Mo Negm’s vibrant canvases are densely populated by crowds of people. Full of movement, unrestrained use of colour, texture, and the vague outlines of Arabic calligraphy in the background, the paintings convey a sense of mystery, while drawing the viewer in to his multicoloured world. Gallery Girl chatted to Negm about colour, language and social media.
The figures in Negm’s works appear en masse, fading into the distance amongst deep hues of purple, red and blue. Born to Egyptian parents, one can feel Cairo’s heat emanating from the surface of his canvases. ‘Sometimes I’ll begin by layering a painting using warm colours, which does create a heat or tension’, Negm explains, ‘It’s an intentional way to create a certain feeling. I like seeing those colours shining through the painting.’ Negm’s canvases very rarely leave any white spaces, the paint is layered on thick, and he is not shy in using colour. ‘The use of colour in a painting is really about creating a feeling, and so that’s why I’ll use colour in that way’, he says. Aware of Art History and traditional painterly values, he likens this to the way the expressionists used colour to convey mood, grounded in colour theory and harmony, rather than colour for colour’s sake.
That said, the intensity of colour in his paintings is replicated in his (often) black and white ink drawings that are full of movement and energy. Similarly each painting often begins with a loose drawing, using paint, ‘I’ll start drawing figures or a scene using one colour – particularly with oils as a base layer’, he explains, ‘Then I’ll work with more layers on top, adding colour and form.’ Negm prefers the unexpected in painting, and so doesn’t always plan his work in advance. ‘I rarely draft a painting, only in my mind, as I find it can restrict freedom. I’m interested in the immediacy of paint as a medium, and keeping the energy of brushstrokes by painting in a quicker more expressive way.’
The paint is heavy, and despite its weight, his figures appear to be gentle beings who have been planted in an un-locatable place. In some sections colours swirl into one another, while in others the marks are crosshatched over one another. ‘Sometimes I’ll paint with speed, wet on wet (a la prima) where the oil paint is still wet as I build up the crowd of figures one by one, quickly whilst also looking through my social media timelines, composing the scene as I go along’, Negm tells me, ‘My paintings can vary in terms of the time I spend on each. A painter has a feeling for when the painting needs no more brushstrokes. The start is a journey in itself.’
It may be interesting to know, that recently social media has inspired many of Negm’s works. Titled Timelines, the paintings don’t really seem technological at all. They are drawn from events that appear on Negm’s Facebook and Instagram timeline, sources of news and information that update quickly, in seconds, and are always changing. He recognizes the similarity in the history of painting; a painter previously might have found source materials from magazines, or imagined imagery, but now the digital world offers new possibilities. ‘I love the transience of timelines…the way I can see a picture…and then it’s gone…I liken that digital experience to human interactions in the real world, where we meet so many others day by day’, he explains, ‘Without models to work from, I like this way of finding a source material, which I then combine with my imagination. I enjoy painting in that way, with the elements of discovery and experimentation, and speed to capture a painting’s energy. And I love leaving room for the viewer’s imagination to complete a painting, where the viewer is almost part painting as something unknown or uneasy (like our post-modern world) remains rather than a tight representational picture.’
The way in which Negm’s paintings are so full of people reminds us about how many people there are in the world. ‘Painting figures I find on our timelines is a way for me to reflect and speak of our shared human experience’, he adds, ‘We all share memories, dreams and hopes, love, loss and layers of understanding.’ By putting all of these figures together, Negm creates a community, showing us that we are never really alone. These people in Negm’s painting are featureless to an extent. They wear different clothes, are male and female and vary in stature, but their faces are blank, and void of distinguishable characteristics. ‘I prefer that the figures are not wholly recognizable’, he says, ‘I do find figures on my timelines who are friends, and they do find their way into my paintings. Sometimes I’ll tell them the figure is based on themselves, most of the time I leave it to the imagination.’ By removing his subjects’ faces, Negm’s characters become even more intriguing. Who are they? What are they doing? How did they make it into this crowd?
As you scan the mass of figures in Negm’s paintings, and look to the horizon, you might notice the outlines of Arabic letters amongst the warm atmosphere, something that’s prominence is heightened if you can read the language. ‘My love of Arabic letters intertwined into the surrounding world of figures began as my own exploration of Arabic writing and learning’, explains Negm, ‘I do find that even if humans forget their heritage it is always there, shaping who we are.’ Indeed the use of Arabic letters in a handwritten painterly and gestural way (he doesn’t claim or aim for this to be formal calligraphy) is Negm’s attempt to talk about the influence of heritage and origins –leaving something of discovery in the paintings. That said, there is no hidden meaning or message behind the writing itself, it is more an exploration and appreciation of the shape and form of Arabic calligraphy. ‘I rarely use whole words’, Negm adds, ‘I’m more interested in the togetherness of a sum of parts. In the same way I paint crowds of people.’
Coming up, Negm has an open studio in his studio at Prime in Windsor in September. He also has some commissions for Emergeast, the online gallery that specializes in Middle Eastern art by whom he is represented. He doesn’t seem to have any fixed plans, but perhaps the unknown is what makes Negm’s work so exciting, ‘I’ll be developing my Timelines series’, he explains, ‘I’m excited to see where my painting journey moves me next.’
Negm’s paintings and drawings can be seen on his Instagram, @mostarart or his website http://www.mostarart.com