Drawing on ancient mythology and modern politics, Egyptian Painter Wael Darwish explores the human condition—past, present and future—through his works of art.

When Egyptian painter Wael Darwish (b. 1974) participated in the Abu Dhabi Art Fair in 2012, he took the annual event by storm with his triptych Journey of the Sun Boats. Journey of the Sun Boats is a large mixed media work comprised of three canvases, each measuring 2.40 x 2.20 meters. Together, these detail the journey of the Pharaoh in ancient Egyptian mythology, from life to death and onward into the underworld. Inspired by the Pyramid Texts – ancient funerary texts dating to the Old Kingdom – Journey of the Sun Boats is described by the artist as a work ‘that captures the spirit of ancient Egypt in a contemporary form’. It is a work about the passage of time and the poetry of arrivals and departures, about the endless cycles of history, and the schizophrenia of modern citizens caught in the paradox of who we are today and what we were once capable of. ‘The present that we record today in a political work becomes history once the event has passed. We are recording history, but also living it on some level, every single day’, explains Wael Darwish.

The artist at his studio

Darwish has long concerned himself with topics of political importance; his painted works foretold the January 2011 uprisings many years before they occurred. The artist describes himself as a citizen seeking to record and respond to political events unfolding around him; his works capture the mood, or the ‘pulse’, of the country at large. In his recent solo exhibition at Cairo’s Safarkhan Gallery, entitled ‘Living Memory’ (2012), Darwish displayed a series of large-scale painted works that depict a nervous state of anxiety – the feverish, claustrophobic tension of a country transitioning from one system of power to another. In Living Memory, the rulers of the past are seen fading into the background, their secrets intact, while new and faceless figures emerge, seemingly from out of nowhere, to take their place.

The artist’s use of wood, clay and fabric on the surface of the canvas denotes the layers of history that bind us to our past.

By contrast, Journey of the Sun Boats sees the artist move away from this interest in recording a specific moment in time towards a broader, more poetic depiction of the human condition, caught in the endless cycles of history. In this work, Darwish resumes his longstanding investigations into the ties that bind humanity in the present with its ancestors in the past. In his large canvases, which resonate with rich colour and texture, groups of scarcely defined figures crowd together, suspended in a strange and undefined space. Some are visible, dominating the foreground of the paintings, while others are departing and partially obscured from view. The artist explains, ‘In these works you see elements of people lost to time. They have become a fragmented memory existing only in parts’. These figures are expressionless and hard to distinguish from one another. They are symbols of ‘Everyman’, of humanity at large. In between the protagonists, the viewer becomes aware of spectral, disembodied eyes that peer out through openings in the canvas with sadness.’History is looking at us and wondering about the deterioration of the present’, Darwish explains, ‘the eyes tell us that we are not worthy of the responsibility we inherited’. Even while he posits history as an endless cycle of symbols and ideas repeated across time, Darwish warns us that with repetition comes baggage. Ideas are devalued and polluted in the very process of recycling.

Darwish’s protagonists stand, motionless and suspended, beneath the eternal journey of the sun boat.

Travelling along the upper edge of the works is the golden sun boat of ancient Egyptian myth – the promise of life eternal, omnipresent and out of reach of the figures gathered down below. In this work, Darwish draws on ancient symbols of religion, exploring the dichotomy between that which is sacred and secret in contemporary life, ‘Ancient Egyptian religion centred on the secrets of the divine. The pyramid was only the tip of a hoard of secrets hidden away below ground. I try to capture this esoteric quality in the lines and shapes that I create on the canvas’.

For Darwish, we have lost the ancient respect for the sanctity of life. The gilded throne at the centre of the work is a literal reference to the ‘kings’ of the present day, who continue to imbue their political actions with attributes of the divine. Fragments of gold, the ancient colour of divinity, descend from the upper segments of the painting in showers, or rays, to illuminate certain figures, leaving others to fade from view. ‘There is a movement in the lines and a sense of someone departing and someone else appearing … This work is about time and about the accumulation of experiences.’ For Darwish, the Sun Boat is also a metaphor for progress and travel through time. He evokes the ties between our present and past in his choice of colour and materials, using elements of clay, wood, and old cloth on the surface of his canvas. These materials are layered and fragmented across the works – a composite whole made up of a myriad of parts. ‘Since 1999’, Darwish relates, ‘I have explored the idea of using natural elements, such as old clays and old woods. These old woods have a kind of collective memory or experience – an element of time. I also use cloth and make it look ancient, as a thread that ties us to our ancestors.’ On top of these layered materials, Darwish creates colour relationships that reference ancient painting. ‘I use gold, which is a sacred colour, and I use the ancient Egyptian blue.’ Like the hidden strata of an archaeological site, these rich layers of texture and paint create what the artist terms ‘the lines of meaning’ in his work. For Darwish, these old materials are the ancient threads that tie us back to an identity that has now been lost to us. For this reason, he describes the Journey of the Sun Boats as being more akin to an act of bridging or translation, ‘I sometimes see myself as a translator, striving to link together two people who cannot communicate. But in my work, these people are ourselves – who we once were and who we have become today. The colour and materials I use are a bridge through time – a bridge of meaning – linking ancient art forms with modern day painting.’ With nostalgia for the past and a warning for the present, ‘Journey of the Sun Boats’ depicts a humanity faced with the inevitable march of time, ‘I am concerned with the human condition. The work that I create is like a kind of poetry – I express myself in colours and lines. It is the colour that leads to my meaning. My picture is my true opinion, my words and my position’, Darwish concludes.

All the images are courtesy of the artist.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 5, 2013