A beautiful lady in red sits in the corner of a painting with her back to the sea that is resting behind her. She is stunning, with long red hair and heavy make-up. Clearly, she would be the belle of any ball. And yet, despite her obvious good looks and elegant dress, she is hunched over, cradling her limbs. Even her hands and feet are pointing downwards in sorrow and the colour has drained from her face. Inspired both by a painting by Julio Romero de Torres and Schoenberg’s Erwartung (expectation), the image depicts the story of a woman who has just lost her lover and who has been paralysed by her pain. Drawing references from numerous sources, the image is just one of a series of paintings by Dina El Sioufi in Painting And Difference at London’s Egyptian Cultural Bureau that comments on Jacques Derrida’s 1967 Writing and Difference, the idea that every creative act is a comment on another creative act, involving difference.
Throughout Painting And Difference, El Sioufi comments on some of the greatest works of art, literature and music in history. References include Diego Velazquez, Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani. In The Dwarf’s Dream, the artist has taken the figure of court dwarf Sebastian de Morra from a work by Velazquez, as well as inspiration from an opera called Der Zwerg by Alexander Von Zemlinsky, which in turn was influenced by Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta. In Wilde’s story the infanta was given a dwarf as a toy for her birthday. After presenting it with a rose, the dwarf proceeds to fall in love with the infanta. He subsequently dies from heartbreak however, upon realising that he is seen merely as an amusement. Yet, within El Sioufi’s painting, the dwarf is flanked by two infantas the same size as him, each carrying a white rose. Depicted the size that he sees himself, the obvious downcast expression on his face alludes to the moment in which he realises he is in fact much smaller than he previously believed. In Double Entendre meanwhile, El Sioufi was influenced by photographs of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova at her home in Russia. The image includes lines from the poet’s writing, and also the figure of a flute player taken from Henri Rousseau’s La Charmeuse de Serpents in another amalgamation of references from different art forms and stories.
Painterly interpretations of literature are constant throughout El Sioufi’s oeuvre. Anna Akhmatova appears again in The Poet’s Love – Heart to Heart is Never Chained, an image that references the poet’s relationship with Modigliani. Here El Sioufi includes text from a poem about their meeting: Days of gnawing tedium endured/with the winter snow/why, oh why should you/be better than the one I chose? Meanwhile artistic influences continue with The Voracious Space, appearing as a reinterpretation of Brassai’s photograph of Giacometti in his studio, with L’Ange Au Visage Grave acting as a further work engaging with Modigliani.
The opera is also ever present in El Sioufi’s paintings. In Thinking Dionysos, a figure appears deep in thought with his head in his hands. Inspired by Hans Werner Henze’s opera Die Bassariden, Perentheus is trying desperately to get rid of Dionysos outside. Yet the more he thinks about him, the more he plagues him. Just like when we try to get an irritating thought or idea out of our heads: the more we ponder upon it, the more persistent it is not to leave. And, within El Sioufi’s painting, one can make out a ghostly figure in the background, taunting him constantly. We can hardly see it, but we know they are there.
Yet, despite her homages to the greats of poetry, painting and music, perhaps it is El Sioufi’s depictions of pain that really grab the viewers’ attention. Just as the redhead figure in Erwartung shocks us with her beauty and sadness, so do the women in Bid Farewell To Her, Alexandria That Is Leaving. Probably made more striking because El Sioufi herself was born in Alexandria, the painting shows two women just as lovely as the lady in Erwartung. Again, their backs are turned against the sea and their faces are tinged with sadness. Inspired by Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy’s The God Abandons Antony, it tells the story of Antony, Cleopatra and the city of Alexandria.
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by, with exquisite music, voices, do not mourn your luck that is failing now…do not mourn them uselessly as one long prepared, and graced with courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
It seems as though, throughout her paintings, El Sioufi is not mourning the great painters, poets and composers of the past, but celebrating them. By painting the stories of history, she is remembering them before saying goodbye.
Dina El Sioufi: Painting And Difference is on display at the Egyptian Cultural Bureau, 4 Chesterfield Gardens, London W1J 5BG until 18 March 2018. It is open Mondays – Thursdays 11am to 4pm and Fridays 2pm to 6pm