Likened to the enigmatic oil painting by French Realist painter, Jean-François Millet, Les Glaneuses, also known as The Gleaners (1857) as well as the Russian avant-garde painter, Kazimir Malevich’s Taking in the Rye (1912), Hamed Owais’ painting Al Hod Hod (1998) is a testament to the rural poor’s integrity against monumental odds. Contrary to the three hunched female figures in The Gleaners for instance, who symbolise society’s denigration and destitution of such labour, Owais’ figures tell a contrasting story. Firstly, Owais’ figures are a family unit, pictured with a young child cradled in the woman’s arms. Although their faces are wrought with worry, his figures are larger than life, framed by a lush green landscape. With a decisive blow, one could almost imagine the power generated from the woman’s sweeping axe. Mirrored by the colour palette of the strong male figure next to it, the tuft bird perched on the lower left corner of the composition is a display of honour and pride. Unlike Millet and Malevich, Owais paints this family as not only hard-working individuals but also one ripe for a more fruitful future.
Owais worked within a larger community of artists, both in and outside of the visual arts. As one of the founding members of the Group of Modern Art, alongside Gamal el-Sigini, Gazbia Sirry, Zeinab Abdel Hamid, Salah Yousri and Youssef Sida in 1947, Owais sought to recalibrate Middle Eastern art practice in a post-war, post-Surrealist art world.
While working in the group, Owais began to activate his paintbrush to document the rapid socio-political changes in Egypt. Art of all forms became a symbol of anti-imperial and post-colonial dissidence and resistance for the peasant classes. For instance, Yasin and Bahiyya by Nagib Surur became the written anthem of the peasant culture in the 20th century. Located in Buhut in the summer of 1951, a village in the Upper Egypt Delta, Surur documents a true historical narrative of a town of peasants who rise up against their hostile feudal pasha as a way of revenge in a country of massive injustices, many of these dissenters actually meeting their demise.
Owais and Surur’s works are heavily informed by the depictions of the peasant revolutions from the past. The iconic image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, titled Zapata (1930) by Jose Clemente Orozco harps on similar themes: the drama of the outstretched arms, the heavy grip of the man’s hand pulling at the brown headscarf in desperation. Against this fraught backdrop, Orozco’s Emiliano Zapata stands prepared to face the treachery of Dictator Porfirio Diaz. Just as in the case of Mexico in 1930s, Owais' painting cleverly and beautifully tells the stories wherein peasants become kings and kings become villains.
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