Mo Salah and other Egyptian football stars depicted in Coptic-style art sparks controversy

'I wanted to pay homage to Coptic art, which is part of my heritage, as well as to the soccer players,' says the artist El-Sabrouti of his digital portraits

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Knocked out at the group stage, having lost every game, Egypt did not have a World Cup to remember. Fans were doubtless hoping that, at this point in the competition, star player Mohamed Salah would be preparing for a crucial game; instead, he is on holiday in Beirut, a mere bystander as the tournament hurtles towards its climax.

Despite this, however, the Egyptian football team is still making headlines. That’s because Ahmed El-Sabrouti, an Alexandria-based artist, recently released a series of eye-catching digital portraits of the players, as well as head coach Héctor Cúper, in a style that imitates the Fayum portraits of Egyptian mummies.

Fayum portraits, traditionally painted on wooden boards, date back to the first century BC and are thought to have been placed over mummified bodies in Ancient Egypt. In some regions, instead of placing the body in a coffin of wood or stone that mimicked the person's likeness, the deceased was wrapped in linen, with a painted portrait laid over their head. These portraits, the vast majority of which have been found in or near the city of Faiyum, had a profound influence on Egyptian art right through to the Coptic period, which began around the third century AD.

"Coptic art is integral to the history of Egyptian culture," El-Sabrouti told The National. "And it had a great influence on – indeed, it is the godfather of – the religious iconography art that was later embraced by Christianity here.

“I wanted to apply the techniques and characteristics of Coptic art to these portraits of Egyptian football stars as a way of introducing young people to the tradition.”

The controversy surrounding the portraits 

But that is not the controversial part. What some people have objected to is the representation of Cúper as Jesus Christ and some of the players, including Salah, as saints. On the portrait of Salah, who wears a crown made from an olive branch, El-Sabrouti has written the words “King of Egypt”.

Since these portraits were published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustour, two legal cases have been brought against El-Sabrouti. The portraits have also been brought to the attention of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Press.

Added to this, the Egyptian writer and theatre director Irini Samir has criticised El-Sabrouti’s series, which is called The Egyptian Lullaby. “Coptic art is special to the Church and should not be imitated in any other way outside this context,” Samir said. “There is freedom of expression, but this freedom of expression should consider ethics and issues that others consider sacred.”

In an interview with the US-based website, Al Monitor, El-Sabrouti rejected these claims, however. Referring to the portrait of Cúper, the 30-year-old said: "I wanted to feature Cúper in this symbolic portrait as a man with a game plan, a saviour or a saint, who has faced a lot of criticism and obstacles, [in order] to make the national team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

“The halo behind him is a ball, which I used as a symbol of his knowledge and wisdom in soccer […] The aura is used in different artistic works in Egypt and abroad to express the purity or wisdom of the person, and it is never interpreted as contempt. People use emojis with a halo online every day.

“Egyptians are familiar with both contemporary and Pharaonic art, but Coptic art is relatively unknown and much too often confined to the inside of churches,” he says. “I wanted to pay homage to Coptic art, which is part of my heritage, as well as to the soccer players.”


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The story behind the pieces

It would be a shame if the furore over these images detracted, however, from their inventiveness. There is a rare attention to detail and beauty to the series, which also features portraits of goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who at 45 was the oldest player at the World Cup, defender Ali Gabr, midfielders Mohamed Elneny and Amr Warda, and winger Shikabala, who El Sabrouti refers to as “the amazing magician”.

So how does El-Sabrouti, who is a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Alexandria University, do it? “It is impossible for any artist to simulate the style and appearance of masterpieces painted thousands of years ago with egg tempera,” he says. “So I use digital painting techniques, along with a good deal of effort and passion, to create a similar effect. I have been studying the characteristics of Coptic art for years.

“I have always been fascinated by these types of work, which hang all over churches and museums in Alexandria. I have also been involved in the restoration of some of these pieces.”

When I ask him which is his favourite portrait, El-Sabrouti is unsure, but adds that the portraits of Salah and Cúper generated the most interest inside and outside of Egypt. Proof, then, that a bit of controversy is never a bad thing.