Poems and Roundelays, an exhibition by the spontaneous artist Hassan al-Sharq whose birthplace is Minya in Upper Egypt, was hosted by the Cordoba Art Gallery in Mohandessin from 12 October to 10 November. Sharq’s latest artwork was not abstract calligraphy as such, nor was it calligraphy painting; but rather he used his own handwriting to fill the blank spaces on a canvas, quoting Arabic poems from the prominent Nezar Qabbani to anonymous Egyptian folk poets.
Hassan al-Sharq was born a simple peasant in a small village near Minya, Upper Egypt, in 1950. Sharq is not highly educated, but he loves art and has devoted his life to it.
Sharq told Watani that because he was the eldest of seven sons he was expected to follow in footsteps of his father as a butcher. He found it a huge problem. “I could not combine my sensitivity as an artist with slaughtering as a butcher. I was a failure in my family’s eyes,” he says.
Despite family pressure, Sharq used art to express his inner feelings. Because of the difficulty in obtaining the required tools and materials, however because of the expense, Sharq made use of alternatives. He explains the use of primitive brushes and pigments: “I depended on the date palm, using the soft fibres for brushes; and the colours I got from the spice merchant. Yellow, for instance, I get from barley, and brown from liquorice, and so on.” He stole brown wrapping paper from his father’s store, and later used the paper of cement bags.
Al-Sharq kept going in this manner for 18 years, and while his art was not known or recognised he continued to earn his living in his father’s butcher shop. He married but his wife showed no interest in his painting. “When I got married my wife used to criticise me, asking what I was doing, and what was my interest in such nonsense drawings,” he says. “She was only interested in the little money I earned from working in my father’s shop.”
The surprising turning point came when Sharq’s talent was noticed by a German gallery owner, Ursula Schernig, who had already discovered several spontaneous artists in Egypt. Some people told her about Sharq’s art work and she visited his home in the village. He showed her his work, executed with primitive materials, spreading them on the floor. “I was surprised when Mrs Schernig was amazed, getting down on her hands and knees over the drawings,” al-Sharq says. She helped him arrange his first exhibition at the Hassan Ragab Papyrus Institute in his village, where 40 pieces were on display and everything was sold.
Since then, Sharq’s works have been shown all over the world. Germany was the launch point for al-Sharq, and he could not believe it when he was met with music and a press conference. Since then he has paid several more visits to Germany through Mrs Schering, who has become his patroness, and has taken part in exhibitions in the Czech Republic, France, Switzerland, the United States, Kuwait, Palestine, Lebanon, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands. He also showed his works in Colombia.
Bold and vivid
Through his drawings, Sharq speaks to different people according to the culture and traditions of the country. People in Colombia, for instance, love miniatures and tattoos, so Sharq presented work in that format, while in Saudi Arabia his work centred on the Helali tales and incomplete faces in line with the religious code.
Using bold shapes and vivid colours, al-Sharq depicts daily life in the Egyptian countryside, the heroes of folkloric tales, and such national issues as the plight of the Palestinians.
Sharq’s works are displayed in national galleries all over the world, including the national museums in Germany and Colombia, the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the American University in Cairo (AUC) gallery, the Ahly Bank Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (known as the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum) in Cairo. The German Embassy in Cairo has published a book entitled Hassan al-Sharq and Rural Egypt and available in Arabic, English and German. Twenty-five of al-Sharq’s drawings have been used as covers of books at the Reading for All Festival, and he was featured in an AUC periodical magazine. Three documentaries have been made—French, Swiss and German—on his journey with art, but Egyptian TV has shown no interest.
Through his own effort, Sharq has established a studio and an international gallery at his birthplace. The gallery has shown works by more than 60 artists, among whom are Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, Ahmed Nawar, and Mirette Boutros Ghali.