Submerged and sublime: Nazir Tanbouli’s underwater world
exhibition at Picasso Gallery Zamalek Cairo, February 2022
“That wasn’t a true dream, but an ancient organic memory millions of years old. The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm have been awakened. The expanding sun and rising temperatures are driving you back down to the spinal levels into the drowned seas of the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronic psyche. This is the lumbar transfer, total psychic recall. We really remember these swamps and lagoons.”
― J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)
In Nazir Tanbouli’s current solo show at Picasso Gallery, some paintings depict a submerged world where land and sea are merged, where the difference between air and water is eradicated. People walk, and fish swim in this new atmosphere, coexisting as if in a primordial mythic dream.
Speaking to me on my phone before the opening, when I was still in London, Tanbouli explained what had inspired this work.
“I went for a short trip to a place called Fayuum, an oasis in the desert west of Cairo”, he told me. “It is a fascinating and ancient place. I visited a site called Wadi al Hitan, or Valley of the Whales.”
Wadi el Hitan is an archaeological site — common enough in Egypt — but the artefacts are whale skeletons. Vast numbers of giant whale remains from tens of thousands of years ago. Was the valley once a vast sea? Or are the bones evidence of the whale’s evolution as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal?
For Tanbouli, however, the scientific explanation for the whalebones is less important than the experience of witnessing them.
“All of a sudden, he continues “, as I stood there in the valley, I saw all of time folding in together. I saw the village as it is now, with its people. I saw the city. I saw the whales swimming among them and shoals of fish. I saw the past and the present as one moment, a glimpse into the collective unconscious of the time when life began.”
In Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, a series of intense solar storms cause the polar ice caps to melt, and the world is almost totally submerged into the sea. This apocalyptic breakdown in civilisation ignites the characters to search for new modes of perception and alternative systems of meaning.
Tabouli’s paintings are not post-apocalyptic at all. Yet, even so, his compositions reach out to invite the viewer to contemplate our perceptions and reconsider our assumptions of meaning. As Ballard writes, “The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.” We are both fossil and embryo, constantly dying and being reborn. Whatever skeleton or carapace we inhabit, we are here.
The cool, glassy beauty of Tanbouli’s underwater cityscapes, with their subdued luminescence, gently buoyant whales as light as air in the water, are a parallel world of the unconscious. Amid the rushing crowds of people carrying schools of glistening fish, the verdant trees and buildings of the submerged world, the viewer is reminded to look and to feel, and to follow the fundamental imperative of what it is to be alive: to experience what Ballard calls “the transitory beauty of life.”
Images courtesy of Nazir Tanbouli, Picasso Gallery Cairo 2022