Does saying “art is for all” only mean that anyone can enjoy it, or does it also include the right of anyone to produce it?
Perhaps the sixth edition of PhotoCairo, titled Shadows of the Imperceptible, was an attempt to answer this question. In addition to incorporating six works by practicing artists, the exhibition consisted of the output of four workshops organized by the Contemporary Image Collective. These workshops – titled Playing with light, An open space between text and the image, Invisibility, and Strategies of conveyance – were moderated by artists with diverse experiences. The participants included newcomers to artistic practice and artists who had been hesitant to showcase their work. In this case, the workshops allowed them to overcome the barriers formed by self-doubt and enabled them to do the only thing that can emulate enjoying art: producing it.
Zeinab Magdy, a participant in “An Open Space Between Text and Image,” moderated by Heba and Ghada Khalifa, through which she produced the work In Zuzu’s Room, said during a tour of the exhibition: “The workshop helped us overcome the main obstacle in the process of artistic production by having us accept judgment directed at us and our work.”
I related to this reluctance and self-doubt, the fear of creating something that might be labeled ugly or unsubstantial. I met Zeinab Magdy amid the vastness of the past six years, a young woman who belongs to my generation, those reluctant to cheer on or reject anything, not out of a lack of freedom, but from an awareness that rushed judgments may follow.
Yet among us are those who are searching for a way to come to terms with the repercussions of collective defeat and return to what truly brings us together. We’re slowly realizing that the circle of courage, of creating and consuming art, is wide enough to fit everyone. Far from the narrow alley we recently walked down, we keep passing courage among us like a football, but this time there is no goal in our playground.
I am not familiar with either criticism or art, nor have I spent enough time studying the history of either, and I know that knowledge would have been useful now. But I also know that I can cook an edible meal despite it tasting awful, and that my horrible food can sate someone’s hunger. I write the same way I cook: I am not boasting of my ignorance, but overriding my doubts about my ability to comment on someone’s work of art.
1) Nadia Mounir: Was That Really You?
I know Nadia Mounir through her photography blog Cairo Snaps. Going through it is like roaming Cairo undisturbed, embracing the crowds and opening your heart and mind to its peculiarities, a brief change from the flood of sarcasm that overtakes our perception of the city.
Mounir gently reacts to Egyptian popular culture, recording standard events without filters or additions, capturing the city’s random flavors and features and rendering its natural strangeness. My appreciation for her work is tied to her ability to document beautiful moments with “objectivity,” a rare quality particularly for artistic works that chronicle the public sphere. Most pictures that document the Egyptian street are of funny situations, or things that are really beautiful or illustrious, spurred by the desire to garner social media likes — to the extent that we no longer see photos that capture “untroubled” beauty.
I think I wouldn’t have liked Mounir’s photos that much if I were not a resident of the city she photographs.
Mounir’s series in PhotoCairo Was That Really You? was dissimilar to those on her blog. Through the photographs, she asks questions and toys with personal and public images, exploring what ties them together. She pokes at what makes one specific photo circulate publicly and another remain in its owner’s drawer. After being granted permission, Mounir used photographs shot at women-only gatherings, including weddings and traditional henna nights. She blurred the women’s identities using multiple techniques. While Photoshop was used to wipe out all but the background, leaving little trace of their faces and arms, pictures of plastic dolls were manually cut and pasted to completely cover the women’s faces.
Two pictures – one of a young woman’s hair, captured from behind, and another of a female hand – appear with a blue overlay. In a way, these represent Mounir’s observations on what should and shouldn’t be shown publicly: Through researching online forums for women, she found that posters use arms and hair to signify the female body while hiding the identity of the woman photographed.
Mounir crumpled two photos of herself before including them in the show, like crushed memories in an ex-lover’s trash bin. She became acquainted with this effect through old photos of her relatives, corroding features as black-and-white cracks emerge randomly from beneath the ink used for printing, which I think was the most delicate technique employed by the artist to conceal the identity of the subjects of her photos.
I think what Mounir did in Was that really you? challenged her own sensitivities toward the beautiful elements that make up her locale, which often necessitate interventions — in the form of filters or overlays — to alter our preconceived notions of the bareness of the scene, the same notions she skilfully shatters.
2) Eslam Abdel Salam: “This is where I leave you”
Eslam Abdel Salam exhibited film photos made during “Invisibility,” a photography workshop with George Awde. “The photos are from a single trip to some place that lasted nine days,” he says. “I don’t want to mention where it was, as I think the way I related to that place is universal and can be applied to anyone anywhere.”
Abdel Salam used a wall, a shelf and red, green and yellow tape to display his photos in three modes: some were taped to the wall, some to the shelf and some were laid out freely.
Right before I was about to leave the room, I flipped a photo at the right end of the shelf. It was of woodlands and the text on the back read: “This is where I leave you,” in elegant handwriting. It made me think of one of my favorite art blogs (this isn’t happiness), which uses similar sharp-witted sentences, so I decided to explore Abdel Salam’s shelf again, from right to left.
I recall seeing a photo of his face as a child taped to his adolescent body, hazy photos of people, restaurants and landscapes, a girl with big glasses who appeared twice and my favorite sentence written again on a photo of an abandoned stroller.
On the left end of the shelf, a dry flower was taped to a paper card with the word “Familiar” followed by its dictionary definition. In four footsteps, from the shelf’s right end to its left end, I traced reflections of Abdel Salam’s childhood, a quiet love story and his fascination with greenery, and left the room pondering a beautiful break-up line.
3) Amanda KM: Filtered Conversations
Amanda KM’s Filtered Conversations showed in a separate dark room at CIC. A video was accompanied by a sequence of audio recordings of a gathering of seven women, seated around a table as they drink beer and eat fruits and nuts. The conversation shifts between them as they discuss general and private issues, deliberate on relationships, hairstyles and horoscopes, etc. The work appears simple, leaving you enough room to react to it freely.
Perhaps my first thought was that it was entirely spontaneous, a mere documentation of a gathering of friends. But on second thought, I realized that these women probably knew they were being filmed, and after hearing a male voice, I realized that the audio was recorded separately and had nothing to do with the videoed scene. This changed my initial impression, but what remained was a conviction that the moments captured on camera mirrored a night with friends, and there was nothing unusual about that.
I later got to know that KM invited groups of people to make this project. She had participants come and go from the table, and edited the videos and audio later. The final video was of one group, but the audio included conversations from other groups. What KM did was play the role of a DJ (a profession she does practice) to show some parts and conceal others.
Because in similar gatherings in our day-to-day lives some people put up a false front, I chose to disregard the effect the camera’s presence might have had on participants.
In the room, it felt natural to react to the work on a personal level, to listen to the women’s ideas about relationships and problems they face in Cairo. Perhaps it was a good opportunity for an Egyptian male to be part of a women’s circle and get insight into what happens in these closed meetings. But that did not really concern me, as I felt nothing new was being said. I probably know some of these women in person, since Egypt’s cultural circles are tight. This made me focus more on the video – there was something there that caught my attention. Maybe it was less poetic, but that didn’t make it less alluring.
Data science is among the most popular and rapidly advancing sciences in recent years. Many study it because of its promising employment opportunities. Meanwhile, the amount of data available in the world is on the rise, which is not due to an increase in the production of anything, but rather the recording of everything about anything.
Data science is the basis of the future of artificial intelligence. For a machine to become smarter, it needs to be able to acquire more knowledge. Humans are still smarter than machines because they are able to receive huge amounts of data on a daily basis and in different formats. Humans can see, hear, smell, feel, listen, think and dream. For a machine to surpass that and compete with its smart opponent, it has to multiply the amount of information it receives and quickly analyze it. This is why companies like Google and Facebook work on collecting all the data they can from users. Their cameras, microphones and applications store heaps of information about us in huge hard drives somewhere.
The data revolution has pushed us into a kind of “fractionation.” What we once perceived as solid, complete and unified is too complicated for the machine to understand. Processes and information have to be broken down so the machine can understand complex ideas, like love for example.
Regardless of our stances or fears toward the issue, and regardless of how science fiction films signal impending danger, this is our current path, and we have to deal with it one way or another, calmly waiting for the day a machine has the ability to feel.
What does the phone on the table know?
I cannot regard Filtered Conversations as a spontaneous piece that shows what these women were really thinking. It doesn’t claim to be so, and the title does not suggest it. Hence, I am not blaming myself — or I’m trying not to — for deciding to examine the work numerically, like a data analyzing machine, and deduct as much information as I can from this short performance. Four phones were placed on the table, small information-gathering machines that we all know are there. But how will this machine answer the following question: What constitutes a gathering of seven women around one table?
I went back to KM’s room for a longer period and recorded the information made available through the work, then compiled it in the table below:
|Beers||4 cans / 1 bottle, all Stella|
|Glasses||11 in total
5 containing beer, 2 containing nuts, 4 empty
|Cigarettes||2 packs rolling tobacco: 1 Karelia, 1 Amber Leaf
3 packs of straights: 1 Marlboro Light, 1 Merit, 1 Gauloises
|Filters and cigarette papers||2|
|Fruits and vegetables||7 peaches, 5 partly eaten
1 mango, 14 red dates, Uncountable dark dates
Pistachios, Sunflower seeds
|Phones||4 smart phones, one playing something|
|Milk||1 small pack with a straw|
2 used ones on the table
|Paper and pen||1|
Fourteen arms. From our accumulated knowledge of how the human body looks, and from the accompanying audio, we conclude that they belong to seven women. Six are drinking beer and a carton of milk is in front of the seventh, but she is not drinking it. They are heard mocking her: “You want milk?” It stays untouched. Only one is drinking her beer out of a can, while the rest are drinking from glasses, perhaps because tin can affect the taste of beer.
We only see their arms, except for one, the one I watched the most. We see a part of her blue jeans as she puts one leg over the other, adjusting her clothes, taking off her ring and putting it back on, drinking her beer and then shoving her hand inside her pocket. A paper and pen are placed in front of another, but she doesn’t use them. There are different fruits on the table, but it’s the peaches that are predominant, as one of the women cuts one and distributes the pieces among the rest. I will not be hasty and call her motherly. No one is eating the mangoes, nor the pomegranates, nor the plums.
I am so drunk
One woman has a rectangular-shaped tattoo and another wears a watch. Two of the seven roll cigarettes, one using a rolling pan. We see three packs of cigarettes and four lighters. The one wearing a watch is the only one cracking watermelon seeds. A classic woman, perhaps.
We hear them discussing casual sex, childhood, the moment relationships start getting shitty, oral sex. One discusses how her horoscope enables her to deal with everyone, while another announces that she is totally drunk.
Those fond of paying attention to small details or obsessions, and annoying thoughts or premonitions, might enjoy KM’s Filtered Conversations, but I am not sure there is anything else in that dim room.
Shadows of the Imperceptible: PhotoCairo6, ran from February 15 to March 23. This text was commissioned by Lina Attalah and translated from Arabic by Heba El-Sherif.