Under the bridge with ‘The Abasseya Painter’
Photo courtesy of Nahar Matar official Facebook page

CAIRO: Cairo and its surrounding metropolitan area are home to an estimated 20 million residents, and empty space in the most highly-trafficked areas is usually informally appropriated by vendors of everything from shoes to vegetable peelers to candies and stuffed animals. In low-traffic areas, from below bridges to graveyards, homeless take shelter along the Nile Cornice, but pockets of art also exist.

In a small booth under the Abasseya Bridge, a man sits holding a brush, surrounded by his artworks. His works are mostly portraits of old celebrities, but a celebrity known for their brilliant smile looks different under the bridge.

Nahar Matar, who has dubbed himself “the Abasseya Painter,” said he tries to draw the feeling, not the appearance and tries to delve deeper into the character of each portrait.

“The most internationally successful and popular artists started in the street. Their works were seen by the people in the street, so I chose to begin in the street, too,” Matar told The Cairo Post.

Matar, who was born in 1962 and graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Helwan University,  said that when he was studying art in college, he used to go out to draw portraits in the street and at public transportation stops.

“I was drawing the passengers …actually I was practicing on them instead of hiring a model, who takes a lot of money,” Matar said.

Since then, he said people who admired his portraits would ask about his gallery, which he did not have.

“So I decided to establish this booth as a gallery and to be under the bridge and be close to people,” Matar added.

Matar said sometimes contemporary actors portray artists as crazy, isolated people, but he blamed this on a lack of knowledge about art and artists.

“The artist is not drunk or crazy… the artist is innovative and very cultured,” Matar said.

Asking him if the government offered to sponsor him, Matar said, “the successive governments did not offer that… The former governments and even the upcoming governments will not help improve the artists’ condition.”

Matar said he drew pictures for several tourists from different nationalities, adding that he is happy to see his pieces have ended up all over the world.

Furthermore, Matar said with pride, “I have drawn and painted portraits of all Arab rulers.”

Most of his portraits are of old Egyptian celebrities, who, the artist said, “have a fragrance of history and the heritage of civilizations.”

Matar said he can finish a portrait within four sessions, each session lasting around two hours.

“It’s not too long, but I am trying to delve deeper into the personality, which takes time to understand.”

Matar, drew several portraits of celebrities like the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kamal el-Shenawy, late actor Fouad al-Mohandes, late singer Umm Kulthum, and other late great figures.

Many of Matar’s neighbors also appreciate his work. One of Matar’s neighbors, Aam Nasser, told The Cairo Post that Matar’s “portraits remind us of a nice era, like his portrait of Umm Kulthum.”

Nasser’s friend Aam Mostafa said, “Matar is a kind person and a good painter. I once gave him a picture of my deceased father to draw a portrait of, and it was amazing.”

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