Egyptian artist Abdel Hadi El Gazzar's daughter on growing up with her 'genius' father
Five decades after the artist’s death, his daughter, Tayseer, describes to Myrna Ayad how he is still missed. This first-person account is taken from their interview
My sisters and I grew up with parents who adored each other. “Leila and El Gazzar” – as their romance was affectionately known – was a love story in and of itself. The two met in 1954 at an art exhibition in Cairo for the Contemporary Art Group, an assembly of artists who were critical of western art education and who focused on the oppression of the Egyptian people in their work.
My mother was an art student, and my father was immediately drawn to her. I was born a year later, in 1955.
My mother would be busy cooking, cleaning or making him lemonade or coffee, and he would run after her and beg her to sit for him.
My favourite painting is a portrait that my father created of her that really shows for me how much he adored her.
My father was a poet, a singer and a painter. He was such a kind, decent man. He could not see a beggar without giving them money, and sometimes even offered his own clothes. He took us to museums, churches, exhibitions and the beach; they were such wonderful, happy days.
While he was studying in Rome in the late 1950s, he took us to a forest, and we swung from ropes attached to tree branches; I can still hear our shrieks of laughter.
He would watch cartoons with us and peel us oranges. He would pretend to be a camel and we would ride on his back. He was sensitive towards animals – he once saw someone hit a horse and he stopped the car and shouted at the man, saying this is a creature just like us. Another time, I saw him save a spider that was about to drown in the sink.
I remember always being so proud to be his daughter. My father did not like aggression or rudeness. He was always calm, except for once when someone removed his artwork from an exhibition with no prior notice.
At home, paintings were everywhere – on the tables, chairs, walls – the apartment was covered with them. He hated selling them. We did not understand all of his paintings, but he would tell us tales about them. Sometimes, he would narrate a story and draw at the same time and we would see the colours mixing and the painting revealing itself.
He had his own room where he worked, and once he was in there, we did not enter. We knew he was with a divine inspirational power, busy creating, and when he exited the room, he was a happy man.
I was mesmerised by his work. There were signs, symbols and emblems. The details are unbelievable, and each had its own story. My father was particularly fascinated by “mawlid”, the celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.
He was captivated by the circus, charmed by shellfish and enthralled by dervishes. He was also deeply concerned with the plight of the less privileged.
He painted these subjects and then his work focused on the universe and planets, before becoming more abstract. He lived each phase of Egypt, and he adored Egypt. I believe he was a genius and so avant-garde for his time.
He would narrate a story and draw at the same time and we would see the colours mixing and the painting revealing itself
Tayseer El Gazzar
In 1966, five years after he had returned to Cairo from Rome, his rheumatic fever, which he had as a child, worsened. He found out about it far too late. At the time, he was teaching at the Faculty of Fine Art, and a sense a sadness was palpable in his last works.
He knew he was going to die and spoke to me about it; he truly felt I was old enough to understand. He asked me to take care of my mother and sisters, and also wanted to know what I was going to study, perhaps believing I would choose art since I drew well as a child. “Apply to the Faculty of Fine Art and tell them you are El Gazzar’s daughter,” he said.
He knew he was special. He knew he was different, but he was never arrogant about it. I guess he would have been proud to know that I chose medicine, the field that he had initially pursued in 1945, but then abandoned for art.
A week after he spoke to me, he died. He was 40. That is so young and certainly did not provide enough time for his art to be celebrated and recognised. He left all of his paintings to my mother and she has had such a hard time cataloguing them. It has been more than 50 years, but she misses him still. After all, he is the greatest love of her life.
My sisters and I have always been proud to be his daughters, but at the 2016 exhibition, Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) that opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, that pride swelled even more. We felt compelled to do something. He would have wanted to show his work in more places while he was alive, although he represented Egypt three times at the Venice Biennale between 1952 and 1960.
In 2017, we established a foundation in his name to honour his legacy and pay tribute to him. We are keen to authenticate his works, as there are so many fakes out there. My mother always says it is a shame that he is not alive to defend himself. We are also publishing a monograph, not just to halt the fakes, but to promote his work more.
I’m sure he is proud of us and happy to see what we are doing in his name and for his name. I know who I am: I am El Gazzar’s daughter.
Remembering the Artist is a monthly series that features artists from the region
Updated: August 31, 2020 07:54 PM