Fragment from promotional material [Photo Courtesy: Event official Facebook page]
CAIRO – 12 November 2017: The older generation has witnessed the Mahmal parade that used to pass through Cairo’s old streets. A loose translation of Al-Mahmal is the carriage or the carrier, and this word represents only one thing for all Egyptians; Kesswet el-Ka'aba or the cloth that covers the Ka'aba in Mecca. It used to be made in Egypt by the most professional tailors, using silk and golden threads.
Upon completion of the cloth before the Hajj season, it would be put on a camel to tour old Cairo in an official royal parade, praising God and Prophet Mohammed; while also spreading gratitude among the people in the streets for living to see another pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage was a time of festivities, a new Kesswa was made every year and the Ka'aba wore a beautifully tailored cloth to meet Muslims from all over the world. The last time such a celebration took place was in 1953.
British artist Hannah Stevenson was fascinated by the Pilgrimage since 2005. When she wanted to express her fascination, she found the Mahmal Parade to be a very rich subject to paint.
Although it is quite unusual to find someone coming from a different culture to be so interested in an event that has ceased to exist for 60 years, and has little significance nowadays, Stevenson loved the idea of the Mahmal and commenced to paint it.
Her explanation was simple; “I was inspired by the Mahmal. For me it was a personal dialogue with my inspiration; I do not have to represent only my culture; artists represent who they are in their work.”
Stevenson has been studying the Middle East since 2005. The photographs of the Mahmal in Farid Kioumgi Kahil's book, "A Photographer to the Hajj, The Travels of Muhammad Ali Effendi Saudi, 1904-1908," and old documentaries about the royal Mahmal parade were her main guides to understanding Hajj, and the Mahmal, and eventually finding inspiration by the whole event to the point of spending her time and effort on producing 30 paintings and 20 portraits over the period of three years.
“The strange thing is that many Egyptian artists photographed and filmed the Mahmal parade but none of them painted it,” says Hannah. It was always an orientalist who painted that parade.
Stevenson is following the footsteps of many Orientalist painters such as Louis Beroud and Ludwig Deutsch. She drew the journey of the parade while crossing the Arabian deserts, using Lascaux colors which gave the paintings a realistic and unique polish.
In Stevenson’s paintings, she is not copying the pictures but attaining their essence and revealing the event to the viewers as she sees it. The main picture of the exhibition is that of the parade leaving the city into the desert, led by Amir al-Hajj, the commanding officer appointed by the King, followed by the decorated camel carrying the Kesswa. The military group then follows, and finally the crowd waves goodbye to the parade while dancing. All the details are there where the vague lines in her paintings energize the viewers' minds and imagination.
The same goes for the rest of the paintings that add to the beauty of the exhibition and truly causes one to wonder why the Mahmal was never painted by Egyptians before.
Ubuntu Art Gallery is hosting the “Al-Mahmal: Second Look” exhibition by British artist Hannah Stevenson from November 1 to 18.