Fadia Dereen Badrawi is searching for her identity in her art. One can argue that this is a search all artists must make. But Badrawi is the product of two cultures – Egyptian and American – which, while making her odyssey more complicated, holds the promise of richer rewards as her style matures.
Badrawi’s recent Cairo exhibition “Explorations”, at the Hanager Arts Centre, invited the public into her two worlds and introduced us to the wide variety of media with which she is experimenting. She still, however, retains a preference for oil painting. “My oils are the result of my sketching from life and taking photos of the subjects; I can capture shadows and shades on film and then go back to my studio and painting.” The collection of work at Hanager spans the last five years of Badrawi’s career which began when she was only 18 years old. It includes drawings in pencil, pastel and charcoal as well as etchings, lithographs and monotypes. One can see the influence of her favorite painter, the American John Singer Sargent. She also relates to him because of his lifestyle, Sargent was a man of two worlds, he lived in Europe for most of his life enjoying a very cosmopolitan existence while painting realistic impressionistic works (including many striking portraits) famous for their gorgeous colors and use of light.
In Badrawi’s work we meet members of her family, see a sun-lit terrace at her home in Cairo, enjoy a group of friends from her days at Wellesley College in Boston whom she captured in oil portraits and stand amazed before a coolly sensual and powerful drawing in charcoal of a woman’s torso, the neck curving tautly, echoing the lines of her draped gown.
At 23, Badrawi is one of the youngest painters to have a one-woman show in Cairo. She may serve as a role model for other young Egyptian artists. Her work drew many comments from art students at universities and schools. They are especially intrigued by her prints, probably because most Egyptian students have little or no experience with this form of art since it is expensive to create and the materials it requires are not readily available locally. “Printmaking processes are difficult to do in Egypt because you need a press. It’s a big thing to buy a press so I can’t pursue this form of art here,” she explains.
At Wellesley, Badrawi was exposed to many forms of art as part of her double major in Studio Art and Art History. She was awarded the painting prize for the Wellesley Student Art Spring Show in 1992 and was commissioned to paint the portrait of the President of the College as the senior class gift. She graduated in 1993 and returned to Egypt where she works as a design artist for a graphic design company and continues to paint and draw.
Born in Chicago, Badrawi was raised in Egypt where she attended Cairo American College (CAC) in Maadi. In high school she received special achievement awards in drawing, painting and sculpture. By the eighth grade, her CAC art teacher, Carolyn Seaton, felt she had a future in art and told her mother. Luckily Mrs. Badrawi agreed.
“My parents did a really good job of encouraging me to be an artist,” Badrawi remembers. “They saw my art as a natural thing for me to do…”
She was fortunate to come from a family that has long appreciated and loved fine art. Her paternal grandfather enjoyed collecting art and antiquities, some of which he brought back from his travels in Europe. A great aunt is a painter and attended the opening of Badrawi’s exhibition at Hanager. In a neat twist of fate, or genetics, her great aunt’s daughter who is Fadia’s cousin, bought a painting in the show, entitled “Sunlight on the Terrace”, remarking that her mother painted the same scene in a similar style using almost the same colors many years ago. The charming painting catches the sun filtering through the trees into a quiet spot on a balustraded terrace of Badrawi’s home.
The artist was following in her parents’ footsteps when she chose to attend college in the Boston area of the US. As a young married couple her parents went to America following the sequestration of her father’s family assets during the Nasser era. There, her mother attended Boston University and her father the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After Badrawi’s brother was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, the family spent the summer months each year in California.
As a child, Badrawi remembers being intrigued by people painting portraits on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. She vowed to become a portrait painter one day. Indeed, one of her greatest gifts is as a portraitist. The ones of her Wellesley classmates are highly individualistic and show us a collection of modern young women we feel we’d like to know better, standing on the threshold of their lives. They range from a cool blue-eyed blonde California girl to an intense Puerto Rican woman who seems ready to burst out of the picture.
These works look as though they were done rapidly and spontaneously and thus they remain fresh and vibrant. Badrawi did them as a school project, a study in light and shade, people and faces. “I sketched these girls directly from life to catch a certain light because light changes so fast.”
“The combination of having an Egyptian family and going to an American school helped me a lot to develop my self and my art,” Badrawi says. However, since she attended an American school in Egypt, she finds it difficult to make comparisons between Egyptian and American methods of teaching art, something that Egyptian students and journalists who attended her show asked her to do.
“Egyptian art students who came to my exhibition were great! They gave excitement to my show. They’re starved for feedback,” Badrawi points out. “They want to learn new things. They were very interested in monotypes because they didn’t know what they were. I explained that it’s a form of printmaking and that you can only do one at a time. They were also interested in lithographs and my use of color.” Badrawi says all the lithograph stones, on which an artist draw with an oil stick, are imported and so are very expensive. And that another problem for Egyptian art students is that there is no one-stop art shop in Cairo. Instead one must search in many places to collect all the supplies he or she needs.
A visitor to the Hanager show stared at a Badrawi painting of flowers for a long time. Finally he asked her “did you do this on purpose, I mean paint in the letters in Arabic for Allah [among the flowers]?” Surprised, at the time, that he saw something that wasn’t there, Badrawi now says “I can’t see anything but that in this painting. Religion is such a strong part of daily life here that people make comments like that all the time.”
Badrawi’s art teacher at Wellesley told her that sometimes her accurate drawing gets in the way. “Sometimes you’re so worried about what you want to show technically that it doesn’t allow you to show what’s more important in the painting such as the expression in the face or the mood of the painting,” the teacher said. So now, Badrawi feels “for me the mood comes out better if I work faster. I’m a realistic painter but not like Franz Hals, for example. He painted every detail very accurately. If I get hung up on details, my brush strokes get duller and my painting becomes less spontaneous.” Still she admits that drawing comes so easily to her, it may have prevented her in the past from exploring other essential aspects of painting.
One would like to see Badrawi explore her darker, moodier side more in her future work. The charcoal drawing mentioned earlier in this article, entitled “Sculpture from the Musée d’Orsay”, hints at a more complex, dramatic art, full of inner tensions.
Using an expression from the computer world, Badrawi points out that “everyone has a default style that you’re born with. The default setting on a computer is the standard style that comes with the basic program for the computer. Then you start to customize it. If you apply this idea to art it means that you have to break away from you fundamental style and try different styles because this helps you to see new things.”
In her own case, Badrawi’s style is getting looser. In a work in progress, a commissioned portrait of a man and woman living in Cairo, she is using more fluid brush strokes than she did in her classmates’ paintings two years ago and is concentrating on feelings or impressions rather than on the light itself. And two earlier self-portraits in oil depicting a somber side of the artist are intriguing for their haunting expressionistic style. In one, “Red Stripe”, we see half of her face in “strong darkness” to use the artist’s own words. This is the hidden side that invites the painter to search for a new inner path that will be reflected in her work. Badrawi’s painting of a Bedouin woman combines some of the best elements of her style – fluid lines, good portraiture and intense feeling just below the surface. That doesn’t mean Badrawi should completely abandon her beautiful colors and strong portraits. But as she notes wistfully, the world of commercial art in which she is currently involved and the specialized world of the portrait painter both require the artist to produce something that someone else wants. “I like to separate my portraits from my other work because I like to paint things for me,” she says with feeling. Badrawi is sure of one thing. She is “dedicated to painting. Whether or not it’s my life’s work, I’ll always be painting. I can’t put my brushes away for a long time.”