it us who do? It doesn’t matter. George Bahgory is unique.

One of the sketchbooks titled “The Forbidden Drawings” is a rich and valuable documentary where Bahgory narrates his life as a student in the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo (1951-55). He drew his colleagues, professors, and future bosses, like his mentor Hussein Bicar, modernist painters Ahmed Sabry, Abdel Hady el-Gazzar, el-Seginy, and journalist Ihsan Abdel Quddous. The latter eventually hired the then twenty-two-year-old Bahgory and launched his two-decade career as a caricaturist of satire responsible for the weekly cover of Rose al-Yusuf magazine. At the time, Bahgory’s father, Abdel Messih, urged George “to stop scribbling, forget about art, and to study medicine instead” [Balash Shaghbata! Sibak min al-fann, wa idriss al-Teb!] But Bahgory didn’t bulge, poised to make a pioneering career in satirizing Egyptian politicians, ridiculing government decisions, narrating daily life and ordinary people’s hardships for the only reason to tell it like it is. According to Bahgory, it was a period of press vibrancy, during which Egyptians appreciated an ironic sense of humor and supported fierce free speech. Caricature was a flourishing art form thanks to the renowned “creative block” consisting of Salah Jahin, Ragai’e, El-Selmi, Bahgat, Hegazi, el-Labbad, amongst others. But soon enough, censorship had its toll on the “industry,” and Bahgory’s drawings began to attract if not bother Egypt’s leaders’ attention, unhappy to be mocked on the cover of the most widely distributed magazines in the Arab world. Nasser was poked by his immense nose and authoritarian persona, while Sadat was cornered when he envisioned the Camp David Accord. In 1967, the year of the Hazimah, artists were threatened, and the “fall of caricature” art [Soukout al-Karikatiruiyya] in Egypt led many to choose exile over compromising on their ideals and values. Once Bahgory felt the artist’s right to free brush was jeopardized, he decided to leave for France and began a new and, at first, difficult life in Paris.

As I turn the pages, I land on Bahgory’s rendering of or “d’après” Mahmoud Saïd’s La fille en bleu! Saïd’s is dated 1927. Bahgory’s is undated and is mesmerizing. Her cheeks, eyes, and breasts are depicted the Bahgorian way, meaning deformed, exaggerated, disproportionate. It’s a mix of cubism and surrealism, and much more. La fille en bleu by Mahmoud Saïd hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo; Bahgory’s? In a private collection. Like many of his paintings, this one too was snatched. If you ask him, he wouldn’t know either.

Then I stumble on a 1954 painting depicting a young boy standing. For a split second, the painting reminds us of the Syrian modernist painter Louay Kayali (1934-78). A second later, it reminds us of Picasso. But it is neither Kayali nor Picasso. It is Bahgory depicting a skinny teenage boy with his head facing down, wearing a yellow/orange open shirt. We are not sure who the boy is. It doesn’t really matter. A piece of undergarment attracts my attention. It is a tiny bit of a white fanella-that one garment every Egyptian mother swears by. “Wear your fanella!” “Are you wearing a fanella?” “Don’t forget your fanella!” Instructions we give to our kids in winter, sometimes in summer too, no matter how old the kids are. But in this painting, the fanella is one of those elements that underline utter poverty. A sense of despair, maybe. And that is probably why the boy’s head is titled, his eyes looking down, somewhere lost in his hardships.

Ever since his graduation project titled “Les Enfants des rues” [Street Children] in 1955, Bahgory has never ceased painting everyday life and painting every day throughout his life. To me, his work revolves around three pillars: Fann [Art], Hayah [Life], and Hurriyah [Freedom], never one taking over the other.

Under Fann come the never-ending portrayals of “Kawakab al-Sharq,” aka Umm Kulthum. Bahgory has dissected her repeatedly, and he seems to have been infatuated by the Voice of the Arab World and “Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid.” While watching her sing on TV, Bahgory explains, “the sound and the picture win over my drawings. There are endless words in my heart for Umm Kulthum,” stressing how the singer’s voice captivated him. Alas, these feelings were not reciprocated. In one meeting in the late 1950s, “[Umm Kulthum] said hello to everyone except me. She didn’t give me any attention because I made cartoons about her and Nasser,” says Bahgory during his interview with Lesley Lababidi in April 2013 for the book Bahgory Legacy printed by Obélisques Publishing. In another interview in 2015, Bahgory explains: “I never paint Um Kulthum. I paint the voice of Umm Kulthum and al-Watan [Homeland] in Um Kulthum.” [Lam ‘arssem Kawkab al-Sharq, wa lakeny rassamt al-kawkab fi al-sharq], dedicating a full book about his relationship to the singing star in 2015: Iconat Um-Kulthum, Um Kulthum and Georges Bahgory.

In Fann still, you will find Bahgory’s ‘à la’ or the ‘d’après’ paintings inspired by Arab pioneers like Mahmoud Saïd (e.g., Banat Bahari), El-Gazzar (e.g., The Green Man, 1951 and Farah Zeleikha, 1948), Ahmed Sabri (Bicar Playing the Oud, 1934) or world masters like Da Vinci, Modigliani, Van Gogh (e.g., Sunflowers, 1889), Picasso (Self-Portrait, 1906 or Portrait of Olga in an Armchair, 1918) and Gauguin (Arearea, 1892). But in Fann, everyday music, street, and orchestra musicians, popular instruments (e.g., Tabla, Oud, even cello and violin), love songs, and belly-dancers are an integral part of the Egyptian psyche, joie de vivre, and narrative, and represent a large bulk of Bahgory’s work.
In Hayah, Bahgory draws and paints the vegetable and bread sellers, Arousset el-Moulid (sugar dolls), Tawla (backgammon) players, men praying in a mosque, Muslim and Coptic feasts and celebrations such as Kahk al-Eid, al-Makwagi (the iron man), the theatre of the street as he calls it [théâtre de la rue], faces and more faces, and the Kahwa, that fundamental café gathering spot in the Arab world. All this and more because “painting is drama,” [la peinture, c’est le drame, 2012] and Egypt is his “mother” (2012). Khairy Shalaby wrote in one of the exhibition catalogs, [Masryetoo fi Keptiyetoo al-Assila]. How beautiful! “His Egyptianness lies in his authentic ‘Coptiness.’ As you turn the pages, you might find some of your friends, acquaintances, if not yourself, for who of us hasn’t been drawn with a single continuous line by Bahgory? In 2013, Bahgory drew me over a coffee one morning with his spontaneous manner. Although I look like Cruella De Vil, I cherish that drawing. It hangs in my office.
In Hurriyah, Bahgory’s brave depictions of important moments in our history and causes close to his heart take centerpiece: Palestine, the Woman Question, the Arab Spring, and the whole lot on Arab politicians and Middle Eastern geopolitics. It seems that no politician escaped Bahgory’s fingers. Look for any, and you will find many. Arafat, Bashar, etc. Here is Egypt’s current president too. Abdel Fatah Elsisi. Bahgory re-invents, immortalizes, celebrates, critiques, honors our trajectory. In addition to these influential political figures, Bahgory painted everyone who shaped modern Egypt, from Naguib Mahfouz to Inji Efflatoun. From Abdel Halim Hafez to Youssef Idriss and Tawfik al-Hakim. From next-door Abdalla, Bahgory didn’t leave any stone unturned. With so much to say, it is not surprising that the word “icon” pops up a million times. “An Egyptian Icon,” “The Icons of Bahgory,” “Les icônes des ruelles,” “Les icônes des visages humains.” Icona Shaabeyyah (2005), Iconat al-Fann (2000), Iconat al-Jassad (2010), Iconat Paris. The list goes on, with many titles in French, a language Bahgory masters. Bahgory says it all without ever imposing. So, is there anything Bahgory hasn’t said yet? Probably not. Thousands and thousands of images pass through my fingers. It’s infinite. A feast to the eye. A blessing to our soul. He is omnipresent. In our homes, museums, private institutions, cafes, restaurants, Nile boats, ici et ailleurs [Here and There], you will find his work in the most unexpected places. Tiny, small, big, immense, humongous. And you might meet him too. Wearing a hat (the French beret), smoking a pipe, in his galabeya, or pants and shirts. He fits wherever he goes, no matter what he wears.

I turn more pages. Is it Seif? Perhaps Adham? Remember that Adham Wanly was an early caricaturist. Bahgory is them all, yet he is no one but himself. He writes, oh, he writes. There are at least ten books authored by Bahgory where he either details his life, pours his heart out, reveals many secrets from Bahgora to Paris, or invents a fiction, usually based on his many lives. For example, L’icône de Faltuss (2006), Bahgar en exil (2010) and Zikrayyat al-Gawafa (2016). That’s why there is no need for him to really speak. His hands take over, while his lips are closed.

Painters are usually categorized. They also have stages or periods. George somehow escapes because he practices and produces works that fluidly move from one category or period back to another. There is a sort of épuisement du thème. In other words, Bahgory expends themes, repeating the same subject over and over, each time adding a new element or showing a different perspective while using new color palettes or media. It reminds me of what he said: “I start from the end so that I reach the beginning,” establishing a signature style that no two people would miss. Bahgory is instantly recognizable, even to the untrained eye. This probably explains why the Egyptian State awarded him the Prix d’État d’Excellence dans les arts in 2006. There is no key in George Bahgory’s work. Only a sense of rush. He always seems to be in a hurry, as though he is trying to capture the moment, live that instant, and not miss the smile, the crowd, the music, the people, his people, our people.

How beautiful life is without a key!

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