Naguib Mahfouz has called Cairo "the ideal city" for writers. But artists of all kinds have been drawn to Egypt from all over the globe, providing an international and very eclectic art scene. "Still Places": A Canadian's Perspective of Egypt" is now showing at the Atelier Du Caire, adds a surprising ingredient to the mix of what an artist might find in this city: peace and quiet.
"In Cairo , there is constant noise and activity. As a reprieve, I search for quiet and stillness. My paintings are my vision of what I discovered." Marilyn Batte says. Batte coined the phrase "still place" from "still life" to describe the tranquil scenes she painted from over 1000 photographs she has taken since she came to Egypt three years ago. "Someone once said that my paintings look more like photographs than photographs do," Batte says. She never thought of herself as a photo-realist until others saw her work and called it that. "I'm trying to get people to look at things that they don't notice, to get them to pay attention. I want people to see things really perfectly. I've been told nothing is perfect, but I don't believe that", she says.
Perhaps because of this search for perfection, Batte spends forty to fifty hours on a painting, sometimes as much as six to eight hours on a single object within a scene. Invention comes when she finds she has to "clear out the clutter" in order to give the painting a feeling of repose. Other times, she adds objects to fulfill an emotional quality of stillness. For example, in one painting, based on a photograph taken in the City of the Dead, a bench underneath a wide spreading tree initially seems too vacant to Batte; it lacked an appeal to human emotion, a suggestion of human activity, so she
|added a pitcher of water, a zir, a familiar sign in the Middle East of refreshment and repose. Generally, although there are no people in Batte's landscapes, there are objects that suggest them. The paintings suggest stillness, but unlike landscapes, the presence of an object used by people imbues Batte's canvases with a feeling of expectancy as well as repose.
The places themselves appeal to a viewer's sense of calm. "The ocean is like that," she says, "and Alex, and all along the cost. So is the White Desert . You just have to paint it."
Her love of expansive space calls to mind the Group of Seven, the famous Canadian landscape school. Batte, however, despite her training in art history, doesn't think of herself as part of any school, nor does she wish to be. All that concerns her, is capturing as precisely as she can the physical reality around her.
Because of the nature of the work-its all up close, so close that Batte though she might have to get glasses because of the eyestrain-she forgets all her problems. "There's no room for me to think about anything else", she says. Perhaps this gives her some of the peace that her work invokes.
Where are the "still places" in Cairo ? The City of the Dead is oddly quiet and still, despite its million inhabitants. And there's an old shed behind the Citadel that is so quiet, so still, one can actually hear the gentle coo of pigeons, Batte says. There are other peaceful places. Several are waiting to be discovered at Batte's exhibition.