In his painting Nasser and the Nationalization of the Canal (1957) Hamed Owais responded to the political ideals of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, led by Muhammad Naguib (1901–1984) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), to end monarchical rule and establish an independent government. In the ensuing period, nationalist fervor and populist sympathies with the working classes permeated Egypt’s artistic spheres. Owais often depicted the everyday struggles and victories of Egypt’s peasants and laborers in his signature style of monumental realism and is considered one of Egypt’s leading social realist painters.
Nasser and the Nationalization of the Canal commemorates President Nasser’s 1956 directive to take over the Suez Canal Company from its mostly British owners, an act that had significant regional and international ramifications. This bold move was designed to assert Egypt’s sovereignty, reject Western imperialism, and provide revenues for projects (like the Aswan High Dam) that would benefit Egypt’s agricultural industry. In this painting, Owais portrays President Nasser as a charismatic leader, rising above the crowd to deliver a dedicatory speech. The people seem enraptured as he gestures toward an unseen point, suggesting his status as a man of vision. In the upper right corner, the slightest hint of a ship’s prow indicates the setting. Here, as elsewhere, Owais painted his figures with strong features that render them almost mythic in stature. Certainly, the image of Nasser himself transcends the status of mere political leader to become the embodiment of popular heroism, the symbolic nexus of Egypt’s national and socialist aspirations.
Dissatisfied with his job as a metalworker, Hamed Owais enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, graduating in 1944. Afterward he studied at the Institute of Art Education in Cairo under Youssef el-Afifi. In 1947, Owais co-founded the Group of Modern Art with artists including Gamal el-Sigini (1917–1977), Gazbia Sirry (b. 1925), Zeinab Abdel Hamid (1919–2002), and Youssef Sida (1922–1994), which looked to the lives of everyday Egyptians and viewed art as a revolutionary agent of social change. Owais painted the struggles of the Egyptian working class using a color palette inspired by the city of Cairo. A turning point for Owais’s practice was a trip to the 1952 Venice Biennale (his work was shown in the 1952, 1954, and 1956 editions), where he encountered Italian social realism. He would later find strong affinities with the Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera (1886–1957). In 1956 he won the Guggenheim International Prize. Owais was appointed a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria in 1958, serving as its head from 1977 to 1979. From 1967 to 1969, Owais studied in Madrid at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando).