In an unassuming dingy side street in Zamalek, an extraordinary talent is based on the 2nd floor of a seemingly typical Cairo building. Outside the apartment, it is pitch black, but I notice what appears to be an intricate copper wallpaper design on the staircase inside the building, there’s certainly more to all of this than meets the eye. I walk into Dirar’s studio, a contemporary artist who has paintings and installations showcased around the world, with some in the possession of high-grade officials such as Queen Rania of Jordan, a prince in Monaco, the Egyptian embassies of Budapest and Austria, and a recent painting heading to a Greek museum. His studio is a brilliant mess; unpretentious, unfurnished, and is not distracted by anything other than his paintings squandered all over the place, with paint splatter on the walls, floors, and ceilings. His lovely assistant walks me into his study where his complete works are showcased; mostly paintings of women, with the detail resting vividly in the brush strokes and colors rather than the faces and figures. Regardless they seemed as though they were on the brink of coming alive! I admired his simplicity and focus before we even got to talking, and despite his quite notable flair, he didn’t seem to bother with keeping up appearances. For he thrives within his artistic creations, modesty, and morals, and speaks with eloquence and kindness.
So this is your studio Dirar?
Yeah, I live in Zamalek and I’ve had this studio for three years now, I moved from another studio I worked in since 2009 as I needed more space.
You seem exceptionally busy with your art, is this all you do for a living?
It is all I do. I worked in design for a bit in 2010 before I decided to become an independent artist and give that all my focus.
You’ve gained quite the international attention over the years, how did it all start?
My first exhibition was in SAFARKHAN art gallery in 2011, needless to say, my paintings at the time were inspired by the Egyptian revolution. Then I started working with different themes and exhibited my work at Saatchi's online gallery. They had a program called 'Invest In Art' where every season they would pick 10 international artists to showcase their works and they’ve chosen me in 2013, that’s when galleries started noticing my work. I started selling one painting after the other and things picked up momentum from then on. Now I officially work with three main galleries for my paintings; Art Talks in Cairo, Albarh in Bahrain and Urbane Art in Scotland, and I do conceptual and video installations at other galleries.
Your artwork focuses on women, why?
I feel like my focus diverted to women when I first traveled to Europe in 2008. I noticed how liberated women are in comparison to Middle Eastern and Egyptian women who have no equal rights or any rights whatsoever in comparison to men in our society. I noticed the contradictions that came forth accordingly, and that women here are not responsible for their own decisions and life choices. They have so much oppressed energy and creativity that in time will wither away if it remains unexpressed. Their lives become gray and uninviting. So when I started drawing women I wanted to portray how pure they are, how colorful their souls are, how their creativity and freedom remain trapped within them because society won’t accept it and it just isn’t fair so I decided to focus on this particular case for years now.
Do you consider that focus an obsession or a mission?
An artist tries hard to see the problems that exist in his or her society, and expose them to the public, not because they’re more “profound” per say but perhaps they're more empathetic than the average. I believe artists are more sensitive to people’s anxieties and psychological problems, and I find patriarchy to be our biggest social problem so I would like to show through my colourful portrayal of women how bad they truly have it in reality, how time passes by and they feel detached, isolated and useless to society as society is useless to them, despite the minority of women who work and try to liberate themselves regardless. We have to see them differently, and as equals to men, yes it’s definitely more of a mission than an obsession.
Your focus on women aside, has your perspective as an artist changed over the years?
Nothing stays the same, some things progress on their own, others you simply realize in yourself for the first time. My inspirations reflect my feelings but sometimes that’s all it is; a feeling! Not knowledge. So by meeting new people and gaining new experiences from other cultures you delve deeper into it all and gain a distinct artistic perspective.
Do you personally collect any works of art or take interest in particular artists?
I don’t collect because I don’t have much money, and I don’t admire too many artists. I very much like the works of Egyptian artist Gaze by Serry, and abroad I like plenty! Particularly Austrian artist Egon Schiele who died at a very young age, his works were brilliant, he was very genuine…
How would you best describe your lifestyle Dirar?
I feel like I’m here to explore life for a little while then I’ll leave. I like discovering the world, people, and places, and I like to travel and spend half the year abroad, as a citizen and not a tourist. Here I don’t own a car, or have a job. I have a bicycle, I cycle everywhere! I simply go out and talk to people on the street or at oriental cafes or pubs, try to figure them out and take all their perspectives in and bring it out to society through my artwork. All I do is art! I even hope I find more time for it, I have a concept and I want to use various media to create it so it takes up all my time, and I still want more!
You don’t socialize regularly with friends?
Here in Egypt, I’m mostly by myself. I consider it my time to think, write and contemplate things, but abroad I like making friends, pick their brains and learn from their culture.
So what’s your take on Egyptian society?
For the past 40 or 50 years, things took a very wrong turn for the worst. The Egyptian creature has become distorted and disrupted, he’s been through plenty of experiments; corrupt education, corrupt religion, corrupt oxygen, and he came out of it all bewildered and degenerated, his role models are different, his view on the future is different, his directions crooked, he is different.
It feels like you care a great deal about society, and say, the aesthetic of life, and not much for material possessions…
I have no idea how much money I own, and I never want to know. I don’t check my bank account; if I have no money in my pocket I go to the nearest ATM and pull out however much I need but I have no idea when I’ll run out, and I don’t care. I feel like money is made to be spent, not chased after, saved or stored away, not for me anyway, I just deal with it. Money and art don’t get along either, I feel like art that brings money in is not genuine or real, that it was probably created for commercial purposes and for a certain target, so you end up working for that target, and not for yourself or with purpose.
Is creativity a gift for mankind or a talent that you may or may not have?
Creativity I believe is a gift in all of us. Some people discover it and work with it, others go on with their lives unaware of their potential. It’s a source within that you need to feed, develop and constantly work with. You have to take advantage of it to reach the ultimate potential of your own individual creativity.
So what stops people from using their creativity?
Not trusting in it.
What does the concept of Time mean to you?
It’s funny because I was just visiting Einstein’s home in Bern recently; I was instantly fascinated and still think of him and his works to this day. He had a simple life, you wouldn’t imagine how small his apartment is but the view outside was spectacular! I believe time is the element of life. The game we call life revolves around what you do with your time in it. What have you done in a month? In a year? In 30 years? Everything in life changes, except for the ticking of the clock. That’s what we should base everything on, our thoughts and our actions; towards the future and not nostalgia, we can’t go backward with time, on the contrary, we move with the direction and the arrows of the clock, and with time, only forwards.”
If you can bring anyone back to life, who would it be?
I would bring Jalal Al-Din aka Rumi. We need fewer struggles and more love, we fight over things we have no control over, it’s beautiful that we’re all different. People shouldn’t feel intimidated or offended by it or use it to create conflict. I feel like the world needs Rumi to revive love and kindness, help us appreciate our differences rather than battle them.”
Do you have a particular set up in your studio for the process of drawing?
Well I like to draw at night, and I don’t work on an entire photo all at once or even one at a time, I work on each painting bit by bit and keep them hanging around to continue to work on them when they call out to me again, they tell me what they need eventually so I like having them scattered around the studio. I also listen to five different sounds all at once. The idea of no time, no talk, and no space inspires me; you’re within everything at that moment. So I put on classical music by Rachmaninoff, Amal Donqol spoke word poetry, with house music and jazz all together and somehow, they end up syncing brilliantly.
Come to think of it these choices actually make sense. I thought you were insane for a second but I see your point…
We’re all the same, just from different eras, our problems are repeated under different skins from different times. We all share the same thoughts and emotions but we express them according to our individual eras, our politics, and our respective cultures.
Any projects you’re working on at the moment?
I’m preparing for an exhibition abroad that’s all I’m working on for the rest of the year, the theme revolves around how all the world’s problems are the product of the unnecessary particulars and details we focus on. If we remove the details we see how we’re all equal, I’m working on this project with photography, video art, and installations, and I will hopefully an exhibition with Art Talks in November for my paintings, not sure about the timing yet.