Hossam Dirar grew up in Cairo, whose rich heritage and diverse culture inspired him to explore the world around him and to carve out his unique imagination, with an aspiration to capture the undefined. After graduating from the Faculty of Applied Arts at Helwan University, Dirar became increasingly interested in epigraphy, calligraphy and its relationship with art. Dirar’s artistic techniques are enhanced and accentuated by the material properties of paint. Within Dirar’s painterly practice his techniques are varied; sometimes he stencils, sometimes he applies bands of pure colour. Other times, Dirar employs traditional iconography and calligraphy. As a multi-disciplinary artist working across diverse mediums such as photography, installation, videography and graphic design, he captures the zeitgeist of today with a mastery of diverse methods of representation.
Importantly, the camera lens is a fundamental tool employed by Dirar in his works. As such, Hossam Dirar’s approach to image making is layered and nonlinear. As well as conceiving the image’s composition, he also deconstructs the area between the digital environment and layers of representation. While the camera provides a sketch onto which further details can be rendered, the lens does not strictly determine the order of representation, nor the manner of the composition. Instead it provides a background upon which ‘painterly interventions’ can be applied almost ‘independent of the surface’. Consequently there is a cinematic quality associated with his paintings where iconic images expand into almost theatrical montages. These tableaus are coupled with time sequences that trace quixotic historical scenes, with a sense of drama derived from epic paintings of the 19th century, yet aided by the realism and truthful eye of photography. Where in some works we can cite 19th century Orientalist paintings as sources of inspiration, in other works Dirar quotes characteristic features of Pop Art such as the brightness of colour he uses and the icon-like status of his sitters.
Hossam Dirar’s works are considered as re-interpretations of Egypt’s rich visual canon and cultural heritage. The artist takes into account the multitudinous cultural diversity of Cairo and the city’s complex and ever-expanding urban facade, the region’s traditional iconography and cultural history, as well as the influence of contemporary media in shaping cultural referents. Tackling questions of cultural identity, gender roles and socio-economic and political ideas, Dirar’s work is a visual essay on beauty in the everyday experience, inflected by mass-media generated realities rendered on his canvases as basic forms. Though Dirar reduces these easily recognised symbols of the contemporary experience into simplified forms, the works he creates are “wholly graspable and divisible into units of meaning”.
A prominent theme in Dirar’s canon is the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. In the process of researching Nefertiti’s role within Ancient Egyptian society, Hossam Dirar discovered a wealth of symbols, stories and myths that come to represent the richness of her character in his works. Firmly rooted in the tradition of the icon, Dirar reinvents her style and fashion as a means by which he can connect her as a historical figure with the here and now, as a woman of today. By uncovering and referencing the elegance of Ancient Egyptian artwork in terms of fashion, Dirar presents Queen Nefertiti in an original yet contemporised style. By focusing on the details of Nefertiti’s crown and attire, Dirar puts into perspective the uniqueness of her character. The central focus on Ancient Egyptian women such as Queen Nefertiti or Cleopatra in his body of works speaks to his desire to highlight the role of women in society in the past and today. Drawn to the ancient history, language and culture of his homeland, Dirar aims to contemporise icons of Egyptian history in order to change cultural and societal attitudes today.
‘How to Run While Looking Back’ takes into account questions of semiotics, history, identity and gender roles, as well as the position of women in historical culture. The show presents the duality of Hossam’s practice, grounded both in the past and ever present in his commentary [critique] on contemporary Egyptian society.
Text by Luli Gibbs