My British father possesses a book entitled Understanding Arabs. As a kid I always wondered whether it was presented to him upon his marriage to my Egyptian mother as part of some all inclusive package including a user’s guide to wasta and instructions on dealing with mothers-in-law, or whether he acquired it subsequently after years of the my world-your world cultural trysts created when east meets west. This often thorny relationship between the two is currently being explored in two independent exhibitions showing in Cairo.
Occidentalism, curated by Karim Francis, is a ten-day extravaganza featuring exhibits by nineteen Egyptian artists, open forum encounters with the artists and evenings of music. Collaborating artists were asked to create works of art in answer to the question “how do you see the West?” In a series of meetings with the curator and other participating artists which began in April 2006, they explored themes such as dialogues between the cultures of east and west, dualism and double-standards and hegemony and cultural identity which produced the paintings, installations and video art on display at the many-roomed Hotel Suisse.
Politics is inevitably a recurring theme in the exhibit. Khaled Hafez’s ‘Revolution’ (tagline: ‘Every revolution comes with a bag of unfulfilled promises’) is a video installation in which a split screen divided into the white, red and black of the Egyptian flag shows a military officer, a business man and a man in white ‘Islamist’ clothing. We see the officer turning a gun over in his hands while the businessman clasps a hammer and the Islamist languorously fondles a Barbie doll before decapitating it with a butcher’s knife. In the other screens meanwhile, the businessman uses his hammer to pound nails into wood before the officer turns his gun on both of them. The themes of military junta betrayal, market neo-colonialism and religious intolerance – while hardly subtle – are here given a witty, highly-stylised touch.
Commonalities between east and west is another prominent theme. Hoda Lotfi has constructed giant replicas of tongs used to handle sheesha pipes’ hot coals which are shaped in the form of two women, one eastern and one western. The objects are joined by a chain in order to represent the common ties which bind women together regardless of cultural differences. Mohamed Abla’s exhibit, Men In War explores the humanity which persists despite the barbarity of conflict. He juxtaposes 1950s film poster-style painting featuring soldiers, their sweethearts and heartfelt lines such as “my thoughts are ever with you” against a nightmarish grey wall mural depicting the hell of war. The work represents Abla’s complex relationship with the West: his self-professed admiration of its culture and technology sits alongside its “long history of pain and injustice.”
One of the most striking exhibits was Heba Farid’s Atlas of a Geneology, in which she presents migration as a phenomenon precluding the division of the world into separate and polarised entities. She uses her own family’s experience of migration in the 1960s and 70s to illustrate this, via a slide show of images from the family album taken in the United States, Canada and Egypt. The pictures are accompanied by music of the period and sound recordings – or ‘oral letters’ – made by members of her family at the time. While the work is innately personal, it also inevitably documents the history of Egyptian society. Watching the slightly orange images of early 1970s sparkling buildings, clean Downtown streets and empty bridges I experienced the usual jolt at seeing places which are so known and yet which look so strange: like passing through an area in daylight for the first time, having previously only seen it at night. In addition to documenting one family’s relationship with the west, the exhibit is a moving evocation of a lost Egypt.
While the overarching curatorial vision generally ensures a sense of continuity, there were nonetheless a few pieces which slipped through the net. Amal Kenawy asks the novel question ‘Mum? Do Angels Shit?’ and explores the issue in a video installation set in a bedroom complete with twin beds and wardrobe. In the short film we see a naked obese woman with a bag on her head, a model pig, toy jockeys on horses and briefly a child playing piano in a batman costume. All is set to the soundtrack of a slightly demonic variation on Three Blind Mice. This bewildered viewer failed to gain any insight into how the motley assortment sheds light onto the artist’s perception of the west, but this installation is an exception to what is an excellent exhibition.
Perceptions of the east-west relationship are explored through the photographic image at the Goethe Institute in Youssef Rakha’s exhibit Berlin-Cairo/Alexandria. Rakha explores what unites and separates these metropolises by juxtaposing similar images next to each other: the Egyptian staple of cigarettes, lighter and tea sits underneath its German counterpart of a bottle of wine and an ashtray, while in another image we see a night-image of a deserted Egyptian street, the pavement semi-unmade, what tiles there are broken and dirty. A shop-sign abastre and pharonic status [sic] can just be made out. In the German image above it we see the profile of a statue overlooking the perfectly laid out street, the immaculately clean cobbles mocking the poverty of their Egyptian cousins below.
The power of these images lies in the way in which Rakha combines them to create what appears to be a single photograph by for example, extending a single line from one image into the next. Thus in one photograph the edge of a pavement on which a German youth practises his BMX skills imperceptibly seeps into an Egyptian pavement on which sits a forlorn, aged shoe-shiner. In another the Mediterranean sea appears to be lapping against a wall in Germany against which a man reclines. The result is a collection of beautiful, often melancholy images which testify to the fact that neither wealth, chaos nor overcrowding can disguise the essential loneliness and desolation of all big cities.
Originally published in al Ahram Weekly