[ilds] "Neither does the spirit of Lawrence Durrell hover"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Thu Jan 14 09:45:15 PST 2010


See the penultimate paragraph of the piece copied below for the Durrell 
reference.

My observation: 

The author of the review seems to understand the "spirit of Lawrence 
Durrell" in a limited capacity.  Perhaps the "spirit of Alexandria" is 
more important?  In fact, what the writer describes about the artist's 
work might in fact start an interesting conversation between readers of 
Durrell and viewers of Louis's artwork.

>         The creamy surface gets thicker and more clotted; the
>         decorative work almost incomplete. The insets and
>         juxtapositions depict multiple phases of Alexandrian, and
>         Egyptian, history. Crafting an ageless portrait is a fine art.
>         Louis excels at adding the finer details without embarking on
>         the unqualified finish. He is neither fearful of exploring the
>         inner meanings of items found in plundered Pharaonic tombs,
>         nor on the age-old controversies that historically bedeviled
>         his hometown. Alexander the Great, the city's founder, and
>         Cleopatra V, the last Ptolomaic queen of Egypt, and probably
>         Alexandria's most famous daughter, are hinted at in the works
>         of Tossoonian, but only the faintest of hints. Do not look for
>         such famous cosmopolitan Alexandrian landmarks as the Cecil
>         Hotel or the Constantine Cavafy Museum. Neither does the
>         spirit of Lawrence Durrell hover over the works of these three
>         Alexandria 
>         artists.

Charles

**
> *An Alexandrian trio
> They simulate waves but what do waves correspond to, asks Gamal Nkrumah
> *
> *Al-Ahram / 14 - 20 January 2010
> Issue No. 981*
> *http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/981/cu1.htm*

> Alfons Louis, Said Badr and Sarkis Tossoonian wandered wistfully into 
> Safar Khan with an extraordinary milieu of connected memories -- all 
> of their seaside city. Alexandria was always as secular as it was 
> sacred. Above all, the three artists evoke Alexandria in August, with 
> a hint of October. Strange, since we are in midwinter. As if worn away 
> by weather, these works recall a bygone age.
>
> In this climate the arts, whether religious or irreverent, flourished 
> uneasily side by side, narrating a compelling story about a 
> theology-obsessed schizophrenic cosmopolitanism. A Coptic Christian, a 
> Muslim and an ethnic Armenian, Louis, Badr and Tossoonian express the 
> aesthetic of Alexandria in their respective personal fashions. They 
> delve into such multi- layered and elusive meanings of the city's 
> historical cultural outpourings and confront the issue of urban 
> multi-identities from radically different perspectives, using distinct 
> mediums and notions of self-expression. Their exhibition highlights 
> their Alexandrian roots, but in a manner not immediately perceptible. 
> Alexandria is honeycombed with catacombs, cisterns and underground 
> chambers, and the curiously attractive works of Louis look like 
> something snatched out of the dungeons beneath the city, except that 
> they are recovered from the depths of the sea like some denizens of 
> the deep.
>
> Sun drenched scratched surfaces with fairy-tale hares and gazelles 
> prancing past Coptic-like iconic figures look like they have been 
> hollowed out of some ancient rock, or dug out of the crypt of some 
> long deceased Alexandrian Greek nobles, with scattered pieces of 
> potsherds and pockmarked sea salvaged timber. Inscriptions are scarce, 
> but Pharaonic oddments are in abundance.
>
> The Copt tells the tale of his extraordinary seaside hometown in 
> unpretentious, carefully weighed logs siphoned from the Mediterranean. 
> Expect to see no rudimentary paintings of the sea. However, he pulls 
> no punches when he tells the story of his many-layered port city. His 
> works are a carefully crafted recreation of Alexandria, but without 
> the glamour. There is something about his work that ultimately evades 
> interpretation. His icons give the impression of being hauled up some 
> secret shaft down which the mortal remains of individuals long gone 
> have been deposited in the Netherworld. Yet there is something bright 
> and cheery about these works built of planks.
>
> Rain-sodden scenes are tangible only in the rough texture of the 
> stylistically hewn damp wood. The fragments of metal scattered here 
> and there re-enforce the sodden lot. There is something almost 
> imperceptible that gives the impression of dankness even though there 
> isn't a trace of moisture.
>
> Images of a cosmopolitan Alexandria have long since faded. Instead the 
> trio treat visitors to the exhibition to a miscellaneous collection of 
> hypnotically powerful works with a classical quality evocative of this 
> particular Mediterranean port city's past.
>
> However, the Alexandrian threesome offer an enticing hint of the 
> city's original magnificence, and of a darker aspect of its doctrinal 
> sophistication. Was not the newly converted Christian Alexandria that 
> cruelly culled its pagans -- including the philosopher-sorceress 
> Hepatia? She was after all a mere mathematician who happened to infuse 
> her students with a vitality and warmth that none of her 
> contemporaries matched. For this, she had to be put down, publicly 
> executed.
>
> I searched Tossoonian's figurines for reminders of Hepatia. Yes, the 
> features of his belles were Romanesque. Snake- haired Medusas of Greek 
> mythology stare out into space past your gaze. These bronze figures 
> seem to have been rescued from the Serapeum. The original golden 
> plaques are polished bronze, of course, and are as shiny and smooth as 
> mirrors. Others smack of Ptolemaic sphinxes and most sport aquiline 
> Roman noses.
>
> Such not too subtle gems are more than a leitmotif of an exhibition 
> mounted in commemoration of Alexandria's past cosmopolitanism. The 
> exhibition barely alludes to the multi- religious, multi-cultural 
> background of the artists. The three artists' works are not framed in 
> the context of a city that has become a magnet for peasants from the 
> Delta and beyond. Tossoonian is the only one whose sculptures feature 
> human figures. Even so, his women are more reminiscent of some 
> Greco-Roman Madonna than mere country maidens.
>
> Tossoonian's sculptures resemble the works of the late Swiss painter 
> and sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Art connoisseurs glimpse something of 
> the ancient -- Celtic, Greco- Roman or Egyptian? Unlike the statues of 
> the ancients, Tossoonian's works stand upright, there is nothing of 
> the fallen visages of long dead pharaohs. There is no attempt, either, 
> to bring them back to life. Indeed, the bronze is designed to feign 
> the listless and lifeless.
>
> And back to Badr. The Muslim, presumably on religious grounds, eschews 
> the human figure. Rosetta's fortunes have historically been inversely 
> linked with that of Alexandria. And yet the smaller city is only a 
> stone's throw away from its far more buxom older sister. But Badr 
> isn't in the least interested in the treasures of Rosetta. He pays no 
> attention to the medieval rival to Alexandria with its streets studded 
> with mashrabeyas, wooden latticework windows, and the lakes engulfing 
> the seaport lined with tall reeds. Such a typically Rosetta scene, 
> Badr leaves for Louis to make the most of.
>
> The latter uses intricate wooden paneling sparsely, but the timber he 
> uses in profusion and with such passion that his works appear to leap 
> out of some ancient history book. Louis fuses medieval and ancient, 
> Muslim and Coptic, Ptolemaic and Greco-Roman symbols and signs with 
> ingenious creativity. However, it is Badr who makes the most of 
> arguably the most significant find of Egyptology. Neither a 
> multilingual stele, nor a decree from Ptolomy V, a tax amnesty to 
> temple priests, Badr's are stuffed with good lines, except that most 
> are unreadable. But Badr isn't focussed on the content of the Rosetta 
> Stone, only on the inspiration he so obviously derives from the slab 
> of black basalt.
>
> Lines rippling across granite. Arabic script mutates into hieroglyphs 
> and then back into Arabic calligraphy. It is all extraordinarily 
> prescient. The shapes of the stone themselves are designed to shed 
> light on the glowing illuminations that capture Alexandria at 
> different times of the day and in different seasons. These are apt 
> descriptions for Badr's renditions of the Rosetta Stone. His take on 
> that curious object defies definition.
>
> Badr's letters are like pictograms. Some are in indecipherable script, 
> a make-believe language, others in Arabic. Pencilled on polished 
> surfaces, they so nearly resemble the Rosetta Stone, except they don't.
>
> The deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1824 by Jean-Francois Champollion of 
> France enabled the world to understand the secrets of ancient Egypt, 
> and opened up the mysteries of the Pharaohs. Badr applies himself to 
> the tremendous task of reinterpreting Alexandrian history through the 
> irregular shapes and weird writings engraved on his imitations of the 
> Rosetta Stone.
>
> Black basalt is a hardy stone not easily worked or tamed. The Safar 
> Khan gallery is strewn with huge blocks of stone, timber and bronze -- 
> like a show of excavations in some undisclosed dig somewhere near 
> Alexandria. The cosmopolitan city of yesteryear is the inspiration. 
> There is no inkling of the bustling contemporary port. Instead there 
> are numerous vestiges of the past.
>
> Does an underlying constituency hold their disparate strands together? 
> A master of the right angle and the perfect circle, Badr reproduces 
> the curiously cut blocks of black basalt in a variety of shapes and 
> sizes, all paying tribute to the original.
>
> The works of the other two artists are somewhat more inconstant, but 
> only slightly so. Louis's pieces are easily identifiable. There are 
> clear changes of visual texture. Yet the dominant theme remains the 
> same. They are decorated with strange images, some faintly resembling 
> the ushatbi of the ancients. The Pharaonic influence is greatest; 
> however, the Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman and other Islamic influences 
> abound. Rabbits and antelopes hop and skip in total abandon.
>
> His etchings aspire to the primitive. Colourless elegance yields to 
> the saturated earthy hues and icons of his imagination albeit adorned 
> in muted tones.
>
> The creamy surface gets thicker and more clotted; the decorative work 
> almost incomplete. The insets and juxtapositions depict multiple 
> phases of Alexandrian, and Egyptian, history. Crafting an ageless 
> portrait is a fine art. Louis excels at adding the finer details 
> without embarking on the unqualified finish. He is neither fearful of 
> exploring the inner meanings of items found in plundered Pharaonic 
> tombs, nor on the age-old controversies that historically bedeviled 
> his hometown. Alexander the Great, the city's founder, and Cleopatra 
> V, the last Ptolomaic queen of Egypt, and probably Alexandria's most 
> famous daughter, are hinted at in the works of Tossoonian, but only 
> the faintest of hints. *Do not look for such famous cosmopolitan 
> Alexandrian landmarks as the Cecil Hotel or the Constantine Cavafy 
> Museum. Neither does the spirit of Lawrence Durrell hover over the 
> works of these three Alexandrian artists.*
>
> Instead, pieces of Pompey's pillar, the Fortress of Qaitbey are seen 
> and understood in touches by Tossoonian, feelings divulged by Louis, 
> and variegated duplications by Badr. They are, like the exhibition 
> itself, running a fine line between memory, the memorable and the 
> immemorial. Alexandria has profoundly influenced Western thought and 
> philosophy. The remains are the relics from its rich past. Carved 
> tombstone panels? An artistic tribute to the ancients. 



-- 
********************************************
Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu
********************************************



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