The sheer size of Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements meant that even its creator had not properly seen it before it was hung in Dubai's Meem Gallery recently.
Khaled Hafez made the 7.5m x 2m metre oil on canvas in three pieces in his studio on the outskirts of Cairo and kept it rolled up in a PVC drainage pipe for more than two years before it made its public debut in Sweden last year. Even then, the work, which features Hafez's trademark military hieroglyphics and cut-out figures of bodybuilders and supermodels stylised as ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, was hung in the dark and under black light.
"This is the first time I have seen it under gallery lighting," he says as he paces its length. "No gallery in Cairo is this big and this is the biggest show in my career in terms of horizontal space."
Moving Forward by the Day is Hafez's first solo show in the UAE. The Egyptian artist, who began his professional life as a doctor in the 1980s and changed careers a decade later, has established himself as one of the most important artists of his generation. Eloquent, personable and well informed, Hafez is a pleasure to talk to. In his work, philosophical and political references combine with a visual spectacle that makes the show an absolute must-visit.
From afar, Hafez's canvases resemble the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt. Pumped-up bodybuilders take regal strides across the works or assume the pose of Anubis, the jackal-headed god. Supermodels take on the persona of Hathor, with cow horns and masks. Up close, the "ordinary" people have wings, becoming angels, and tears of paint run down the canvas.
"I am interested in the ideas of the fake and the authentic and what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the third order. He works on the fact that societies identify themselves by signs, symbols and codes."
Hafez says this is as relevant in today's materialistic world as it was in the world of ancient Egypt, which began to fascinate him 17 years ago when he left abstract painting to form his now distinctive style. "I moved into telling stories but with different rules. I like to do things flat, graphic and kinetic that move from one side to the other, giving the viewer a chance to create their own stories."
In The Code of Femina, the newest work, the colours take on a new vibrancy. Anubis, the god of the dead, stands next to Batman, an ironic choice to depict our fruitless search for salvation.
"I think we are now in the process of a cultural and visual recycling. I believe that ideas have wings - they fly across time, space and distance but they always come back. Batman and Anubis have the same function; at the end of the day we always look for this hero."
Also immortalised in this work is Ahmed Basiony, a sound artist who was shot and killed by the police during the first week of the Egyptian uprising. His presence brings the large ideas of death and salvation swiftly back to the present.
Military symbols first appeared in Hafez's paintings six weeks before the January 2011 revolution. "There was a collective conscious at the time," he says, "and it had been going on for a while with several artists. I started to create a hieroglyphic alphabet with the military in 2009."
Also in the exhibition are a collection of humorous collages and drawings, which repeat the elements of his larger works and bring continuity.
The show is inspired by what Egyptologists call the Book of the Dead, explains Hafez. "In 2000BC, people were buried with this book or scroll under their hands, so this title represents change. It may mean transparency because evil forces always work in the dark, but it represents hope. We are in a period of decline in Egypt and we are either inside or outside of it."
Khaled Hafez: Moving Forward by the Day is at Meem Gallery until May 2
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