“The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist.”
Anna Massey Lea Merritt , 1844-1930
My first meeting with Huda Lutfi took place under very unusual circumstances; I had come across an article written about her in an old issue of the local “Community Times” and it was really the photograph taken of her with a backdrop of “recycled artwork” in progress that caught my eye and prompted me to go see her show.
The year was 2003 and the show was entitled “Found in Cairo”.
As soon as I walked into the exhibition hall I felt the immediate tension; Lutfi took two steps back to have a better “perspective” on me and I decided to give her the space to be able to do so.
There we were, two women, standing on opposite sides of a silverpainted and calligraphically-inscribed shoe-lasts-mandala; I, a newcomer/ out-of-towner and her, an accomplished academic and artist with a solid body of work under her belt.
Slowly, and in a cautious behavioural pattern only found in the “female animal kingdom “ we approached each other and started talking. Her apprehension justified; she was just back from three hours of questioning at the local police station because she had inadvertently managed, through her work , to “ruffle up” the “establishment” .
Our paths would subsequently diverge; both getting lost in the Cairene metropolitan jungle only to cross over again a few years ago, by pure chance, and we have been in conversation ever since.
A lot has been written about Lutfi and a lot more will be written again. However, what I would really like to touch on are three important aspects that are reflected through her work: the fact that she is an academic and a self-taught artist, having straddled two careers simultaneously up until recently; the fact that she is a woman living and working in the Middle East and the fact that she adopted the Sufi faith.
In 1991 when Lutfi found herself confined to bed in Boston after a health setback, she picked up a pair of scissors and some old magazines with the same natural ease that a child picks up some pencils and starts scribbling on paper, and made her first collage: “ A Woman Cut in Half”.
This collage, now shown as part of her current twenty-year retrospective, was not only a reflection of her predicament at the time but acted also as the crucible into which she poured all her emotions and experiences that up to then were bottled up and eagerly awaiting a medium of expression.
The sheer delight and gratification of that first endeavour prompted her to do another one.
Soon after she found herself back on her feet and resuming her academic obligations, she started dedicating every bit of free time on her hands; evenings, weekends and vacations, to making collages.
Six years later, after returning to Cairo and having completed a body of approximately fifty works, she decided to show it to her closest friends who unanimously encouraged her to have her first exhibition.
Collage as an artform offers no boundaries to self-expression and technical experimentation. The sheer dynamics of this unique and exciting medium which has not yet found the attention it truly deserves in Egypt, demands continual expansion, research and exploration . Through a variety of techniques and approaches, collage imagery can be abstract, representational, semi-abstract or non-objective.
Collage is also the layering of thoughts, ideas and historical events as well as that of paper, fabric, metal, wood, glue, and paint. It is a laboratory of experimentation with new techniques and materials continuously transforming and leaping into new territory.
Collage artists are collectors and gatherers of all sorts of materials, they organize and store them for eventual use in their artwork. They see beauty in refuse and discarded scraps and give a second life to found papers and objects. As they work, the collage process itself is like laying down layer over layer of history and emotions and once the artwork is completed along comes the viewer and adds yet another layer of meaning.
Collage permeates all of Lutfi’s work, she considers herself a bricoleur using a multitude of images and objects amassed from different historical and cultural sources.
Her training as a cultural historian and her keen interest in gender has greatly influenced her work; during the course of her research and studies on Medieval Arab history she came across the work of El-Sakhami, an Egyptian historian in the fifteenth century from Sakha in Upper Egypt, he had written twelve volumes on prominent male figures in history, one volume of which, though, was entirely dedicated to women.
Therein he mentions the important role they played as transmitters of “hadith”-the prophetic traditions, sayings, teachings and deeds – and the fact that they themselves were daughters of religious scholars and were trained by both men and women.
In these annals El-Sakhami also wrote about the important and significant role women played in politics; some were the wives of sultans and emirs and were involved in charitable work, some were engaged in trade or teaching girls about domestic life and others were strong-minded financially independent women who provided shelters and housing for widows or divorcees who couldn’t support themselves independently, and some were philanthropists who built schools, mosques and “Sufi zawyas” or boarding houses.
All of this sparked Lutfi’s interest in popular iconography which together with the insertion of text is quite ubiquitous throughout her oeuvre.
Two important icons she has used in her work are Um Kulthoum and Tahiyya Karyokka; the former issued from a poor background and rose to become the most important “cantatrice” the Middle East has ever known and the latter, the ultimate embodiment of grace and femininity in traditional “belly-dancing” was also a theatre and motion picture actor and was actively involved in the progressive politics of Egypt.
These two women are icons that people in this part of the world relate to very strongly; they were visible role models, strong-minded individuals, capable and gifted; hence Lutfi “mummified” Um Kulthoum in her work partly to preserve her memory and partly to preserve the mythical secret that surrounds all stars that rise to the firmament.
“Man Ray’s Doll” (2003, digital print on silk, 120 x 80cm) caught Lutfi’s attention about ten years ago partly because the doll was standing on one leg and partly because Man Ray himself was a bricoleur. By appropriating this image and recontextualising it, she wanted to show how society , through cultural ignorance, portrays women as inadequate and helpless. So, Lutfi introduced the paradox in the image and gave her two heads to prove that she is twice the thinker; bright and smart with intellectual capacities that were untapped. She also gave her six arms partly evoking Indian deity and partly evoking the germ of an idea reminiscent of Da Vinci’s man; that through balance and proportion we can reconcile the two parts of our being: the physical and the intellectual.
In the late 1980s while attending a seminar at McGill University, Lutfi came across the work of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) an Andalusian Moorish Sufi philosopher. Through his writings she discovered another perspective as he wrote about human creation while equating between the two genders, he also spiritualized his teachings as opposed to making them parochial and formalistic rituals.“Quietening down”, she tells me, occupies much of the teachings: “it is about showing us the divine aspect of human beings and giving it attention without being distracted by material things around us”.
At a time when Lutfi found herself grappling with life’s day-to-day difficulties; as a single mother working in a foreign city, Sufism provided a steady anchor that stabilized her human interactions and harmonized them.
In “Movements of the Aleph”(2003-1010 ,Triptych, Acrylic and collage on wood panel, 254x130cm) Lutfi experiments with alphabetic abstraction. Inspired by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borge’s articulations of the infinite Aleph as a manifestation of an omnipresent player and the painterly possibilities of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet she evokes notions of beginnings of speech and creation and reflects on the spontaneous flow and forms of existence.
This exhibition also includes some of her current work in progress: a series of photomontages of which “Fragments of Street Life: Five Movements”(2010, mixed media photocollage , 43 x 100 cm) in which she focuses on capturing the body language of people in public spaces around Cairo. The focus is not on the urban space but on the people moving in it; their gestures, the way they walk, wait, stare, think, talk, their dress code and the way they react to the camera or show resistance to it.
Ultimately it is also about people’s reactions to a woman scrutinizing and studying them, shooting and freezing them with her lens and how much they are willing to share their “personal space” with her.
Regardless, she carries on searching, scouring and finding with her beautiful bright and sparkling eyes and, as the old adage goes : “Where there is a twinkle in the eye, there is a sparkle of heaven in the heart.”
TACHE Art Gallery in Cairo opened its doors for the first time with a twenty-year retrospective of Huda Lutfi’s work. The show goes on until the 19th of February.
Huda Lutfi is an Egyptian visual artist and cultural historian based in Cairo. She received her Ph.D in Arab Muslim Cultural History in 1983 from McGill University and has been a practicing artist since the nineties . She works in painting, mixed media , installations, recycled and found objects and is currently venturing into Photography.
She received the second prize at the 1997 Biennale for Women Artists of the Mediterranean, Marseille and Arles.
Her work has been showcased in Copenhagen, the 2010 Dakar Biennale, at The Elysee Arts Gallery in Liege (Icons Reloaded 2009) at The Museum of Modern Art in Bonn and The Arab World Institute in Paris, among numerous other places internationally.