Asmaa Khoury

Portraits of Arab Women

There is no debate that art is subjective, and every artist comes from a different background with different identities that affect how their work is portrayed. With art being an umbrella – there are different routes you can follow but we can all agree that it’s a form of expression of one’s self. Asmaa Khoury is an artist and painter who refused to abide by society’s standards of modern digital art and instead focused on her love for traditional art. eniGma’s Nouran Deyab sat down with Khoury to discuss her distinguishable work and how her career came into place.

Asmaa Khoury confesses that as a young girl she wasn’t interested in her classes at school – she absolutely hated studying and memorising the material. Instead, she was consumed with a love for drawing above all else! When she finished school, her parents hoped she would become an engineer like her father, but she chose the School of Applied Arts at Helwan University, obtaining her degree in 2011. While initially skeptical of their daughter’s choice of career, her parents eventually came around. “They felt like a career in art wouldn’t get me anywhere in the society we live in, but with time I was able to gain their support and prove to them that I could turn my passion into a career,” she explains.

After graduation, Khoury was offered a fulltime position at the Egyptian magazine, Sabah El Kheir (Good Morning), but she opted to work there as a freelancer instead. “I declined the full-time job offer because I wanted to dedicate myself to my art. I worked as a freelancer with the magazine for two years,” she recalls. She later took a job teaching art and design at an International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) school, but left soon after to focus on her career once again. “I’m not like others who postpone their passion to focus on a temporary career and then forget about their passion. Art is something I wanted to pursue, and I stuck to it,” Khoury explains proudly. For the next three years, she studied anatomy, color theory and classic paintings – while also researching historical stories to assist her in building the concepts behind her art. To this day, she finds inspiration in her research which is wide ranging, going as far as content related to politics, and even the medical field. By 2014, Khoury had held her first individual exhibition called “Awel El Tarek (Beginning of the Road).”

With many of Khoury’s work resembling her, we couldn’t help but ask if they were self-portraits, but Khoury surprisingly claimed, “I never realised they looked like me, its not me in the portraits, perhaps its because of the time I previously spent on self-portraits.” Reflecting on the sum of her works to date, Khoury says, “For the longest time I worked on self-portraits, mainly because I had no access to models. I overcame that in my latest exhibition, “Al-Awaloun (The Firsts)” when I painted Egyptian portraits, from Southern Egypt, the cradle of Egyptian civilization. The faces that appear in the Egyptian Museum are the same as those we see in our streets. This collection got me out of self-portraits, which I had focused on earlier.”

Khoury’s “Al-Awaloun” exhibition includes a portrait of a man whose face is very vague and unclear. She explains, “When you try to recall something, you don’t remember exactly how it is. It’s usually hazy like a dream. This was the technique I decided to use in my last show. Women are usually the heroes in many stories; that’s why most of my work revolves around them.” She quickly adds, jokingly, “but I try to incorporate men too, because many people think that I’m a vicious woman!” Khoury’s other paintings also seem like the faces may be a little hazy, and when asked she simply stated, “I like the faces to be soft. Most paintings we see, the faces are all so edgy and structured – I didn’t want that in my art. I keep the faces soft and add edge to other areas of the painting.”

“The Murder of Shajar Al-Durr,” based on the story of the Mamluk Egyptian queen is one of Khoury’s most notable paintings and in it you can glean a resemblance to the artist herself. The very detailed painting shows that it took a lot of historical research of the period to accomplish the piece. The historic Al-Manial Palace also provided her with much inspiration for the painting. Khoury spent time at the palace studying Islamic architecture and design, which helped her paint an obscure background in the canvas. “This painting involved a lot of work. First, I would design the dresses right on a mannequin and would add accessories to them. I would then wear what I made and act in front of the mirror to make sure I got the right facial expressions of Shajar Al-Durr. I would take pictures of myself for reference,” she recalls, adding, “Most of the historical paintings I create take a lot of time. With some canvases, I just start painting right away. But when there is a concept and history behind the story, I make a sketch first to make sure I have the correct faces, and then I paint in all the details.”

Khoury insists that it takes a lot more than talent to be a successful artist. “Being talented isn’t enough,” she exclaims! “It’s called the 3Ps – passion, patience and practice. You need to have all three, along with consistency. There are people who don’t have the talent of drawing, but when they put their mind to it and practice, they create amazing work. And on the other hand, we have talented people whose lack of effort get them nowhere,” she adds.

As for how the artist’s state of mind affects her work, Khoury explains, “When I’m upset and crying, I don’t put my work aside. I just sit down with my canvas and somehow, I create pieces that everyone falls in love with! Even curators at the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art have praised work that I created during times of despair.” She adds, “actually, the most rewarding part of my career is when I shut my room door and its just me and the canvas. When I finish a painting and it turns out successful, I start worrying about the next – hoping that it’ll live up to the standards I have and be better than the previous one.”

Looking ahead, Khoury finds it encouraging that the art scene is rapidly growing in Egypt. “It’s because of social media, people are getting to see how art is portrayed outside of Egypt and this inspires them.” Of course, with the art scene growing, comes the negative aspect to it, the phonies. “There are people who understand nothing about art, but they like to criticize the work of others just because art is trendy,” she notes.

As for her plans for her own art in the period ahead, Khoury says that she will be working on stories and big concepts for her sixth exhibition, which will be held sometime within the next year. “I also want to focus on figures and their scales in my pieces,” she says, adding that she wants to make sure proportions within the paintings are intact.

Khoury is also concerned that modern art iterations, like graphic design for instance, are gaining in popularity at the expense of traditional art like hers. She hopes that interest in traditional art will continue to grow, nonetheless; and concludes by saying, “I want my art and traditional art in general to reach larger crowds.”