Egyptian artist George Bahgory may be turning 90 this year, but he still knows how to have a good time.
At the opening of his exhibition at Art Talks gallery in Cairo, which runs until Friday, he signed books and drew caricatures of his female fans with a drink in his hand and a smile on his face.
“I hope when people remember me, they laugh,” Bahgory tells The National.
Over his 70-year-career, Bahgory has been a caricaturist, painter, sculptor and writer. Often referred to as "Egypt’s Picasso", his work with Cubist and Expressionist influences has been featured in dozens of exhibitions both internationally and at home.
About 25 of his masterpieces are on display at Art Talks in Zamalek this week and one of two books featuring a majority of his artwork has been released. The first volume includes oil on canvas paintings while the second volume will contain his works on paper.
Art Talks founder Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani wrote the words for both volumes, as well as a retrospective called Upside Down (named after the way Bahgory prefers to draw) that was published last month.
The masterpieces are on loan from the George Bahgory museum, which opened in Downtown Cairo in 2019, but is only available for viewing by appointment.
The private museum, set in a 600-square-metre apartment with seven rooms, is filled with more than 120 artworks dating from the early 1950s. It includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and sketchbooks that he calls “carnets de voyages”.
“These are my entire life,” Bahgory says.
Bahgory and his wife of more than 60 years, Nitokriss, are hoping to soon relaunch the museum for the public.
“His whole life was art. He would never leave the pen, even when he was tired,” says Nitokriss.
Born in 1932 in the small village of Bahgora near Luxor where his Coptic Christian family name originates, Bahgory started drawing from a young age.
Although he repeated his senior year of high school three times, he went on to study painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo from 1951 to 1955. It is there where he met Nitokriss, who is also an artist.
In 1953, he started his career as a satiric cartoonist for weekly magazine Rose Al Youssef and later Sabah Al Khair. His cartoons drew the ire of Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat and other Arab leaders over the decades.
"Bahgory was courageous and politically engaged. He used art as a means to fight for justice and freedom," says Mostafa-Kanafani.
As freedom of speech became more restricted, Bahgory decided to move to France on August 25, 1969, a date he describes as his “second birth”. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris and France become his adopted home, though he went back and forth to Egypt.
Egypt was always close to his heart and a source of never-ending inspiration as shown by his works. Some of his most recognisable ones are his series of paintings and sculptures of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. He frequently painted everyday people, such as street and orchestra musicians, belly dancers, vegetable and bread sellers.
“[Bahgory] always seems to be in a hurry, as though he is trying to capture the moment, live that instant, and not miss the smile, the crowd, the music, the people, his people, our people,” writes Mostafa-Kanafani in Upside Down.
In some of his paintings, he imitates the works of Arab pioneers such as Mahmoud Said, Abdel Hadi El Gazzar and Ahmed Sabri in his own Bahgory style. He does the same with renowned artists' works such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait.
Beyond the private museum, Bahgory’s work is scattered among private collections and has been offered at auction several times. Musicians, sold at Christie’s Dubai in 2014, recorded the highest price of his auctioned works at $37,500.
Now Bahgory is more concerned with preserving his unique legacy. He says that even if he is forever known as "Egypt's Picasso", that is "a good thing, of course".