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Dario Basso blends Arab and Spanish art.

Part modern art, part homage to Arab creativity, Spanish painter Dario Basso's work is born from a sentimentalized history between Spain and the Arab world.

Materially, his exhibit at the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art stands as 20 kheimas, traditional decorative cloth hung as walls in the Arab world for funerals and festivals, which the artist has painted directly upon, in primitive strokes.

Basso comes to Cairo this week as a guest of the Spanish Embassy. His exhibition titled "Algoritmi Dixit" is currently held at the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art, on the Cairo Opera House grounds.

Appearing in a cream colored suit for the press conference and opening ceremony, Basso seemed tender amidst confident politicians and influential art representatives. He spoke of his search for identity in his early 20s, and how that search brought him to Egypt and the art of the Arab world. He espoused his regard for Arab art and the period between the seventh and 15th centuries when cultural exchange between Spain and the Arab world was at its pinnacle.Aa

He spoke of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, as one who earned undue credit for the geometric theory he is noted to have discovered. These theories, Basso and Ahmed Fouad Selim, director general of the museum, argued, were actually been developed by Arab mathematicians.

In his work, the artist said, geometry has been a symbol of "European culture, Spanish culture and now Arab culture." He referred to a 13th century Arab mathematical treatise as an influence in his painting.

"I would like to understand where these numbers are," said an Egyptian attendee of the opening ceremony.

Indeed, looking at the blotchy paint shrouding the typically exquisite patterns of the kheimas, it is difficult to understand just how mathematical theory materializes in Basso's work. The work itself reads more as Primitivism than any subtle reading of geometric discourse.

Primitivism is defined as a movement in modern art wherein Europeans and Euro-Americans stylized their work with gestures they intimated from non-Western cultures, as a response to what they perceived were repressions within their societies.

"In my 20s," the artist said at the press conference, "I was suffering and went searching for the historical identity of my country and at the same time, myself." The dictatorial regime of Franco, he said, did not allow for a broad view of Spanish culture. Moving to Paris, Basso said he found the identity he was searching for in the city's Arab neighborhoods.

On view in the current exhibition is the artist's treatment of several visits to Egypt and the culmination of 20 years after his initial interest in Arab culture was sparked.

In a room adjacent to the hanging exhibit is a two-screen video display. The right screen presents still images of the artist's snapshots of Cairo, while the left holds a video of the artist at work. We see Basso on a wide expanse of lush green lawn in Spain with four kheimas covering a large space of ground. Holding buckets of paint, the artist moves from cloth to cloth covering the original delicate lines with large patches of paint, pieces of earth and general strokes.Aa

The video's soundtrack features the sound of the ney, an Egyptian traditional reed flute. "We found one on the street, and brought it home to our friend, a Spanish composer," the artist's wife told Daily News Egypt during the screening. The composer is Guatema del Campo, whose first name is that of a Hindu deity. "He is a flamenco jazz saxophonist," she added.

The large works, as they appear in the video, are created in the spirit of action painting, the 20th Century American Movement where artists like Jackson Pollack spontaneously throw, flick and jab paint directly onto canvases without a predetermined intention.

The work in the exhibition hangs in bright, primary colors. To the untrained eye, the work might appear the result of a children's art class asked to paint the iconic Islamic design.Aa

When asked about his influences, Basso cited Swiss artist Paul Klee, an abstract artist and student of Orientalism. "Klee also saw Arabic culture," Basso noted.

Orientalism is the representation of Eastern cultures in the West in art, literature and scholarly work. It can have its motives in political propaganda, yet can also indicate a sympathetic position toward the area.

"Where is your Kufiyye?" Ahmed Fouad Selim asked Basso as they sat in a panel before the press. Selim stated that Basso has been wearing the Palestinian scarf since he arrived to Cairo, as Basso apologized that he had to remove it to wear the suit for the opening ceremony.

Undoubtedly, this new installation in the Egyptian Museum for Modern Art is the work of a well-intentioned man, infinitely sympathetic to the Arab World.

The work is Basso's attempt at cultural exchange, but where the exhibit stopped short for me is on the question of what exactly Egypt and Egyptian art stands to gain from this "exchange."

"Algoritmi Dixit" is the sort of cultural appropriation that excessively simplifies a subtle and finely executed tradition in Islamic art and architecture. Where contemporary art is concerned, the exhibition is displayed among the work of modern masters of Egyptian painting that worked hard to lift folkloric tradition out of the "barbaric" shadows it was cast in by Western imperialism.

On the contrary, rather than the sort of cultural exchange that might create a similar ascension, Basso's bloated splotches literally mask elegant patterns crafted by Arab hands thousands of years ago -- with a haphazard gesture ill-fitting of the form he is trying to compliment.

"Algoritmi Dixt," Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo Opera House. Tel: (02) 2736 6665.

Daily NewsEgypt 2007

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Publication:Daily News Egypt (Egypt)
Date:Nov 26, 2008
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