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Exorcising the demons of the subconscious

Number 19, Mohamed Ali el-Easary Street in Ard-El-Lewa (northwest of Giza) is home to what must be the smallest contemporary art space in Cairo: Artellewa.

Its approximately five-square-meters display area, white and uncluttered, can be admired from the bustling street, leaving no boundaries between the art pieces exhibited and the vibrant activity of this popular area.
A tuk-tuk spare parts vendor, a few meters down the bumpy dirt road, watches the comings and going of pedestrians and noisy motorcycles, while a nearby photographer stuffs in his studio display window glossy portraits of over-made-up and over-smiling women, with the kitschy caption “Smile at Life.” Art definitely has space for creation in Ard-El-Lewa in such an exuberant environment.
About to celebrate its third anniversary, Artellewa gallery’s ambitions exceed the size of its premises. Its co-founders, visual artist Hamdy Reda and Verena Libbel, created the space with the idea of opening it to a wide range of different forms of art, from painting and photography, to video and installations.
Artellewa is currently showcasing “Poise,” the work of painter/musician/psychologist Mohammed Gaber, more commonly known as “Gaby”. Thirteen paintings in total are hung on the bare white walls of the gallery, demonstrating the artist’s sensibility and unveiling his subconscious, which wraps the visitor in a sordid, yet touching atmosphere. “I drew these paintings while at the bedside of my mum, during her long illness,” says Gaby in a soft voice. “I dedicated this exhibition to her soul,” he says, pointing at the lyrics of a song he wrote for his band called “Salvation.”
The black ink and pastel paintings, drawn instinctively, from the guts, rather than the studied result of aesthetic discipline, tell the story of the artist’s inner turmoil. A few nervous brushstrokes of the blackest ink give birth to a torn human shape, the body bent slightly forward and feet stomping the floor with the energy of despair. The character and its emotions evolve painting after painting, seen dancing in a trance, arms and legs stretched outwards in motion, while its ever present shadow sticks to it like a bad dream, a reminder of its tortured flesh. The speed and movements of the character are also illustrated by further omnipresent shadows that record previous motions and forecast the ones to come, in a cartoon-like nightmare.
In its last appearance the character is found sitting, short of breath, chin slightly turned inwards while the arms support its curved torso in a sitting position. Scratches of ink run violently from the legs, as if depicting sparks of past energy. The overall posture conveys either despondency or relief, according to the artist. “I see relief in this character; even though it stopped belonging to me as soon as it was finished, it is released now,” says Gaby, with a smile.

The artist insists on the freedom that abstract shapes offer to the public “as you really can see in these lines what your subconscious mind dictates, and create your own world out of these paintings.” This is where the psychologist and the artist meet, where art “exorcises the demons of the subconscious,” according to Gaby. He enjoys the use of projection in his artwork which takes his paintings to another level of understanding. In one painting, what seems to be a black dehydrated trunk on a yellow background slowly withers and the profile of a face appears, giving another way to understand the painting.
“The only time I can feel I am balanced is when I come up with a creation,” says Gaby. The name of the exhibition, “Poise,” conveys this state of momentary balance, of endangered equilibrium.

The exhibition runs until 9 January, and the gallery is open daily from 5 PM to 10 PM.
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