From consulting to canvas: Halla Shafey’s artistic journey

LONDON: Egyptian artist Halla Shafey is unusual in achieving success in two totally distinct spheres. For over two decades she worked as an economist and international development consultant for organizations including the World Bank and the United Nations. Then, aged 40, she decided to nurture her creative side: She spent four years preparing for her career switch to full-time artist by studying classical drawing and painting with the renowned Egyptian artist Magd 

“He was a rigorous classical teacher who taught us how to draw and paint. The whole course was about realism,” Shafey told Arab News. “He taught very methodically, until we were able to work with all media in a representational way.”

At school and university, Shafey had an interest in art but chose to study economics.

“At school (my art) was quite good. They would select my work for school exhibitions and as an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo I was involved in establishing an art club,” she said.

But during her 25-year international development career, Shafey says, “I didn’t touch a paint brush or pastel stick. I had my family — I didn’t have the time or even the inclination for art.”

Today her innovative work is shown in exhibitions and biennials worldwide and housed in the Egypt’s Museum of Modern Art and its Ministry of Culture.

In 2020 Shafey was elected as a member of the prestigious Pastel Society of England, which dates back to 1898. In that field, Shafey is unusual in her use of the abstract form.

Pastels, she explained, have historically been seen as secondary to oil paintings, but she pointed out that, while oils degrade over time, pastels retain their original luminosity. “They hold their quality because they are the closest thing to pure pigments,” she said. “My love of pastels has to do with my love for color, which (comes from) my mother. I recall our visits to markets in Egypt and abroad, selecting fabrics for interior decoration at home. My father, an economist, also shared his love of art with me.”

Of her unconventional painting style, Shafey said: “Usually, pastel artists use harder pastels or pencils and leave the very creamy, buttery colors to the end for the highlights. But I use the intense colors from the start. I do a lot of under painting in acrylics and then I start adding — monoprints, lino cuts, stenciling — and this is what gives my work its rich texture.”

She has found that when people comment on her art, they often use words like ‘soothing’ and ‘tranquil’. Asked how she sees her work, she explained: “It is a kind of supplication or meditation or introspection. Our connection with the greater universe — this is what really concerns me.

“Some people say they notice a lack of figures in my work, but figurative art does not interest me at all. For me, human beings are just a tiny part of a bigger, greater universe — so this is my lens on the world. The works reflect my inner self. Every artist, consciously or subconsciously, will bring out what is in their heart

“My work is totally abstract and spontaneous,” she continued. “I don’t do any sketches or plans, or use photo references or models or whatever. I draw on my memories.”

She emphasized that abstract art has its own discipline and that “in order to break rules, you first have to master them.”

For any good abstract art composition, there is a lot of thought, calculation and analysis. It’s an emotional and mental process. It starts emotionally because you are just pouring out colors and shapes, but then you start analyzing and thinking and balancing.  It’s not just about color, it is also about tonality and having the whole composition ranging from the darkest tones all the way up to the light. You want to give the work depth. In abstract art we don’t have the three dimensionality of realism. This has to be achieved through mastering tone and color,” she said.

Shafey, who this year will be conferred with Master Circle status by the International Association of Pastel Societies, believes it is vital for artists to find their own ‘voice,’ as she has done..

“When I’m asked to judge art, in both regional and international contexts, I keep seeing the same work over and over again,” she said. “Make your work very personal because your quirkiness is what makes you unique.”
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