CULTURE

Modern take on Faiyum portraits

They make up the most important body of portraiture to have survived since antiquity. The famous Faiyum portraits are named after a fertile land in Roman Egypt peopled, during the first three centuries AD by a diverse community of Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Libyans, Nubians and Jews. One of the customs of those people was to embalm the bodies of their dead and to cover their faces with either wood or linen, on which they painted the portrait of the deceased. They are the famous Fiayum portraits that commemorated the dead and which have become known today for the intensity of their sitters’ expressions and the luminosity of the colors. It is this intensity of the human gazes that caught the interest of religious icon painter Adamadia Billia-Giannopoulou and threw her into a decade-long, painstaking project that involved copying the originals by using the traditional encaustic technique. More than 50 of her laborious works will be presented for a few days in «Faiyum ‘Eternal Glances’,» her one-woman show at the Cultural Center of the Embassy of Egypt in Athens. The artist’s inspiration actually came from Euphrosyne Doxiadis’s book «The Mysterious Faiyum Portraits,» published by Adam publications several years ago. The book, and the supplementing exhibition at the Benaki Museum at the time, opened up a new world for Billia-Giannopoulou. Carrying the memory of her sister and the changes in her «gaze» as her terminal illness brought her life to an end, Billia-Giannopoulou was moved by the staring eyes of the Faiyum portraits and sought to reproduce their warmth and vivacity. Instead of using wooden planks from fig trees that the original Faiyum portraits were painted on, she used old ceramic tiles from her summer home in Monemvasia. She liked the idea that, unlike mass-produced tiles, each of those old tiles were handmade and therefore varied in style. She also used their convex shape to give the gaze of her portraits an even more mysterious aspect. For these «contemporary faiyums» Billia-Giannopoulou revived the ancient encaustic technique (the technique involves mixing wax with colors) which because of its difficulty both in learning and applying is rarely practiced today. Besides the Faiyum portraits, another source of inspiration for using the encaustic technique came from the Christ of Sinai, an icon painting of the fourth to sixth century from the Saint Catherine Monastery of Sinai. Largely because of this unique technique, producing each Faiyum portrait has taken Adamadia Billia-Giannopoulou weeks of detailed work. Apparently, making portraits in the Faiyum style demands both patience and artistic skill. Billia-Giannopoulou seems to have both. «Faiyum ‘Eternal Glances’,» at the Cultural Center of the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Athens (6 Panepistimiou, tel 210.363.2824). To Sunday.