In a style reminiscent of Picasso’s early work and Dali’s penchant for surrealism, Cairo-based artist Mahmoud Khattab creates captivating portraits that leave you mesmerised. Khattab started out painting in just black and white, then over the years, he seamlessly began to incorporate colours into his work. Throughout, he has preserved a style that is so distinct, it leaves no doubt as to who the creator of any of his paintings is. eniGma’s Hager Alazab sat down with Khattab to learn more about the source of his creativity and the passion that drives his art.
Enamoured with drawing since early childhood, Khattab knew his calling from a very young age. As he grew older, he started out by recreating art pieces with his own little twist added to them and experimenting with new colours and materials. In 2005, he enrolled in the Faculty of Fine Arts to seriously hone his artistic skills. According to Khattab, 2010 was the true beginning of his journey in art. “I started joining galleries and exhibitions in 2010. That is when I started to develop my own style,” says Khattab, recalling his initiation into the local art scene. He acknowledges that he has acquired a distinctive style that is unique in its shading and brushstrokes; admitting that like any artist he has been inspired by renowned artists.
Khattab considers Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish surrealist, one of his major inspirations. While he does not describe his own style as surrealistic, he cites Dali’s work as a muse of sorts for him as he attempts to incorporate ethereal, dreamlike touches in his own work. “I constantly try to experiment with my art. I want to see how I can explore surrealistic elements within my paintings,” he says. With an evident focus on people doing everyday activities and a penchant for bright colours and defined shapes, Khattab is constantly evolving his style while remaining true to his vision. “I believe that my style at the moment can be described as expressionist with a small hint of surrealism,” he explains.
Unwilling to say which of his paintings is dearest to his heart, Khattab highlights the importance of an entire project which he calls, “Hilm El Ganna (Dream of Heaven),” that he has been developing. He describes it as being based on the wishful idea of stopping time, in the hope of preserving moments that we never want to end. “When I am working on any of the paintings within this project, I try to capture happy moments that make us wish we could freeze time. I try to imagine myself in my paintings, stuck in one of those moments,” says the artist, as he describes the direct correlation between real life and his art. With a vivid imagination, Khattab promises an interesting reveal of his secondary passion for music in his work in progress in the months to come.
The prominence of musical instruments in Khattab’s art is hard to miss, as we saw at our Covers Reimagined event; Khattab had painted our Cover Star Tamer Hosny playing the piano, which was embedded into the mountain scenery. From melodramatic women playing guitars and flutes on gloomy boats to couples serenading each other in parallel universes, music is often front and centre in Khattab’s portraits. “I love music and I love listening to music,” he says, explaining the importance of music in his life and how music surrounds him in every step that goes into creating his portraits. “Music doesn’t just surround us. If anything, it is a part of each of us, ingrained deep within us. Sometimes we have to reach deep inside to find it,” he adds.
Khattab has a rich portfolio of work and has exhibited in many galleries. Notwithstanding the difficulties that all artists have to deal with, Khattab seems to have an unwavering determination to reach the finish line and to see his vision in bright colour. Describing the preliminary stages of making a painting, he says, “The hardest part about the process is not the end but rather the start. The most complicated part of any painting for me has got to be developing the initial outline.” He adds that the only thing that is more important than the way the painting comes out in the end, is the feeling the painting evokes in the audience. “I focus on the people within the painting and how they are feeling. Once I have a clear direction what that will be, the rest in terms of colours, shapes and techniques follow.”
Khattab’s dedication to experimentation is unmatched when it comes to the materials he uses to spark life in his canvases. From oil to acrylic to coal, the young artist works with a variety of materials to make each painting unique. “Deciding on the material to use for a painting is solely based on what you think is suitable to the idea you envision in your mind,” he says. Nonetheless, he is particularly keen on acrylic paint and says that he likes simplicity in his paintings and appreciates monochromatic themes over the overuse of colours. “I don’t mind mixing and matching materials as long as it helps me reach the final result I envision. If I have to absolutely choose two materials to work with, they would definitely be charcoal and acrylic paint,” he adds.
Naturally, throughout the years, Khattab grew as an artist and his style has evolved with him. Moving from paintings solely based on shapes and a grayscale theme to a seamless incorporation of colours, the progress of his creativity has been clear. To him, the stark change in his style is merely a reflection of his experiences as an artist. “Perhaps having my first work solely in black and white made the painting process slightly harder for me,” he explains, adding that painting in colour is much easier. He decided to add more colour to his paintings as his ideas developed, realising that using colours would enhance his paintings and bring more life to them. “It is all about how you feel on the inside and how you express that in your art. Sometimes, it is all about colour and sometimes you want to go back to basics and stick with black and white,” he elaborates.
Today, Khattab feels comfortable in his art and his artistic style. Having found a middle ground to claim his territory and find his footing, he would love to see his art displayed internationally – in European countries like Italy and France. In the meantime, he has big hopes for the future of the art scene in Egypt and wishes to see young local artists like himself grow more. His advice to other young artists like him is, “Never lock yourself up in one experience. Experiment with your art and let it be a true reflection of you.”