On portraiture as a work of fiction: Reviewing Gypsum Gallery’s latest show

If someone tells you a taxidermied bird could wake from the dead, scratch an itch behind its ear and fly away, you might assume the story was fiction.

In Irish-born artist Bryony Dunne’s film Things Stay for a While, an aging intellectual bends over a desk in his battered downtown Cairo apartment, making detailed notes on the anatomy of bird wings in between sifting through his collections of books and bowties. As politically charged murals from the aftermath of the revolution linger on street walls in the backdrop, Ahmed Ali Badawi, a self-described “eternal student,” walks through downtown Cairo to the eerie Agricultural Museum. There, an anxious, apparently taxidermied peregrine falcon — shackled at the legs — surprisingly takes flight out of the frame. The film ends.

But what if describing a taxidermied bird’s flight as mere fiction ends the story too soon?

Dunne’s work is part of an exhibition of photographs, paintings and films by eight international and Egyptian artists, on view at Gypsum Gallery through the end of February and teasingly titled “The Truth about Fiction.” The works exhibited demonstrate the many ways in which truth can be fictionalized, and show us just how many faces fiction can have.

The notion of portraiture — a practice that, in crossing the line between reality and representation, inherently entails fictionalizing — is prevalent among all the works included in Gypsum’s show. But each of the artists handle it differently. Dunne’s Things Stay for a While, for instance, is a poignant and intimate film portrait of Badawi, who appears as a willing participant in his own portraiture; he flips through books in his library as if to display them for the camera.

Meanwhile, the woman captured in Egyptian artist Galila Nawar’s haunting oil painting, titled Nesrine I, looks jaded and silenced, her unfocused gaze and features seemingly fighting against erasure among diluted browns, greys and purples. The curatorial text informs us that Nesrine I is part of a series of portraits based on photographs depicting distressed individuals who had just been arrested, unwarrantably taken and published by the press.

Trondheim-based Alexandrian artist Mahmoud Khaled assumes a first-person perspective, taking an ingenious approach to self-portraiture. In Google Me/Duplicate Self-Portrait, Khaled shows two side-by-side images from recordings of two different public performances. Both screenshots are taken at minute 1:09; one shows the artist himself, speaking into a microphone, and the other shows a dancer, arms clasped at the wrists above their head. The artist had accidentally discovered the London-based belly dancer pictured, named Khaled Mahmoud, while Googling himself.

Mahmoud Khaled’s Google Me/Duplicate

The black-and-white image of Khaled Mahmoud mid-dance is reminiscent of monochromatic footage of dabke dancers waving their arms in the featured single channel video work by Basem Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. The Harlem-based Palestinian duo constructed their video, titled Only the Beloved Keeps our Secrets, around surveillance footage of the killing of a teenage boy who crossed a separation fence built by the Israeli military near Hebron. The boy had been picking an edible plant that features in Palestinian dishes. You could say this piece, one of the show’s highlights, was a portrait of the precarity of young Palestinian lives.

Footage of the boys walking through fields and jumping over a fence is juxtaposed against images of a building being bulldozed, exhaling smog, and of different groups dancing dabke over the years. The same clips repeatedly appear and disappear, and are routinely relegated to one of many background layers on the screen. Large, poetic text appears on the composite images, evoking the poignance of a love letter, the urgency of a lover’s last words, and giving the video the lyrical iterability that characterizes the duo’s politically charged, research-heavy practice. In English and Arabic, the screen reads: “Send my love to the land that raised me,” and “If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust.” Combined with the transience of the images, the text contributes to the diluting of a clear narrative arc or chronology. Traversing genres of poetry, documentary, and abstraction, Abbas and Abou-Rahme create a montage that is difficult to categorize as truth, but perhaps just as difficult to categorize as fiction. Since the video is set to loop, it is easy to forget oneself inside Gypsum’s curtained room, and become immersed in this precarious lattice of destruction, celebration and mundanity.

Like Only the Beloved Keeps our Secrets, Basel-based artist Basim Magdy’s We’re All Victims of our Own Adopted Fantasies Here (Reprise) is essentially a collage that persuades the viewer to experience the whole rather than the constituent parts, with the artist as an omniscient, silent narrator. Shades of red and blue dominate across five photographs of a single woman protagonist, which were all shot on film that was home-pickled by Magdy. They are now framed thinly in white and mounted against a wall painted bright magenta — the color you get when you mix red and blue pigment. (Is the wall telling us the images are meant to be blended into one?)

One photo shows four steel forks resting on the remains of a watermelon, black seeds swimming in its red juice-like eyes. Below them is a closeup of a woman’s eyes, her skin washed with a near-royal blue. Then, there’s an image of a filmstrip displaying a woman’s partially framed face, her gaze sharp, eyes piercing. We see one more “eye” in the largest photograph, shot out of the window of what looks like a cable car. The final image places a woman against a fence overlooking snow-coated mountains, her posture denoting a meditation on the vastness ahead. We do not see her eyes, but we can imagine them taking in the color white and scanning the mountains’ contours. Magdy’s fiction lies in the confident repurposing and assembling of seemingly dissociated elements into a story, even if only slightly legible.

Basim Magdy’s We’re All Victims of our Own Adopted Fantasies Here

Visual language is definitely most central to the experience of “The Truth about Fiction.” Seeing as words (or, more directly, literature) can be described as the fundamental medium of fiction, I wonder how the inclusion of other works that feature text or speech elements would have expanded this view.

Sara Elkamel 

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