Chant Avedissian passed away on October 24 at the age of 67 in Cairo, the same city in which he was born in 1951. The Egyptian artist was best-known for his stencilled Pop Art portraits of famous Egyptians of the 1950s and 1960s, notably singer Umm Kulthum, former president Gamal Abdel Nasser at the Suez Canal and movie star Faten Hamama. But over 200 stencils in his Icons of the Nile series, on patterns from Ottoman fabrics or Mamluk doors, also included images of Pharaonic sculpture, birds, bus tickets and the simple touba or earthen brick used for traditional house-building. The touba reflected the inspiration of his friend Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, a champion of traditional building techniques for whom Avedissian worked as archivist and photographer.
One version of Icons of the Nile, including 120 images, stencilled and painted on cardboard, sold for more than $1.5 million at an auction in 2013 in Doha, Qatar, leading to the claim that he was the highest-selling artist in the Arab world. Individual pieces sell for closer to $10,000.
Born in Cairo to an Armenian family, after his grandparents fled from Izmir, Turkey during World War I, Avedissian trained as an artist in both Montreal and Paris. He returned to live in the building in Cairo owned by his parents, in a street once named for his family. About 10 years prior to his death, he bought an apartment in Yerevan, Armenia, but he always called himself an Egyptian artist, according to curator Rose Issa, who knew him and worked with him for nearly 30 years. He is survived by his sister Nairy Avedis Avedissian, and there are plans for a trust to oversee his legacy and raise funds for hospitals in Cairo.
In 1995, Issa curated a solo show of Avedissian’s work at the Leighton House Museum in London. The Smithsonian Institution bought three assemblies of panels, now in the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. On corrugated cardboard, they show a panorama of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history and culture, from famous personalities to Egyptian gods and the Communist hammer and sickle, from the romantic Cataract Hotel in Aswan to a stealth warplane in the Gulf War.
Avedissian learned from Fathy, “that you have to do everything yourself,” says Issa. “Build your own house, do your own work. He never had canvas coming from Europe, he worked on corrugated cardboard from Egypt. He was inspired by photographs of nearby mosques. He took his sources from his own country.”
Avedissian initially worked in costumes and textiles. Then in 1991 a friend commissioned him to do a stencil of Umm Kulthum. The Icons of the Nile started when he began taking the covers of popular magazines and making them into iconic images. The stencils were affordable at first, selling for just $50. They helped make Umm Kulthum into a Pop Art icon, and his work brought many imitators. Using eight to 12 cut-out stencils, he painted hair in black or bronze, lips in red and other components in bright colours.
He avoided galleries or exhibiting with public institutions in Egypt. With works in the British Museum and Mathaf, Avedissian could have been “10 times richer. He was very generous. When he made money, he gave it away,” says Issa.
While Avedissian’s work is seen as a fusion of East and West, Issa is wary of comparisons to Andy Warhol. “Pop culture existed in America as well as in the Middle East. It is part of the culture of most countries,” she says. “I connect his work to Egyptian popular culture, the same way that Warhol is American popular culture. He wanted to communicate something, and it wasn’t about nostalgia or politics. It was about how artists manage to overcome tensions in order to be creative.”
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Sanctuaries #47, pages 30-31.