Germany-based Franco-Egyptian artist Hoda Tawakol’s soft-spoken manner belies her bulbous, undulating artworks that gently, but firmly, invade the viewer’s space. Bold hand-dyed sewn textile works, mixed-media sculptures, fabric collages, and watercolours appear in Tawakol’s cohesive artistic language for her first exhibition at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.
Entitled When The Dates Turn Red after the large-scale works (Palm Trees, 2015-ongoing) that dominate the main gallery space, the show features numerous elongated fabric tableaux depicting palm trees in reds, magentas, and blacks atop delicately bleeding blue grids; small anatomical-amorphous sculptures resting on wall-mounted shelves (Dolls); and a collection of works on paper. Though all the works exude a strong formal focus, Tawakol’s body of work is equally rooted in identity, the feminist movement of the 1970s, and nostalgia for the Golden age of Egypt.
Despite being awash in layers of meaning and intent, the inflated, cushy appearance of the soft materiality is what initially beckons viewers. Tawakol’s eye for colour and texture proves a masterful combination, resulting in forms that are not unfamiliar given that artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager, or Hans Bellmer were artists whose practices touched Tawakol’s sensibilities. Steeped in juxtapositions, the sculptures and 3D paintings are at once playful and sensual, and upon closer look, meticulously undone. The hand-sewn works demonstrate tedious attention to detail as the twists and folds of diverse fabrics are reinforced by even stitches that keep the pieces firmly together—but they also reveal elements of controlled chaos.
Hoda Tawakol, Nude #1, 2011, Fabric, synthetic hair, rice and resin 15 x 18 x 16 cm
Fabric edges may read rough or ripped, bushels of brightly coloured threads dangle at varied tangled lengths, and bleeding blue ink forms proportionally sound grids. But imperfections are apt—Tawakol depicts flora, a natural organism defined by an inability to exist unblemished, only adding to its charm. “Often I like to have a certain breach—not a painting, not a sculpture,” explains Tawakol. “I hand-dyed the fabric using an old Japanese technique, Shibori, and the folding and pressing allows the grid pattern to evolve. It’s very orderly but on the other hand, the colour is bleeding into the fabric, creating a new pattern—something that is uncontrolled.”
This opposition of order and autonomy manifests in myriad ways—it appears in the effervescent inkiness of her fragile watercolours as much as it does the overarching theme: “Although the date palm is an anemophilous plant, that is a naturally wind-pollinated tree species, its pollination process has been mechanised since its domestication and intensive cultivation,” explains the curatorial remit.
While works hanging from the ceiling and on the walls are produced in rich, warm hues—particularly Jungle (2018), a verdant work inspired by Henri Rousseau’s imagined exotic landscapes—Tawakol’s watercolours engage more tined and toned versions of her red-orange-pink-blue-grey palette. “For me, watercolour is very sculptural,” she says. “The way the colour flows on the paper and the way you can control it but also not control it—it’s a mixture that has something sculptural.” It feeds off the tactile physicality of her palm trees. “I like to declinate my work into other formats and mediums, so that’s also why I have watercolour work because I wanted to go further in that direction. I’m experimenting—another common point between the fabric and watercolour is that it’s an endless playground.”
Tawakol’s works may read vivacious and inviting, but there is also serious play at hand. “Palm trees are wonderful because they are a protective tree—they give you shade, food, and they are also gender fluid. Male and female palm trees exist,” she adds. “I also associate palm trees with memories, nostalgia… it is one of the symbols of the Golden Age age of Egypt in the 1950s, a past with voluptuous vegetation.” This sensation is most clearly represented in her interpretation of the palm’s dates—an enticing manipulation of crimsoned fabrics that bulges and sags with imaginary weight as they emerge off of the canvas and hurtle towards the ground, connected only by a rope. “The palms represent the memory of others, a generation that is now gone,” explains Tawakol, who remarks that she aims to represent a liveliness that matches the life-giving qualities of palms, denoted by the significant upsizing in scale of the dates. “They represent procreation, they give us fruit, and in my works, they are hanging to the tree by an umbilical cord.”
Hoda Tawakol, When the Dates Turn Red #9, 2017, Fabric, dye, wadding and thread 290 x 140 x 40 cm
It is from this point that the viewer takes a deeper dive into both the materiality of the works and the complex connotations of the palm. Touching on notions of its ability to provide life and livelihood, Tawakol’s incorporation of a reproductive lexicon drives it beyond the symbolic and more towards the corporeal—especially when Tawakol revisits her fascination with fabric. “When you’re born you are wrapped in fabric, this second skin, it’s on you, and is for your whole life. And when you die, you’re wrapped in fabric. It’s part of your body, that’s why it has a physical connotation.”
Using fabric like paint, Tawakol’s vivid, punchy flora iconography references art nature, history, memory, identity, and the simultaneous blending and dissolution of the boundaries between them—all through the rugged shape of a simple palm tree.