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‘Freak Show’ laments lost humanity

“People have become behavior freaks and, in the process, have lost their humanity,” laments 32-year-old artist Shirine Mahmud during her first sculpture exhibition, "The Freak Show," at Cairo Atelier downtown. Her strikingly disturbing sculptures made of pottery and papier mâché will be exhibited on the ground floor of the gallery until February 5.

 “The Scream,” “Sarcastic,” “I used to be beautiful” and “Hatred” are some of the sculptures’ names that express the gloom captured in her work. The nonplussed visitor is immediately surrounded by distorted lips, exasperated nostrils, cold eyes, nasty frowns and hollow cheeks that are sculpted and painted in papier mâché.

“I have always been both fascinated and terrified by people’s dark expressions. I started this pottery/papier mâché project a year and a half ago to let these feelings out of me,” recalls the artist, covering an angry sculpted face with her hand. “I am scared of what people have become. It must have been different in the past, when people were more able to care, to love, to be merciful,” she adds with a fading smile.

She quickly turns and points to the sculpture entitled “The Scream” that bears a striking resemblance to Edvard Munch’s famous painting with the same name. The rough greenish face is elongated by a screaming mouth that looks like a door to hell: huge and black as ink. Passing her finger over the sculpture’s hollow cheek, Shirine whispers “this is me, this is what I feel most of the time.”

Her sculptures have an interesting contrast of smooth and rough surfaces, the rough part usually dominating. “My passion for pottery goes back to my student years at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek,” explains Shirine who graduated in 2000 from the sculpture department.

 “All the clay pots that I used for this exhibition are my design, except the very first pot that I used which became this sculpture,” she explains, pointing at the egg-shaped head entitled “Sarcastic”. The clay pot is filled to the rim with paper, then covered with papier mâché and a layer of paint on the surface. The artist typically employs a mix of colors: silvery green, gold, red and pink. Rather than brightening these gloomy faces, the paint usually renders them scary and desperate.

 “I used to be beautiful” is a particularly sad sculpture. An aged woman’s withered face is covered with tacky purple, red and green makeup in an attempt to conceal the effects of time on her once perfect features and her firm, smooth skin. Her mouth is distorted by fright and incomprehension, while her eyelids are drooping and part of her face has been devoured by old age. “I made this sculpture when my aunt was dying,” says Shirine with a flash of sadness in her eyes. “She was once an amazingly beautiful woman, but age and sickness struck her and tore apart her appearance and her personality…she was no longer the same woman.”

Some of the faces have lost all humanity in the sculpting process, like the one entitled “Cold” whose features have melted like butter under the sun. What remains is a bland mass of lump flesh that slowly drips like Salvador Dali’s surrealist melting clocks.

“The picture that I see around me is very dark,” affirms the artist, unsurprisingly. Turning to a half-bare sculpture named “Lost Identity”, she explains that this one “stands for a very disturbed person, as a part of his face is missing.” Shirine apologizes for her inability to better discuss her work of art. The papier mâché covers the clay pot except on the left side where the face is left bare. While its aesthetic impact may not be the most impressive, this exhibition is worth seeing for the powerful message and multiple emotions it conveys.


Shirine’s sculptures can be seen until February 5 at Cairo Atelier (2 Karim Al Dawla St. Downtown
02-25746730), from 5pm to 11pm.


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