Essays

Remembering an Egyptian Artist Who Was Always Looking East

The author and Chant Avedissian sharing a meal in Groppi Garden cafe, Cairo (all images courtesy the author)

I first met Chant Avedissian in Yerevan in 2002, where he was taking a hiatus from Egypt. It was summer and you could never call him before noon, or you could but would get no answer. We met up at a lahmajun place he was keen for, and he arrived dressed in all black in the summer heat. While the lahmajun was indeed excellent, the meeting seemed like a test of some kind, for him to get a read on me. Our families had similar stories, grandchildren of Armenians displaced by the genocide to Egypt, and it felt like based on my responses to particular questions, he was getting a sense of how knotted I was into the Armenian nationalist script. Being half Egyptian, I wasn’t, or at least it was as complicated for me as it was for him. The conversation got deep fast, as I would come to learn it always does with him. If the lahmajun place meeting was to see if the introduction could go further, it did, into a 15 plus year friendship and professional relationship that I valued deeply and will profoundly miss.

“It is child abuse when parents tell their children that Paris is the center of art.”

Chant made bold statements, radical declarations, and professed ideas that you weren’t quite sure were meant to provoke argument or laughter. He was philosophical, sharp and bewilderingly intelligent, and steadfast in his disdain of the Eurocentric tendency. He could, and would, reference Ibn Arabi and McDonalds in one sentence.

He would dramatically roll out observations that were biting, critical, brilliant, frequently rooted in the reoccurring theme of rejection of the Western lens. He despised the trivialization and disregard of Eastern aesthetics and materials. He readily critiqued the region’s cultural guardians who subscribed to Western reverence as a profound rejection of self. “Look East,” he would say, “Everything is in Samarkand, in Bhukara, in Aleppo.” It was always all east for him, ‘Near’ and ‘Far East’ — he was a fan of single quotes around terms he knew evoked complicated emotions and histories.

An example of how Avedissian used source materials in his finished work

“All the objects in your home should serve three purposes.”

A few days later came an invitation to dinner at his apartment punctuated by a guided visit to a specific market to get some black market insecticide to ward off the massive roaches in my Yerevan rental). We sat on floor mats at a low table and ate salads served on beautiful plates and talked for hours. He was working on a series of photographs of young men alongside pictorial tombstones from a military cemetery of boys who had been killed in the war with Azerbaijan. The prints were intimate and felt slightly dangerous, and related to this series was a list of names of Diasporan Armenians who donated money to support the war. I felt concerned for his safety. But then he pointed out that the giant Soviet realist statue of Mother Armenia was holding that big knife only to slice basturma, and levity filled the small room.

That apartment, like his home in Cairo, was all ritual and order. In the Cairo studio, every element wasmulti-functional: a table that slid away and became the back of a seat, a platform bench that flipped up and became a shelf. A flexible, moveable architecture, like a Bedouin tent, or shoji screens, the opposite of a tomb, as he would describe it. “You should move all your furniture and art around every three months,” he advised me.

The many drawers housed stacks of his works on paper and textiles. He is best known for his stencil-based paintings, which were the basis of a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2000–2001 and also set an auction record for work by a living Arab artist. They depict popular figures based on photographs and advertising in Cairo from the 1950s and 60s, in lush color and pattern.

Birdcages in Avedissian’s Cairo studio

Produced 40 years out from the original publications, the stencil works should not be mistaken for nostalgia for an Egypt past, but are instead a simultaneous look at the content and constructions of those images. Most sourced from state owned media, they provide a view into how Egypt was defining itself in its post-colonial era, with both genuine and aspirational notions widely disseminated. We see Om Kalthoum, and Gamel Abdel Nasser, as well as Sayyid Jamal-alDin al-Afghani, (a revolutionary who fought against colonialism) and an Arab girl firing a grenade launcher with the moon rising up behind her. The work reveals more about their intent as messaging than as popular images, and their medium, interchangeable stencils that reappear with different backgrounds or foregrounds, emphasize and point at the illusion, another layer of facsimile.

He also wants us to see the material and method. Most of the works are made on the cardboard packing materials sourced from the souks and the technique of printing points to the long tradition of fabric printing in Egypt and neighboring nations. He considered these materials and processes as worthy as the fetishized oil on canvas.

The relationship with “humble” material had origins in his years of work as an archivist for the architect Hassan Fathy, with whom he had a close relationship after Chant returned from study in Canada and Europe. Fathy, who had turned away from the European model he himself had been trained in, created structures highlighting local materials and techniques, with seemingly simple, repeating forms based on native building techniques for maximum cooling in the desert heat. Chant’s time with Fathy helped undo the “abuse” of the westward gaze, helped “clean” him of his European art training and encouraged him to look more closely around him. It might have also sharpened his distinctive ability to the find the poetic in the overlooked, and eliminate the divide between high/low value systems, and further develop his own rich language of shape, color, and motif that he would master in his work in textile and on paper. (In 2017, Sabrina Amrani Gallery in Madrid mounted an excellent exhibition focused on his pattern based work, which included sketches and photos beginning in the 1970’s through 2016.)

His ability to hone in on the essence of a thing was evident in the way he used language as well. In between the visits we would keep in touch by email. After sending him some new work, he wrote back immediately, “They have the strength of hieroglyphs, being atemporal and international … as for [the current US political situation] the best remedy is to work” and describing the Arab Spring as “healthy chaos.”

On my last visit to Cairo, he insisted on taking me to the “baby street” and he walked me through the crowded, bustling, tight paths of El Attaba, looking at cheap plastic flowers, paper animal masks, printed cellophanes and plastic bags with odd typos (Best Whiches.) The baby street was a long, dense row of shops that sold hand-fashioned decorative items for baby parties, in every conceivable form and ones you never thought could exist, like tiny plastic infants decorated with gobs of glittery crinoline. “Dahlia, look at this!” he would point, with genuine joy. He touched things and noticed the details. Around a corner he bought a rapid blinking, very colorful LED light. “It’s for my living room” he said. He bought me sheets of clear plastic with a repeated floral pattern, “You should use this in your work.” This was Chant in his element: the vibrant, volatile Cairo night, a street thick with people hustling, ecstatic pattern overload, layers of electronic and human sound. At one point a commotion arose and suddenly a young boy came barreling through the narrow street on a very large horse. The moon was glowing and full. Chant was smiling.

I am fortunate to have two of his works, one of Kalthoum, her arms up, mouth open in mid-wail, the other of Nasser, hand to chin, brooding, deep in thought. They both are semi-profile staring out beyond the frame, looking forever east.

comments (0)