Cairo

Anna Boghiguian

Safar Khan Gallery

In her forty-year career as a widely respected artist, Anna Boghiguian has frequently depicted Cairo, where she was born and lives. Her 2003 book Anna’s Egypt offered a personal tour via text and artwork through the neighborhoods of that city, with briefer forays into Alexandria, home of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (a longtime inspiration) and other parts of the country. Boghiguian’s recent show once again focused on her homeland, along with another favorite locale, India—more specifically, on the rivers that run through them, the Nile and the Ganges.

In lieu of the densely filled drawings of people and places found in Anna’s Egypt and throughout the artist’s oeuvre, however, the work on view at Safar Khan primarily depicted scenes either unpopulated or inhabited by figures engaged in solitary activity. Many of the paintings and watercolors formed a travelogue of sorts, including colorful landscapes passed while sailing down the Nile by felucca. But the majority of the Nile pieces were studies of the boat itself as well as the boatman: Sails billow; lone figures straddle masts; and sailors rest, corpselike, in long galabiyas that here resemble shrouds. Pencil lines peek through the watercolors, revealing an outline quickly sketched in the moment. Yet numerous works also owe a debt to photography, their compositions suggesting that snapshots served as reference material. The artist nods to an early predecessor in this regard: Reclining Man (all works 2009), a portrait of a porcine-faced sailor in semirepose, appears to pay homage to Manet’s En Bateau (Boating) from 1874. The man stares out impassively at the viewer, making this one of the rare works that implicitly reveals the presence of the artist.

The Egyptian sailor’s pose was echoed in a painting that hung across the room, titled The Bather, in which we see the back of a figure lying on a boat, who in turn watches a man standing in the Ganges. The bather holds his hands in prayer, surrounded by floating petals. These two works, like others in the exhibition, demonstrated Boghiguian’s extraordinary facility in rendering water’s luminous, ever-changing reflections—and its Heraclitean nature, never the same twice.

Much of the larger work in the show, however, was not done any favors by the installation. Shows at Safar Khan tend to be packed with work, and this one was no exception: Fifty brightly colored works were crammed into the intimate, two-floor space of the gallery, and the hanging was at times ill considered. In addition, the exhibition opened with fifty-one works, but one of the strongest pieces—Sailor Sleeping, a bloodred Baconesque acrylic of a figure in an abstracted room—sold immediately and quickly disappeared from the gallery when the buyer left the country.

Boghiguian often includes text in her artwork, but this was less evident here than in the two series of drawings exhibited earlier this year at Beirut’s Galerie Sfeir-Semler, in a show curated by Catherine David, “In the Middle of the Middle.” An exception was a somber-hued painting of two figures surrounded by water, an imagined place where, as the artist writes, “All the rivers met and became one.” In Where the Rivers Meet, this “metaphysical transformation” allows Boghiguian to bring together her conceptions of the Nile and the Ganges in one image.

Nikki Columbus