Then, now, and ‘Roznama 2’

Reprising an exhibition format first presented in 2006, “Roznama 2” at Medrar was a survey exhibition of the current activities of a young to mid-career lineup of artists. The previous “Roznama,” co-organized by Medrar and the Contemporary Image Collective, was photography and video-based; seven years later the media format is broader. In Urdu, roznama refers to daily occurrences, though this is more an indication of the curatorial intent to show “what’s happening today,” rather than any sort of thematic constraint on the artworks.

If you think curating is purely about drumming up themes, straightforward survey shows can seem uncurated. What gets less attention is the long-term investment of research, conversation and support offered by the curator. Each work in “Roznama 2” picks up on the current thinking of the artists involved, who produced them after discussion with curator Mohamed Allam, also an artist.

The ‘artist statement’ that accompanies the exhibited works in the “Roznama 2” leaflet is maybe the worst possible way to reflect this. Unless text is truly part of the work, notes like this feel like a conceptual get-out-of-jail-free card for works that supposedly need explanation (often they do not), or as a crutch for audiences. Maybe we should trust the work a bit more — or expect more of the viewer.

Only Ahmed El Shaer used the artist statement space to add something to his work, “Snail Struggle” (2013), rather than to explain it or envelop it in fancy-sounding theory. His curious note about the eradication of garden snails offered a distinct sense of scale when you see that the piece is about violent war games. It’s a short, single-channel video in which footage from a real-time computer game about modern warfare is intercut by interviews with men discussing gameplay tactics. This is easily mistaken, of course, for real war talk, especially as these are clean-cut men in clichéd, classic interview settings with framed pictures and important-looking books in the background. The work is constructed in slick HD-documentary style, sewn together with the original game music, which gives a sense of comic urgency while tanks are mustered and resources gathered by gangs of little soldiers.

There is always potential humor in the idea of ordinary people, in their heads, being Napoleon or Stormin’ Norman (many’s the time I’ve been Alexander the Great in “Civilization IV”, crushing Hammurabi with my cavalry as I slurp from a pot of noodles). But the acting is a little overworked for that. Still, El Shaer’s ongoing fascination with video games opens up some of the aesthetic strangeness in the contrast between gaming and social reality. The parallels to contemporary politics are obvious, but not overwhelming.

Another work where acting performance is crucial is Mena El Shazly’s “Degenerate” (2012), another short, single-channel video. Here, the screen text recounts how El Shazly’s grandfather taught her mother to hate cigarettes by making her smoke an entire packet at once. We then see a young woman smoking cigarette after cigarette. Each one is marked by the bang of a judge’s hammer as the video is cut to the sound of the 2012 Constituent Assembly voting session, notorious for its rushed and compromised process. The work allows for plenty of reflection on patriarchal control methods and political alienation, and it would all be a bit too neat and metaphorical if it weren’t for the actor’s performance, as she has the weary look of a kid hauled up for detention or an office worker in desperate need of a smoke. As the last hammer bangs, on a vote that was clearly decided on the basis of convenience rather than democratic principle, the girl looks genuinely fed up. But maybe she quite likes that illicit moment of escape in a cigarette. The contradictions and layers here make this one of the stronger works in the show.

Given today’s political circumstances it seems inevitable that some works reference military and governance matters, such as Marwa El Shazly’s kitsch and colorful collages of Egyptian military and religious leaders, one of the most clearly topical works in the show. Otherwise, though, it’s clear the artists are following diverse and idiosyncratic concerns.

Ahmed Sabry’s three paintings, titled “Prepositional Phrase,” interested me more due to the qualities of the paintings themselves than of the grammatical concept offered in the leaflet. Each one is made as though he couldn’t decide which style he wanted — gonzo, slapdash marks with text, 1950s instructional-leaflet illustration, or mottled, chewing-gum-like constructed figures. I really loved parts of those paintings, such as a male figure whose deceptively well-crafted body, in some sort of upscale outfit, looks both aggressive and awkward. As he is placed near the corner of a boxing ring, one thinks he might be an impresario or manager. The fighters’ bodies are almost melting into each other, becoming deformed pink flesh. But what could have been a really fascinating painting was undone by broad, hasty swipes of green and blue filling in the space. I don’t care if a picture is not uniformly ‘finished’ or ‘composed’, but this particular solution shut down the world he had begun to conjure in the figures, one made with a genuine language of marks and forms and suggestions and moods.

Kareem Osman’s interactive installation “Consumer Diaries” (2013) uses an optical illusion called the Thatcher Effect, applied to adverts we might see on billboards across Cairo. When we view an upside-down face in which the eyes and mouth have been vertically flipped, we only notice the change when the image is righted. It’s been used by artists before, such as in American artist Taryn Simon’s “The Thatcher Effect” (2008) (which I found dull at the time) — and its media-massaging implications have been sold back to us through advertising campaigns by brands such as Dove already. As a media critique, this has already been digested. It’s fun to play with the images, which are mounted on a bicycle chain that you can turn, but Osman might as well have pinned up that old crone/young woman illusion.

Ahmed Badry’s work also uses a well-established trick in art, which is to scale up an ordinary object to a massive sculpture. Attached to the wall is a broken socket, badly rewired, and notable only because of its huge scale. Leaving Claes Oldenberg and Jeff Koons aside — two American artists who have done this with completely different intentions — Badry’s piece is fresh because of its sarcastic nature, giving aesthetic weight to failed repairs and bathetic attempts at DIY competency. It’s part of his “Practical Solutions” series, inspired by “there, I fixed it“-type online humor sites, which, as Badry points out, implicitly speak of people who can only afford to consume — or who are underpaid for producing — cheap, mass-produced objects that break. As Britpop band Pulp put it in their class-conscious song “Mis-shapes,” many of us are “raised on a diet of broken biscuits.” Or we can think of the Brazilian idea of gambiarra — roughly translated as “making do” in pretty much the same way as Badry’s series does. In this context, a giant kludged electrical socket could be a monument to the 99 percent.

I’m left with one question — what is next, for a lot of these artists? The artists whose work I already know a bit — Marwa El Shazly, El Shaer, Asmaa Elkolaly (whose mysterious embroidery piece I wish I had space to write about) and Badry — are using tactics and media that have become expected and familiar for each of them over the past couple of years. “What is happening now” is rather similar to what was happening two years ago. There’s nothing wrong with staying with one theme or medium as part of a long-term exploration. But there’s a grand difference between this and the career-conscious development of an artistic ‘signature style’, which inevitably overrides freshness. I can’t and won’t accuse the artists of this, because I don’t know their practices well enough. But more insight would be welcome. Instead of cryptic artist notes, I would welcome panel discussions, or interviews on Medrar TV, to accompany their already comprehensive video documentation of the show. This way we can know how “what is happening now” is different from what was happening two years ago. 

Roznama 2 was showing at Medrar, 7 Gamal El Din Abou El Mahasen Street, Garden City, Cairo, from October 26November 16, 2013.

Mia Jankowicz 

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