The expressions and emotions of Alyaa Kamel

Alyaa Kamel 1

I get a message from Facebook: the 13th November is Alyaa Kamel’s birthday. Another message tells me it is the first day of her new exhibition. Galerie Cimaise has risen to the challenge of showing her “Expressions and Emotions.” Go to this exhibition. Do not expect to see representations of people’s expressions and emotions. You will find Alyaa Kamel’s people but the expressions and emotions are all hers. This is, after all, #alyaakamel: emoting on-line and “out there.”

Alyaa Kamel 2

A large canvas reveals her fascination for tagging. It is a crush of hopeless, expressionless people: her main theme. I remain convinced that her inspiration is driven by the all-too-frequent images from daily news: thousands of poor middle-eastern souls in crisis. I try to nail down her thoughts. She cleverly responds in a meaningful abstractness. With a gush of words, she throws ideas at me such as humanity, inheritance, memories and genes. I push…. “We all have our secrets, Robin!”

Alyaa Kamel 3

Another large canvas moves the theme to the individual. The face is grotesque and haunting. One eye is closed. The nose is broken. The lips are mashed. In describing what was in her mind when covering it with glue and kitchen film she loses me. I see only an attempt to obliterate one of those poor middle-eastern souls in crisis; only this time the crisis has been meted out at a personal level. By my interpretation, this is the battered and bruised face of the final interrogation.

This exhibition carries 36 pieces. Alyaa’s expressions and emotions may be elusive but she has a lot to say and she says it better with her drawings and paintings than with her words. The ensemble of the person and her work is contemporary, enigmatic and intriguing. A visit to Galerie Cimaise will not disappoint.


Ayaa Kamel 1

I open my Facebook homepage. I see a bundle of red wool pulled into a heart shape. Amid the thousands of photos that I come across each day via the internet, this stands out. It has a simple and naïve charm. It is posted by Alyaa Kamel, the queen of that corner of cyberspace where “art” and social media blur into one. The text of the post reads: #Iloveme #love #heart #loveisnow #lovingmyself #process #evolution #respect #act #say #talk #think #arttherapy #life #world #humanity #contemporaryart #design #myart #wool #paper #alyaakamel (Interesting!)

Ayaa Kamel 2

I head into Geneva’s old town and visit this striking and versatile painter in her studio. I am immediately captivated by an inky dervish-like figure, beautifully proportioned, poised and slightly stooped as if resting between manic whirls. However, my objective today is neither to admire nor to buy. I am after a behind-the-scenes-and-screens glimpse of Alyaa’s virtual gallery. We chat. I ask her about her unrelenting Facebook activity that could stretch to ten posts per day. She’s a little elusive. She says it’s about promoting and selling her work. I am not totally convinced. It is the “why” of so much activity that fascinates and that I really want to explore. There must be other incentives and impulses at play. I struggle to pitch the right question.

Ayaa Kamel 3

Of all the images that Alyaa posts, her people fascinate the most. Who they are is unclear. They are frequently hooded or veiled. They are oppressed people; people in ruins; displaced people; poor people; crowded people; and people in distress. They are, in brief, a kind of faceless generic for those people about whom every day world news is made. She just feels for people caught up in events over which they have no control and she pours it all out on Facebook.

Ayaa Kamel 4

Alyaa travels far and wide often in the company of Martin La Roche. Their clothes, their parties, their dinners and hotel rooms are all posted on their profile pages. Amid all this, she also executes and posts exquisite little sketches. Leafing through her (paper) sketchbook is a pleasure and a privilege. Take a look at this hotel in Stockholm!

Ayaa Kamel 5

The most intriguing theme that Alyaa Kamel posts by the day – and the most revealing – is Little Alyaa. This pre-adolescent feminine persona expresses any and every little girl thought or emotion that might flit through the mind of an adult in a moment of regression. A cloth version travels in Alyaa’s handbag and does cameo photo-calls wherever her creater takes her. Little Alyaa rattles my sense of macho. I feel manipulated and irritated by her. I wish I could say I had absolutely no interest in her o-so-cute-girlie-on-valentine-card-addressed-to-self sentiments. But I can’t resist the pull of her charm, the more so with following her on Facebook. I come to realise that Little Alyaa is a very articulate little miss. She is brilliantly characterised and presented. She has, inevitably, a huge, and not entirely female, following. Just as Alyaa Kamel’s people speak of world events, Little Alyaa speaks to Big Alyaa’s friends and admirers. And just to tighten the saccharine screws, Little Alyaa sometimes shares a Facebook post with a teddy bear. The text is more revealing still….. ‪#‎givemebackmylife‬ ‪#‎life‬ ‪#‎teddyismine‬ ‪#‎teddybear‬ ‪#‎IamwhoIam‬ ‪#‎identity‬ ‪#‎innocence‬ ‪#‎childhood‬ ‪#‎mylife‬ ‪#‎live‬ ‪#‎alive‬ ‪#‎art‬ ‪#‎alyaakamel‬ ‪#‎contemporaryart‬ ‪#‎design‬ ‪#‎decoration‬ ‪#‎illustration‬ ‪#‎drawing‬ ‪#‎fineart‬

I admire Alyaa’s eclectic work and enjoy her unrelenting use of Facebook. However, her hashtag word clouds represent much more than a strategy of promotion and sales. They serve to bare her soul and simultaneously act as gaping virtual look-at-me dragnets that communicate with and capture a wide variety of other emotional and creative fish. But the question of “why” remains. A generous answer is that this behaviour signals a talented painter of the twenty-first century using social media unashamedly to promote her work by expressing her fears, hopes, longings and aspirations to as wide an audience as possible. A less generous answer is that she has a compulsion to put herself “out there” on social media. Perhaps the real answer lies somewhere in between. My attempt at analysis of Alyaa Kamel’s Facebook activity stops here. I just love it. #hugrobin #robinneedsabeer

Alyaa Kamel’s people

Alyaa Kamel 1

I see Alyaa Kamel’s drawings and paintings on Facebook. The on-line human images are, paradoxically, intensely personal. There are new ones every day. Sometimes, they take the form of a reflective and mesmerising little girl; sometimes, they are contorted, shrouded or bound homonculi. Who are Alyaa Kamel’s people? Where do they come from? The more I see, the more questions I have.

On entering her studio in Geneva’s old town, I am surrounded by canvases bearing a variety of striking human figures and faces. Books on every subject imaginable are stacked around the walls. Alyaa smiles, offers me tea and then puts a bulging folder of exquisite sketches in front of me.

Alyaa Kamel 2

Ink and watercolour on paper, 2012

Alyaa Kamel’s work is much more than slick representation of the human form. Her people emanate vulnerability. They display an agitated vitality. They are all taken up with the same struggle. They are aligned in a cohesive force. When I ask about their provenance, Alyaa’s answers contain words like “humanity,” “searching,” “hope” and “freedom.” After some time, I realise that her people communicate her general anxiety for us all: for homo sapiens. And I learn that Alyaa’s people came over the wide horizon of her imagination only two years ago.

Alyaa Kamel 3

Ink and watercolour on paper, 2012

In the 1990s, Alyaa studied in London and Geneva. Her subjects included psychology, fashion design and fine arts. She had jobs in public relations and interior decorating. She returned to her native Egypt for a few months in 1998 and, without any great intention to do so, took up painting. Back in Geneva and lacking studio space, she worked on abstract pictures the size of playing cards. She has sold them all and to my disappointment, she never thought to take photographs. She continued to work in the domain of the abstract but on large canvases. What she exhibits she sells.

A return visit to Egypt in 2011 to show her work coincided with the beginning of the “Arab Spring.” Something about the people’s struggle against oppression re-aligned the beacons that guide her creative journey. Alyaa Kamel’s people were born. She emphasises they are not Egyptian nor even Arab. They are not women, men or children. They are simply people. The first time they were seen in Geneva was at the Tafkaj gallery in 2012: it resulted in another sell-out.

Alyaa Kamel 4

“Dans la brume métallique, le jour glisse” 100cm x 40 cm Acrylic and mixed medium 2012

Alyaa’s people are homogeneous but at the same time, they appear as individulas. To acieve this effect is no mean feat. The fluid lines with which Alyaa depicts her people show a profound sense of anatomy. The effect recalls her interest in fashion design. The faces are, you would easily believe, the faces of real crowded people. They are hungry, anxious but nevertheless united.

Alyaa Kamel 5

Ink and water colour on paper, 2012

Alyaa shows me her what I consider her most powerful work. A crowd of bare-headed men is enveloped by one Arabic word red-written hundreds of times – “Allah.” The faces have a haunting skull-like air. Is this a warning to us all that religion offers no better – nor a less bloody – alternative to repressive government? Alyaa insists her work does not carry a political message. It is, rather, an expression of both hope and concern triggered by the events that moved her in Cairo two years ago.

After an hour or so, I have not really deciphered the “Why?” of Alyaa Kamel’s people. I am not sure Alyaa herself has clear answers. For me, her people and their narrative combine to remind us that human destiny is largely out of our hands and increasingly uncertain. And if I’ve got this wrong, my admiration for Alyaa’s work remains unchanged.