When art becomes the happy pill to cure depression
Vincent van Gogh’s bright-yellow paintings seem at odds with the depressed and tortured life of the artist, suggests Sam Shendi. The Egyptian-born artist has particular insight into this paradox, as he too creates art that appears lively, bright and upbeat despite his difficult childhood and the darkness it cast over his adult life.
"If I had to translate the life I had previously in my work, there would be a lot more dark colours and it would be less friendly," he says.
The UK-based artist is showing his art in SA for the first time, at Graham’s Fine Art Gallery in Johannesburg. The collection of his large resin sculptures are "friendly", as he puts it. You could call them beautiful, even though this adjective is rarely used to describe art as it almost always implies it is devoid of meaning or any conceptual high-art nous. This is by design; Shendi wants people to like his work and maybe by extension him.
Young people don’t respond to hard or unpalatable imagery, he suggests. "I always create objects that everyone will fall in love with. The viewer is the person who will remember me," he says.
At first glance, Shendi’s sculptures read as eye candy. The smooth glossy finish recalls sugar-laden sweets and the colours — bright yellow, red, blue and pink — bring artificial flavours to mind. His visual language is undeniably seductive. It is hard to believe his sculptures are handmade; they appear so perfect. The slick finish suits the minimalist vibe, the economical lines. He reduces human features to essential shapes and lines.
Long Face is a body of man defined by large heavy legs supporting an almost invisible torso from which a hard triangle-shaped head emerges.
In other works, the face is described as a solid oval in a contrasting colour to the body. Children are laconically evoked through small round shapes attached to inchoate beings in Mother of Many.
He has a gift for identifying the essential lines or character of the human body, subjecting it to a form of exaggeration, but not in such a way that it loses authenticity. In another mother-and-child sculpture, Sleepless Nights, the shoulder line of a woman crouched over her child rings truthful despite his stylised, reduced language.
You can’t help wondering whether this slick minimalist language maintains a distance between the artist — his identity and personal strife — and his art, facilitating the "lightness" and "brightness" that masks the harrowing history driving his practice.
"I did not have a pleasant childhood. I was severely beaten as a child. I was beaten ’til I bled," Shendi says.
"I did not have a good relationship with my mum and I did not know that she was depressed. Her behaviour towards us was really aggressive when we were younger and as I grew older, I tried to find the reason behind it."
His mother-and-child works, though, present female figures so deeply connected to their offspring that their bodies melt seamlessly into them. His art acts as a vehicle to retrieve what was denied to him.
His sculpture surfaced after a psychological breakdown of sorts in the mid-noughties, when he confronted his emotional baggage. "I am focused on expressing my emotions rather than just trying to create shapes. Once I realised this, the anger in me subsided and the hatred disappeared," says Shendi.
After graduating from a Cairo University in 1997, he turned away from making art, mostly for financial reasons. He worked in the fashion and interior design industries and tried his hand at cartoon drawing. When he returned to making art, he was dissatisfied with the end product; they seemed to lack the authenticity he strove to achieve. "In 2006, I decided to quit art and I felt really depressed. I did not buy any art books, I stopped going to museums. I was unhappy and created art for no purpose really," Shendi says.
"I did not know I had depression; I thought it was because I am not famous enough, people didn’t know my name," he says.
The Giant series, which contrasts with the Mother and Child one at the gallery, reflects his experience of the different stages of depression. The collection is defined by male subjects with large, oversized legs that carry small, armless torsos.
You reach a point where you become so strong, nothing can break you. It is important for an artist to divert this emotion to present something unique
This connects with the brutality and the survivalist streak he developed as a child in Egypt, where he felt victimised by not only his family but also the state.
"You reach a point where you become so strong, nothing can break you. It is important for an artist to divert this emotion to present something unique," Shendi says. Emotional strength might be a stereotypical burden placed on men, but it can be traced in the Mother and Child collection too, which is also characterised by hard outer shells.
Shendi has participated in several group shows in the UK, staged numerous solo exhibitions, won a British public art award and has been admitted as a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. However, he seems to still view himself as an outsider to some degree and rejects the commercial imperative that shapes the contemporary art world.
He refuses to make editions of his sculptures as he doesn’t see any point in remaking something when the original has already satisfied his thoughts and ideas.
"Art is not about money or design, it is a way of living. You cannot make every artist great, but a great artist can come from anywhere," he says.
• Sam Shendi shows at Graham’s Fine Art Gallery in Bryanston, Johannesburg, until July 12.