Shayma Kamel came through the world of painting for a passion rather than having studied it at the college. It was only in 1997 when she started the faculty of psychology, at Ain Shams University in Cairo, when she became involved into the world of colour to pour onto the canvas what words could not say. Perhaps it was her Nubian origins from Upper Egypt, or perhaps because the link between psychology and painting is very narrow, the fact is that she managed to give shape to an instinctive painting that digs into the world of women, revealing the sensitivity of the African woman and describes the features that capture the soul and leaves amazed.
The accidental observer might label Shayma’s works superficial, but the expert eye cannot be deceived so easily and will extract the same essence that most of the Egyptian and international galleries had grasped. Her works have been hosted at the Cairo Opera House, at the Ghothe Institute, at the museum Zaad Zaghalul, at the Townhouse Gallery, at the AUC gallery, at Cairo Atelier … abroad in Greece at Santorino Island, in America at the Gallery of the American College of NY and in West Chester University of Pennsylvania, in Germany at Monaco of Bavaria.
Shayma is from Aswan, she has well marked features, the oval face like most of the Nubian people and dark skin. Her melancholy gaze knows very well the reality where she lives and the social Egyptian situation. To the classic question of what she wants to express with her painting, she looks reticent, as annoyed: yet another journalist who seeks only for news. She responds almost indifferent, as she does not care about the umpteenth interlocutor, as her mind was elsewhere.
“The woman, the strength and power that she carries with her”, she replies, “The Egyptian and African woman who must struggle every day with a male-dominated society that binds her to an impaired role, when in fact she must do more than men: besides the work, she must think about the house and care about her kids”. She smiles when I say that in Italy is more or less the same thing, but she seems not to believe me. Most of the Egyptians believe that what there is in the north shore of the Mediterranean is perfect. Nothing more wrong, even though I do not strive to an unnecessary explanation, actually is her who makes me understand better what she meant. “For a man in Africa is a right to be served and treated like a king, unlike in the West is never given for granted”
It is the women role in Egyptian society which she is interested, what exactly should be her place, in equality between the two genders, because the woman is not fully appreciated for everything she does and plays into the society. When she says it, she does not seem upset, as if she knew a secret that sooner or later will be able to change this situation. She explains her new project about Upper Egypt women; she wants to capture their African character that has a role in a broader context in Egypt: the wild and the sensual, the civil and the non-rational, the protectiveness and the aggressiveness … inseparable Africa’s features that exists also in Aswan, at the near border with Sudan.
We are sitting in his studio drinking Egyptian tea; she chats on Facebook to find a trusted contact in Tunis where there are many refugees coming from Libya. The youth of the Egyptian revolution want to show their solidarity with their Libyan neighbours, they had organized collections of essential goods to send to the Libyan and Tunisian border. She is asking me if I know someone trusted in Tunisia, a trustable contact, but unfortunately I do not. Too many things have happened in the last two months in the Arab world and certainly this interview will seem superfluous to her.
I am asking her which consideration will have the woman after the revolution; Shayma has lived it with an active role. She raises her eyes from the monitor as was bored, but her attention is 100% awake. “Huge, there is no doubt about it; the first step has been made in Tahrir. There was a large participation of the women world, not only youth but all ages and social stratus. We were all there, men and women, no difference, just one goal: the fall of the “Rais”. We slept in the square and we weren’t seen by the boys as a non good Arabic women, but we were seen like companions who supported the protest movement, we were killed and we cried as the men did, we were expecting the dawn of the next day with the fear of being surrounded by police and snipers and with the awareness to probably be the next person to take a bullet. It was something unique and perhaps even unrepeatable; the desire for change was palpable and can not be lost so easily”. She takes a break as she is digging into the memories. “In the square we had organized two hospitals, four bathrooms, dining and even a theatre to give us comfort and courage to each other, we were trying to keep up our mood, to support ourselves, and it worked! At this point people can not go back, it was an extraordinary event for the Egyptian society, and perhaps also for the whole Arabic world, an experience and a lesson that we will recount to the next generations”
“What do you think will be the future of the Egyptian woman after the revolution?”
“It will change, but not as quickly as you can believe it”, her sense of reality and pragmatism are typical from who is coming from the south. “She has great strength, but her place into the society has been weak for too long, with time she will be able to make appreciate her qualities, only then she will play the role which she is entitled and will have a weigh on Egypt’s future. Of course, the revolution will help, but we need to see what direction it will take. The important thing is that the woman pushes herself to believe in their potential strength and to achieve that prominent role which she deserves into society: the road has been traced, now we must continue to build it”
I point out that she is already an example for many people, because she represents the idea of the woman she has just addressed. “There are artists who work with social issues and others who do not, I am part of the first category, and for the rest is not me to say what I am”. On the couch armchair there is the Egyptian flag and on the table there is the photo of Ahmed El Bassioni, one of the persons killed in Tahrir. I observe them carefully, as they are about to reveal a secret. “He was my friend”, says Shayma. “I was with him when he was killed, I went to the hospital with his family to mourn him … he did not deserve this, none of those guys who died there deserved it”
Tuesday, March 2nd, Shayma created a Facebook group called “Performance experimental Tahrir”, an art event to take place every Friday in the square, because there is a need to manifest until the current government will go away and the requests of the people will be satisfied. “I do not care if three ministers have been changed and that many have been put in jail, the government in charge is a fake government for three reasons: it is unlawful because not elected by the people; it represents the old regime, since it had been appointed by Mubarak; it is the same government responsible to allow criminals to break into downtown’s streets and causing clashes in Tahrir on February 2nd and 3rd, they are the same criminals who are responsible of the dead during the revolution. The current rulers do not understand young people and their needs: freedom, social justice, opportunities for study and decent work to build a family and buy a house. Teenagers and people want to face a police officer without fearing him, or his abuse of power, or to end up like Khaled Said, Alexandria’s boy brutally massacred by the police. Is it asking too much? You know the story?”, I nod. “Ok. I want to bring artists to the streets to move the consciences of people. I want to eradicate the concept of underdeveloped art which is breathing in Egypt, it is the only way to break the chains and set free a culture too influenced and exposed by the Western values, to the submission that the official propaganda had to the Western benefactors. For this reason, the performance in Tahrir should be an experimental one, involving theatre, dance, music and audiovisual art”
“Which one will be your project?”
“My own one? It will be a painting theatre. Personally I will bring a book, a book that does not exist, a story to be narrated regarding the people who were in Tahrir, who ate, drank, fought, shit, vomit and sing praises to freedom. I will tell the stories of those days meanwhile I will paint a live painting, to remember the deeds of those who fought and died for freedom and justice. We will make a corner in Tahrir each Friday in protest, so that all the demonstrators will look at us, for not forgetting what happened”. Shayma says that she would like to speak to people about the importance of the constitution, but she seems not having a clear idea about legislation. One thing is sure, before the revolution, society was divided into groups: the poor, the artists, the philosophers, the rich, the actors, the labourers … different realities not communicating to each other. The revolution has been able to put them all together in one piece, without distinction. And the woman is part of this entity. The women’s movement in Egypt was always very strong, starting with Hoda Sharawi in the early twenties of last century and through the sixties-seventies with Sa’dawi Nawal. Even Shayma Kamel is one of its representatives, as other Egyptians women who were in Tahrir.
She receives a call from a friend during the interview. She kindly apologizes and answers the phone. While she is speaking she is watching her laptop monitor. Shayma is always a calm person, but suddenly her tone is turning loud and agitated. The call goes on for a few minutes; she is visibly upset when she hangs up. I ask her what happened, because her face is so dark. She says her friend Mona does not understand anything, she is scared because there are too many thieves around and the police are not on the streets to protect citizens. Mona lives either in Muqattam or Maadi, both wealthy residential areas, and like all riches in Cairo she does not have a clear idea of what is going on and why people are fighting in the streets. To them, the rich people, the old system was convenient, they lived in comfort, but the rest of the population? Shayma is visibly irritated. I remember what I read on one of the outer walls of the American University in Cairo coming to Shayma’s flat, an inscription saying: “Irfaa rasak foq, enta masri (raises your head up because you’re Egyptian).
Some of her paintings hang on the walls, many others leant to each other; colours on the floor, scissors, brushes, spatulas, palette knife, brushes, containers stained with acrylic. She shows me one of her last works she was doing before the uprising: a woman of Aswan, the theme that unites the different roots of Egypt, umbilical cord which drags us back to the heart of Africa. As she flips through her paintings, extracts one with a niqab, but she does not seem to be happy, as if the black colour were like needles that penetrate Shayma’s skin. She lets me taking picture of it, but I have the feeling that it seems something that she refuses because it represents the refuse of being a woman.
Last year she published a book in collaboration with Jamaican artist Opal Palmer Adisa, met in America during Shayma’s trip to attend her exhibitions in the States. They met for the first time a Virgin Island where Shayma had to attend a talk at the university over there. They liked each other immediately, a special feeling born from poems by Opal who decided to travel to Egypt in the following summer to make Writer in Residence. The project includes living for several months in a host country, to know the culture and get inspired. The book they published together is a combination of their arts. Opal watched Shayma’s painting which were explained by Shayma who also was describing the inspiration leitmotiv. The book speaks about female genital mutilation in Africa and what the woman has to suffer and to bear, physical and psychological traumas that she carries on throughout her life.
Africa, wild and instinctive land, a land which Egypt belongs to; a country framed between two continents and many cultures, which has decided to take its own destiny in its hands to ensure that nor the international corporations or superpowers decide its future. It is possible that the revolution could erase the legacy of Mubarak regime and the brutal tradition of female genital mutilation? The time, only the time will tell us, the beginning is undoubtedly showing good auspicious for the future, even though the revolution nowadays seems to be stuck, only with the general election to be held in November we will see what direction Egypt will really take.
Shayma Kamel is a committed artist, with her oils and her acrylics she fights in her studio as well as in the streets against the social wounds and traumas. Her colours dilate the desperation of a lost gaze, or the emptiness left by a companion who fell.