Hend Samir: Hide and Seek

Apr 9 - May 12, 2022

30 Orchard St, Gallery 1

Harkawik is thrilled to present Egyptian painter Hend Samir’s second exhibition with the gallery, and her first in New York. Here she pushes further into territory defined over her exhibitions of the past 3 years: the transgressing of boundaries cultural, normative, geopolitical and painterly; the implication of the viewer as an at-scale participant in a series of interconnected vignettes; the fearless exploration of contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes evident in the vicissitudes of human affairs. In Hide and Seek, abstraction comes to the fore. Samir’s figures, which dominated the compositions and narratives of previous paintings, here meld with the marbled eddies and whorls of fluid acrylic paint. Often, figures seem in danger of being absorbed back into abstraction, engulfed by the maelstrom of the painting, but paradoxically it is often the paint itself that suggests to her new narrative directions and figurative motifs. A sensitive colorist, Samir often works with a narrow palette, a technique that directs the viewer’s attention and ensures coherence across diverse pictorial events, often at epic scale.

The evolution of Samir’s practice has been marked by her willingness to break away from familiar architectural forms, allowing her figures to occupy a free flowing abstract territory that adapts dynamically to each vignette’s compositional dictates. This is seen most fully in Hide and Seek’s title work, a 17-foot canvas whose color palate is defined entirely by the co-mingling of yellow and black. Here, children occupy a kind of warped belvedere, using it as one might a public park or monument. A young boy urinates casually on a wall that also seems to hold an array of curios; a girl, back arched, emerges saint-like from a gust of cumulonimbus paint (a fish just below her reminds us she is in fact earth-bound, and headed, perhaps, for a body of water); a hooded figure reaches out in supplication, hand outstretched, a nod to the wretched of the Renaissance. Buildings are for these characters the kinds of trusty things that are “just there,” and everything in Hide and Seek is caught in precarious, exuberant, galeful motion. In what seems an exception, a young girl in swimming costume looks straight at the viewer—her platform is, however, an inner tube, and this moment of stasis will soon be ripped away by a churning current. Hide and Seek illustrates perfectly the central mystery of Samir’s practice: how are her paintings composed? When does she know what is a limb, a door, or a sconce? It is a stunning testament to her vision, and impossible to experience without a sense of unfolding wonder and enigma.

Samir “sketches” in paint, freeing her from the traditional studio cycles of composition, execution, and refinement, and making space for her course of discovery in the finished work. This is seen clearly in A Disruptive Impulse, 2022. At first glance, the painting is monochromatic—looking closer, we see a delicate interplay between warm and cold greys. Samir has used these shifts to suggest skin tone or faded memories; here they do something different. The addition of a face and hand transforms the upper portion of the canvas into a celestial body, peering down on what might be a miniature cut-away trailer home; dog and plant address the painting’s central tempest, making an acropolis out of a few passes of the brush. The interplay between incidental and intentional abstraction is heightened in other works. In Carnivals at the Doors and Passages, 2022, a troupe of children traverse an impossible landscape of sherbet lehmarchitektur; Two Dissonant Structures, 2022 shows a family gazing casually at a lake emerging from the mouth of a birdlike creature; The Abrupt Plunge, 2022 places thirteen figures peering out from a dazzling marbled debouchment. In this painting, her first in this mid-size format, Samir fully abandons the notion of an environment for her figures—built, natural, interior, exterior or otherwise. Building on discoveries made in prior works such as A Stormy Night Gathering, 2020, and Quartet of Joy, 2021. The Abrupt Plunge allows for an entirely new type of figure ground relationship; a total union of subject and environment.

Executed between 2020 and 2022, Flickering by the Lotus Pond is Samir’s largest completed mural. Its marbled ground, suggestive of celestial and Earth-bound havoc, enframes a series of vignettes, threatening to overtake them from all sides. Samir’s experience with repressive sexual politics informs her approach to scenes of pleasure and transgression, which defy Western notions of feminism, protectionism and sexual liberation. The children she paints adopt ambiguous gestures that simultaneously betray joy, fear, celebration and, occasionally, the worldly knowledge of adults. They face the viewer at human scale, inviting us into the picture, and completing the pageant of youthful rollick that is Samir’s stunning accomplishment.




Hend Samir and Jonathan Griffin in Conversation

JG: How do you begin a painting? What comes first: a compositional structure, or a narrative?

HS: Each painting suggests what I want to do. The most common thing is that I start with an idea for a structure–for instance, in Hide and Seek there is something like an interior place that is also open to the outside. I do this in an abstract way, painting mainly on the floor, but keeping in my mind how to challenge the notion of perspective. With Flickering by the Lotus Pond, I had an exact idea of what I wanted to do. Then things elaborated during the work. It's not really about adding to what already exists, to what is predetermined, but more about finding new kinds of existences. They are emerging from these layers of geological forms.

JG: Do you do preparatory drawings?

HS: You can see the drawing in paintings such as The Abrupt Plunge. But I don’t necessarily start with a sketch. Drawing can happen during the process or not at all. I think about the painting’s structure. Maybe there’s an architectural element, and I think about how to give it depth and dimension. I might see a pillar that seems to become organic, or a dog or other creatures emerging, and then I think of which of these figures I want to hold onto, and which I want to sink back. It's an accumulation and it's different for each painting.

JG: Do you use photographic references?

HS: I have a big archive of my own family photos and internet imagery. But it’s not an autobiographical expression. I’m not in the photos. I remove them from their context, and create my own narrative. It’s not about biography, nostalgia or only the past, but more about how episodic memory can be revived by these temporal associations and events that you make an effort to find.

JG: Do the paintings end up feeling like your memories, or an alternative reality?

HS: If they are related to a real event they can relate to traumas in general, and my mental associations in life, my point of view, but they’re not memories that I vividly recall.

JG: Could you say more about trauma? One thing that's striking is that even though the paintings feel turbulent and chaotic, when you peer into them, actually they don’t generally contain images of violence, or, cruelty, or obviously traumatic events.

HS: Trauma is a complicated thing. Before the pandemic I did not think much about the term. But if you're really in the midst of trauma, you don't realize it. It's not that you're going crazy all the time, it's just embedded in your daily life. My paintings sometimes describe these surreal surroundings which might suggest a cycle. We might have a character that goes through various stages, or episodes, towards some sort of narrative climax. I want them to move in these scenarios from one painting to another, and have their own lives and their own stories. But in some paintings, there's also something like a snapshot of convulsion. The medium also channels the energy of the method, and that is what is creating this sensation; there's something here related to sensuality, reasoning and cognition, in the way it's done and so also in the way it's being read.

JG: How is your work perceived differently in an American or Dutch cultural context than in an Egyptian context?

HS: Well, I showed some erotic paintings before in Egypt in 2016. I had expectations that I would get very violent feedback, but it didn't happen. But what I can talk about, however, is the context of the representation of the female figure in the last 100 years of the history of painting in Egypt. It makes me constantly frustrated, because it was always men painting female models who are just standing still, not really doing anything. In 2017, I got inspired by adolescent boys I saw who maybe looked homosexual. You can sense in their eyes and their stances their vulnerability and that they are beyond their age, in a way. That suggested to me a new representation of the family, including the themes of innocence and scandal, and to then make them all come together in a safe environment where no one would feel dismissed or ridiculed.

JG: How do you personally understand the abstract marks in your paintings? There's such a distinctive marble effect to your fluid, melting, brushwork. It feels like part of the narrative thrust of these paintings as well as a formal quality.

HS: I was reading about Plotinus, the Egyptian philosopher. He spoke about this idea that everything emanates from the same source. It's a universal kind of thing. I resonate with that in my work.

JG: So is abstraction here a kind of formal arriving, of becoming? Or is it passing, melting, being degraded or devolving into chaos?

HS: It's constantly becoming. It's related to the time and existence that is yet to come. The paintings are in constant movement and emergence.

JG: Is there an analogy in your paintings between interior architectural space and interior psychological space? And do those interior spaces relate to childhood in some way?

HS: When I create spaces in my paintings like rooms or corridors, they become like a map you can navigate through. Some of the architectural spaces I want to function as caves, or psychologically as collective wombs. I think that is why I depict kids in these contexts. Kids experience authentic feelings in response to our own realization of childhood and early trauma. With that, I think about heroism, and kids being the protagonists, acting as adults in their own world. And I think as well about what is hidden and what is revealed, what is being kept as a secret and what is shared with an audience. I think it's this struggle of hiding and revealing from inside of ourselves and outside others, both as the collective and as individuals within the collective.

JG: And as the painter, do you take full responsibility for revealing these things?

HS: I was a bit hesitant to show Flickering by the Lotus Pond. I still think it can be dangerous. But yes, I view things and I reveal them, and I don't take any sort of social pressure about how I want to express them.

JG: Where do you think that fearlessness comes from?

HS: I learned it from men. But not because they are better. I learned from men throughout history and in the present, how power works and how injustice can happen. But also, devotion in the face of adversity creates some kind of immunity to major changes and challenges.