- Souad Abdel Rassoul's appearance on June 23 at Circle Art Gallery marked the opening of her first solo exhibition in Nairobi.
- ‘Behind the River’ is a grand departure from her previous presentations in Kenya.
- Souad’s preoccupation with the restrictions that society imposes on women is seen in her works.
Egypt-born Souad Abdel Rassoul may have her art studio in Cairo, but even before she met and married the then Nairobi-based artist Salah el Mur, she had adopted Nairobi as her second artistic home.
Souad has had several exhibitions with Salah in Nairobi since 2014, and several group shows as well. But her appearance last Wednesday, June 23 at Circle Art Gallery marked the opening of her first solo exhibition in Nairobi.
‘Behind the River’ is a grand departure from her previous presentations in Kenya, although there are echoes in several of her works from her days of doing paintings inspired by her fascination for books filled with maps and anatomical parts.
Her style has been described as a blend of both the abstract and figurative. But I would add that she (having studied art history through to a Ph.D.) also has a surrealist touch. It is apparent in works like ‘Bull Eyes’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Masquerade’, and ‘I Have Mouths That Never Talk.’
Souad refutes the claim that she is a feminist artist. Instead, she explains that her paintings derive from her personal experiences of the constraints and restrictions that she has encountered as a woman in society. They are illustrated in a work like ‘Men Tree’ where the women stand next to a tree whose branches are tipped with the heads of judgmental men.
While she never refers Frida Kahlo, she like the acclaimed Mexican artist also paints about her emotions and personal experiences. And like Kahlo, her art is highly symbolic, revealing a soulful yet cryptic language.
Souad’s art is autobiographical. For instance, more than half of her paintings contain a woman dressed in a white transparent gown, implying that she is both covered, yet unprotected from the gaze of men's prying eyes.
Souad is also a storyteller. In a work like ‘The First Date’ one can imagine she is describing her first awkward date with Salah. Following along from that is ‘Waiting’ in which the same two people are seated at a table, socially-distanced and separated by a beautiful tree of hope.
Carrying on with that story are paintings filled with internal concerns of the woman who asks, ‘Who is this man?’ Her answer seems to be reflected in the work ‘Confusion’ in which the woman is of two minds, represented by two disembodied female heads.
But then, Souad’s art often reveals the woman’s encounters with harassing men symbolised in bestial forms. They may be an aggressive bull as in ‘Bull Eyes’ or an octopus with probing hands as in ‘The Hunt’, or even a crocodile as in ‘Nile Crocodiles’ wherein the woman sits regally on a rock in the river, yet the river is infested with crocs that are circulating her menacingly.
Souad’s preoccupation with the restrictions that society imposes on women is further seen in works like ‘Men Tree’ and ‘Like a Lonely Owl’ where the woman stands beside trees having branches with judgmental male-tipped heads. And in her ‘Lonely Owl’, the woman’s only ally would seem to be an owl perched atop one tree. Yet in some cultures, the owl is a symbol of death while in others, it’s a symbol of wisdom. Its significance is ambiguous like the transparent gown which covers but doesn’t protect.
The fact that Souad sees the plight of the woman as patriarchal and systemic rather than her problem alone is apparent in a work like ‘Dreamers.’ In it, there are four women lined up in a row.
They are covered in transparent gowns but still, they are covering their private parts while three men’s heads are aligned above them as if they hold the power over the women standing below.
Finally, one thread that runs through many of Souad's paintings is the river. Having grown up beside the River Nile, she says she sees it both literally and figuratively as a giver of life and a symbol of freedom that she identifies closely with it.
The personal identification is apparent in paintings like ‘Crossing the River’ and ‘The River’, both of which reflect her appreciation of women as the giver of life and fertility.
Ultimately, Souad is a clear-eyed observer of women’s situation within a patriarchal system. Yet she also affirms her life-affirming identification with the river which, for her is alive, ever-changing, and ever new.