By Farah el-Akkad
Photos by Mohsen Allam
Among the villagers of Zawyat Sultan near Minya, Hassan El-Shark is considered something of an omda, an informal mayor and father figure whom residents turn to to end disputes or domestic problems. Among German art aficionados, El-Shark is considered the “20th Century Pharaoh,” the subject of a 1996 documentary about his childhood and life as an artist. And there aren’t many Upper Egyptian omdas who have turned their own homes into an art museum.
For nearly 30 years, this contemporary folk artist has been traveling the world exhibiting his work. In March, he’s participating in an international art competition in Beijing, China. But Hassan El-Shark is no jet-setter. He is a proud Saeedi who cares more about sharing his Upper Egyptian culture than receiving international acclaim.
Born in 1949, El-Shark grew up in Minya. Art was a significant part of his childhood, and his early drawings reflect a youth spent amid the lush Nile greenery and Pharaonic ruins in the nearby desert cliffs. He recalls “I used to spend all my free time painting and my teachers encouraged me to draw during primary school.”
His family was not as encouraging, and El-Shark went against his father’s will when he chose to pursue his dream “of presenting Egyptian art to the world,” he recalls. “I wanted to become an artist. This was met with total and complete rejection from my family, who have always been in the butcher business.”
Having worked as a butcher for decades, El-Shark’s father wanted his son to inherit the business and always took him to the shop so he could get “a glimpse of how the work is done,” the artist recalls. “But he was disappointed to find me drawing on every piece of paper I came across, even the brown paper used to wrap meat.” Eventually El-Shark’s father gave up pressuring his son.
Though El-Shark only completed primary school, his natural talent got him accepted to study art at Minya University, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree. “I only did that for prestige because one must have a Bachelor’s degree to write in his CV but allow me to tell you that as an artist I have not learned a single thing from university, nor was I affected by foreign artists they study about at the Faculty of Fine Arts,” he explains. “All I am I owe to what I have learned from this land, the Nile, the people and the nature I grew up in. It is all through experience and the talent God has granted me. My work as an artist who delivers the message of the Egyptian identity has taught me more than any bachelor’s, masters or PhD degree.”
The young artist decorated his own artistic world with everything from folklore and Saeedi traditions to the daily life of the countryside. But he remained unnoticed until 1985, when German art critic Ursula Schernig visited Zawyat Sultan and was very impressed by El-Shark’s works. Schernig helped him arrange a number of exhibitions, starting with a show at Dr. Ragab’s Gallery in Cairo in 1987; in 1989 he exhibited in Munich and the Louvre Museum in Paris with Shernig’s help. Since then, El-Shark’s art has been shown around the world, including Europe, China and Columbia.
The international exposure has fed his passion for exploring the world and bringing Egyptian art to new audiences. “I wanted to become my country’s ambassador through the different exhibitions I participated in around the world” El-Shark adds. Proudly wearing his traditional galabeya, the Saeedi artist attended more than 26 exhibitions across Europe, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
“I believe the most significant thing I have learned from exhibitions I have attended abroad is how foreigners appreciate art and want to learn from it,” El-Shark says. “Teachers would invite me in to schools and I would set up workshops for their students and work with them.”
El-Shark’s works are usually focused on Egyptian identity, but in the last 10 years, he started to devote some of his paintings to the different cultures and traditions of the countries he has visited. “Up until the January 25 Revolution, which made me come back to drawing about Egypt and the martyrs,” he explains.
Part of the uniqueness of El-Shark’s work lies in the use of natural colors which he personally makes out of stones, plants, flowers and natural herbs. The artist was invited to Bogota to help researchers from the University of Colombia study “how these colors are made.” His work in South America earned him an honorary doctorate from the university and a patent from Colombia for his paints.
Museums in Paris, Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Mexico have acquired his works, and El-Shark has received works from other artists in exchange. In 2010, El-Shark decided to transform his village home into a museum. “I wanted to bring all my works together in one place and also do something for the people of my village,” he recounts. The transformation of El-Shark’s home cost more than LE 1 million and obliged him to sell the land he inherited from his father. “But it was totally worth it and now I have the biggest treasure.”
Compared to other buildings in the area, the Hassan El-Shark Museum stands out both in its size and design. Passersby often do a double take as they pass the intriguing architecture and garden with its mashrabeya and stained glass gazebo.
At the local level, El-Shark feels that the museum has made the people of his village more aware of art and its beauty. He says it encourages them to see his works and “get in touch with their artistic side as individuals who have grown and lived around nature and historical spots.” On another level, he notes, the museum has become the number one spot for many tourists, foreign journalists and researchers, “but sadly not so many Egyptians.”
His latest project, which began in September with the academic year, may change that. Each month, 30 students — the best 10 in the primary, preparatory and secondary school art classes — are invited for weekly workshops at El-Shark’s museum.
El-Shark says that as an artist he is never satisfied with what he has accomplished and is always ready for a new journey to discover a yet unknown side of his “artistic self.” Ironically, his journeys thus far have introduced the rural Egyptian culture across the world, but his art seems to have little reach at home. The artist notes he has been honored with awards from other countries in the Arab world and beyond, but has not been recognized with any Egyptian awards.
“I feel I still have so much to give as an artist. I love this country so much — everything about it, the spirit of the people, the old forgotten traditions, which I always try to bring back to life through my paintings, the way children play and paint on the walls of the houses, the Nile, the mountains and my identity, my clothes like the galabeya, my accent but I do not think Egypt — if you know what I mean, meaning government officials — appreciates art or what I have done to show how much I love this country.”