It wasn’t until I helped Huda Lutfi stick hundreds of eyes into bottle caps for her piece “Discarded” (2012) that I saw how much work goes into each of her paintings, sculptures and installations. We sat in her downtown apartment and stuck eyes in November 2012 during the first anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, as commemorations turned violent.
As she glued the dark circles, representing those who had lost their eyes the year before, she was immersing herself in Egypt’s traumatic recent history and escaping it at the same time.
Since January 2011, following the news has become a large part of Lutfi’s daily routine. But her journaling hasn’t been a purely archival or academic exercise. Living downtown, close to Tahrir Square, it became almost inevitable that she would become immersed in protests. Lutfi says her artwork has kept her sane, providing therapy and time to think. The result is not a chronicle of events, but a series of snapshots into her experiences and perspectives.
The title of her current show at Townhouse, “Cut and Paste,” refers to Lutfi’s archival activity since the start of the 25 January revolution, as well as recent changes in the political context in Egypt. Lutfi trained as a cultural historian and her work fuses collage and sculpture with a bricolage of objects from daily life – discarded dolls, bottle caps, fabrics – to give them new meaning. She has a long-held practice of collecting items from the streets, various markets, and print media, and has recently expanded it to include online images and the use of her camera to document events. Repetition has always been a striking feature of her work, used for emphasis, but also representative of repeated cycles of power and violence.
The work on display in “Cut and Paste” is a selection of the pieces Lutfi has produced over the last few years. She utilizes several mediums, ranging from collage and sculpture to installation and video, all executed with immense attention to detail, and together managing to fill the huge walls of the Townhouse’s factory space.
Lutfi’s prolific depiction of police conscripts in various formats points to the eeriness of a security situation in which the police and military pervade everyday life downtown, yet the work distinguishes between individual conscripts and the security forces as an instrument of power. A series of 30 black-and-white photographs of individual policemen are cut out and mounted onto green circular backgrounds. Lutfi took these images during encounters with Central Security Forces who were, as she says, “parachuted into the square” in August 2011. The artist was sympathetic to these young men who stood on the streets for hours on end and often slept crammed into trucks.
In contrast, her video “Biyadaat” (2012), which means “soldiers’ boots,” is a short sequence of animated photographs of policemen marching in unison set to techno music, representing institutional power. Similarly, in her collaged canvas piece “Marching on Crutches” (2012), only the legs of the policemen are depicted, supported by crutches, symbolising simultaneous strength and fragility. Viewing this piece, I was reminded of German philosopher Hannah Arendt’s claims that unchecked violence cripples state power, highlighting its ultimate lack of influence over citizens.
The artist uses images of tortoises, irons, cacti, and crutches to illustrate the recent history she has witnessed. Lutfi repurposes an image of American artist Man Ray’s “Gift” (1921), in which a row of nails protrudes from the flat base of an iron, depicting, as she explains, “the harm caused by political ironing.” The tortoise is symbolic of the slow movement of progress after the 2011 uprising; many people used it in jokes and images to critique the pace of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in responding to revolutionary demands. The cacti are representative of the perseverant but prickly path to a better future. Lutfi’s accessible, everyday symbols have the potential to enable a wide audience to connect with her work in a visceral sense.
Weaving through all of Lutfi’s exhibitions is a thread of gender consciousness. This is more blatant in some of her works than others, but is nearly always present. A theme from an earlier piece, “Crossing the Red Line” (2011), in which she depicts women on the streets, is developed in her current show. Around 80 painted dolls, with portraits of female mannequins glued to their stomachs, are lined up in three rows in “You Don’t Want to Make Me Upset” (2013). Lutfi says this piece appropriates the work of German surrealist Hans Bellmer, known for his life-size pubescent female dolls made in the 1930s, which could be seen to criticize Nazi fascism and ideals of the perfect body. She uses the image, she says, to reference the controversies that have arisen due to women’s increased presence in public space in Egypt, particularly the rise in sexual violence since 2011.
In “Ongoing” (2012), a female mannequin is collaged with the word mustamirra (I will continue): the revolution as a feminine performance. It seems Lutfi has always tried to highlight and subvert patriarchal dominance in her work. In her 2003 exhibition, “Found in Cairo,” also at Townhouse, she depicted the city as a woman. Here, perhaps, Lutfi is situating herself in the current context – she, the revolution, the city – all will continue, though slowly, walking on cacti along the way.
Browsing Lutfi’s “Fool’s Journal” (2012-2013), a collection of cone-shaped dunce caps with newspaper clippings from the last few years collaged around them, I cannot help but zoom in on particular moments. Words, phrases and images are pasted onto pointed felt hats — old-fashioned symbols of misbehavior or stupidity in schools — highlighting the futility of attempts to piece together a coherent narrative of events. Media and the state have mediated our memories. Moments of clarity, of personal experience, are infused with their accounts to the extent that often we can no longer distinguish between the two types of memory. As the viewer experiences the collaged snippets through the lens of his or her own memories, the narratives are further re-inscribed.
Another installation, in a separate room towards the back of the factory space, drew gasps on the opening night of the exhibition. It is a haunting combination of two pieces, “The Blood of the Martyr” (2012-2013) and “Mother of the Martyr” (2012-2013). Hundreds of miniature paper cutouts of white doctors’ shirts are lined up on the back wall, splattered with blood and inscribed with the Arabic phrase “the martyr’s blood” in red pen, reproduced directly from a Facebook image. A mannequin, the “mother” of the title, overlooks them, her face painted black.
This collection of Lutfi’s work evokes impressions of power and resistance through silhouettes, mannequins, texts and imagery that give a sense of déjà vu or nostalgia. She doesn’t try to tell the story of “the revolution,” but rather fills the space with many subjective experiences and narratives, allowing viewers to situate themselves in her work, while bearing witness to representations of her own experiences. Layers of Facebook images, photographs, and news stories allow us to weave through many narratives and emotions from the last few years as the battle over the story of revolution continues.
“Cut and Paste” is open until January 15 at the Townhouse factory space, downtown Cairo. Update: The exhibition has been extended until January 19.