Celluloid on canvas by Mike Derderian (StarStaff Writer) (May 2007)


If celluloid was once what movies and dreams were made of, then canvas is what Dodi Tabbaa's dreams are laid on. In her latest exhibition Stills From Fleeting Images: Icons and Legends Tabbaa reproduces classic movie stills.

Time might have turned their remains into grains sifting through its hourglass but people still remember how Egyptian belly dancer Samia Jamal swayed her hypnotic hips and what was Egyptian Cinderella Suad Husni's memorable smile like and the way Abdel Haleem Hafez, the Egyptian nightingale, entranced millions of teenagers with his mellow crooning.

Tabbaa's 29 photolithographs and collage on canvas formations of Arabian and international black and white cinematic classics that are hanging at the walls of the Orient Gallery are nostalgic of times when movies were all about happy endings. Times have changed since and so have movies but Tabbaa's work reminds us that we need not be forgetful of the past.

Adopting a style similar but still different from the one Andy Warhol employed for The Marilyn Monroe lithographs, Tabbaa duplicated movie stills. In addition to cinematic stills she produced works glorifying Egyptian singing sensations like Laila Murad, Umm Kulthoum, Muhammad Fawzi and Farid Al-Atrach. Tabbaa also produced a blue hued tableau of Lebanese singer Fairouz, whose name happens to be synonymous with the color degrees she used in creating it.

Relying on digital technologies it seems that Tabbaa copied and pasted the multicolored stills that she chose the same way artists collage images and items together by hand and then printed them on canvas. To add to the stills' aesthetics Tabbaa then applied fishnet fabrics of various designs to some of the framed images. Beads interwoven on some of the fishnets covering her work indicate how much time and effort was exerted in creating the collection at hand.

A work entitled Happiness and Bliss, in which Suad Husni and Muhammad Awad pose for a wedding photo in the film, Hilwa wa shaqiyah (1968) that starred the duo, whose volatile screen chemistry was hilarious, is one of the impressive tableaux on display.

What Tabbaa, who was born in 1952 and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pakistan and the United Kingdom, did in Happiness and Bliss was cover the intermingling stills that come in yellow, orange and red with a fishnet adorned in hearts of various shapes.

Four large panels and 36 small ones formulate the elements of The Cinderella that capture Suad Husni's everlasting charisma that made people fall in love with her. Husni, who was born in Cairo in 1944, died on June 21, 2001 after falling from her London apartment balcony; the circumstances of her death remain a mystery till today.

Another aspect that defined Tabbaa's work is the limelight feature that computer programs apply to images. Using this feature in International Pride Tabbaa highlighted different aspects of Omar Sharif's young features.

"My inspiration came one day while watching an old Hollywood movie starring Audrey Hepburn, a well known actress popular in the 50's and 60's. The charm of that period put a spell on me. I thought to myself, why shouldn't I capturethe 'stills' that I found most dramatic," Tabbaa wrote in her exhibition's booklet.

A young Elizabeth Taylor, who displays childhood innocence in National Velvet (1944)-the title of the movie in which Taylor starred with Anne Revere, Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury-, is one of the many international icons that Tabbaa included in her collection.

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn's love affair in Roman Holiday (1953), a romantic classic, is perhaps what instigated Tabbaa to hold the exhibition in the first place as she indicated.

Looking at The Desert Epic in which the undying images of Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness, who all starred in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia appear, one cannot but remember the words of Thomas Edward Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) "So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people."

The purpose behind Tabbaa's exhibition is to remind us that the Arab world has its own icons and legends, whose images, voices and movies can stand the test of time. A brown and black colored tableaux with the faces of Egyptian actress and actor Yusra and Hussein Fahmy is covered with a dotted white fishnet. Who would have ever imagined that Fahmy's handsome features and Yusra's delicate eyes would appropriately fit the frame of a tableau to be hung in the middle of a saloon? Obviously Tabbaa did and her exhibition is proof that Arab cinematic icons haven't lost their appeal.

In Umrao Jaan that depicts Indian diva Ashwariya Rai, we are treated to a dose of Bollywood celluloid passion that so many Arabs are hooked on. The 55x110 cm tableau that comes with different sized panels in faded cyan and bright magenta reminds us of Tabbaa's Pakistani roots and heritage.

Even though she is not a moviemaker Dodi Tabbaa managed to compile a memorable repertoire of undying images in a vivid unforgettable style. What lacks such an enjoyable art exhibition is a soundtrack that would accompany the celluloid stills of people, who have often brought smiles into our lives over the years they have lived and are still living among us thanks to late television re-runs.