On a mid-October evening, visitors trickled into the new Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) space on Talaat Harb street, as curators Andrea Thal and Ahmed Refaat fiddled around with the chairs, long black wires and projector. Spanish artist Asunción Molinos Gordo looked mildly stressed as the three of them figured out how to screen her presentation on “Ghost Agriculture,” one of the works in CIC’s current exhibition. Running until December 15, Submerged — On Rivers and Their Interrupted Flow includes works by six Egyptian and international artists, all somehow engaging with the theme of water and its relationship with the people whose livelihoods depend on it.
Molinos’ was the first public talk at the new apartment and members of the CIC team were still acquainting themselves with its ins and outs. To get to the new gallery space, you escape the boisterous Talaat Harb street and cross a small passageway walled with watch shop vitrines. In the courtyard, before you get to the building’s entrance, there are racks of clothing — mostly men’s outerwear — and a selection of mannequins, some without torsos or heads, some without torsos or heads and with hips stuck to the floor, their feet in the air like water ballerinas in fashionable black jeans. Up two flights of stairs is a large, beautiful apartment with high ceilings and large windows, a small library where visitors can read or work and various rooms to house the artwork.
Molinos, a Spanish artist whose work focuses predominantly on contemporary farming and peasantry, exhibits two pieces of Khayamiya on a couple of the gallery’s large walls, which have been painted a vibrant sea-green for the occasion. In one of the pieces, compact rectangles in different sizes and shades of green spread out from edge to edge, creating a messy, charming patchwork. Meanwhile, large, plain canvas circles, most of them halved or incomplete, lay superimposed on the green backdrop. In her talk, Molinos explains that with “Ghost Agriculture,” she wanted to compare traditional irrigation systems in the Nile Valley and Delta — represented by the green rectangles — with methods used by private agribusinesses in the desert — represented by the white disks. Backed by research she had collected on the roles of farmers, power consumption and sustainability across both models, she picked these geometric shapes to represent the different modes of production, juxtaposing them for contrast. In the second, smaller piece, she fills a single circle with tens of green rectangular shapes, in the process probably asserting the relative virtues of traditional cultivation methods used by peasants in the Delta and around the Nile Valley.
Molinos’ work, hand-stitched by a craftsman called Hany at a sewing workshop in Cairo’s Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood, is displayed among a set of mostly video works in Submerged (it would take a little more than an hour just to view and listen to all the works in the exhibition). The two works by Carolina Caycedo, an LA-based artist born in London to Colombian parents, stand out. In “This is Not Water,” part of a series of short videos that she dubs “Water Portraits,” Caycedo manipulates images of the Las Damas waterfall, located in southern Colombia, effectively giving the flowing water its own narrative and agency. The screen is tucked into a rather shallow room without a door, which means that you have to stand at the threshold to fully see the video: Looking in, it is almost as if you’re being let in on a secret. For a few seconds, the water flows in and out towards a cleave in the moving image, calling to mind other natural phenomena, like clouds, star clusters, or a woman’s body. The accompanying sound piece by Daniel Pineda samples the waterfall itself as well as sounds from an indigenous reed flute. Though a little difficult to hear due to the reliance on speakers instead of headphones, the sound adds a certain urgency to the water’s motion.
In her second displayed work, “Land of Friends,” a 38-minute video or “audio-visual essay,” Caycedo explores the Magdalena River, on which a large percentage of the Colombian population live. Amid stunning footage of the river, we hear about the environmental harm caused by El Quimbo, a hydroelectric power plant that involved the construction of a massive concrete dam on the Magdalena, and we encounter a fisherwoman intently flinging her nets into the forcefully flowing river. “If there’s nothing else to feed the family, you take these little catfish home,” the woman says as she flips three catfish in her left palm. “You make a cut here and take out the entrails, you cook them with onion and salt for a more nutritious broth. Boil them for 10 minutes and they are ready to eat,” she advises.
Mixing compelling storytelling, environmental facts and gorgeous scenery, the video offers a captivating experience that is further expanded by its presentation. As it unfolds on a large screen that occupies most of the wall in one of the rooms, the hardwood floor arrestingly reflects the video. Sitting on the bench in the centre of the room, it is at times not too difficult to look beyond your feet and imagine being at the bank of some river, a lover on your mind or perhaps even at your side. In other moments, Caycedo captures the golden river violently rushing, and combined with the brown of the ground, it is as if you’re standing a few feet from a fire advancing steadily towards you. At the artist’s request, the floor was “polished extra hard,” for the occasion, exhibition producer Omnia Sabry tells me. By paying attention even to the floors unfolding from her video, Caycedo asserts the omnipresence of nature and its inseparability from any aspect of living: even, in this case, exhibition-visiting.
Throughout the film, Caycedo delicately zooms in on her subjects’ hands, whether they are holding fish, sitting cross-legged on the soil, or speaking to her from behind a table. The recurrence of these hands corresponds to scenes from “The Nile Is Fortune,” a 1972 10-minute documentary by Hashem El Nahas, which was much less compellingly exhibited in the next room on a worn-out, traditional TV set. Frequently in Nahas’ film, we are shown close-ups of men, women and children on their boats, their palms clutching oars, as their arms roll around in circular motions. We also see their fingers repairing nets or sifting through them in search of the day’s yield. Often described as a landmark of Egypt’s documentary cinema movement, the film is a portrait of people’s lives around the Nile. A desire to engage with Egypt’s established visual heritage was the motivation behind including Nahas’ film in the exhibition, assistant curator Ahmed Refaat tells me as we face the screen.
In the same room, there is a table and a few shelves sprinkled with publications that the curators have read over the past year in preparation for the project. Among them is Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics and Modernity (2002) in an Arabic translation, Lila Abu-Lughod’s Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (2005), and Military Conscription and its Effects on Rural Communities in Egypt (1820-1882) by Nevine Elwan (2002), among others. While the presentation of these books demonstrates the conceptual rigor that often underlines CIC’s activities, I wonder if there would have been a more engaging way of displaying the findings of their year-long research.
Similarly underwhelming was the presentation of “The Last Flood,” a work-in-progress by Ala Younis and Alia Mossallam that looks at the building of the High Aswan Dam. The project draws on Mossallam’s extensive research into the popular experience of building the High Dam, for which she delved into the memories of Upper Egyptian workers and studied many Nubian songs. Younis had also researched the Dam, specifically by looking at its representation in cultural production, including in films by Youssef Chahine and literary works by Sonallah Ibrahim. As part of Submerged, a collection of inkjet prints are pinned to the wall, among them film stills from Chahine’s films, archival images of Nubia, and a couple of pages from The Humans of the High Dam (1964), a book authored by Sonallah Ibrahim, Kamal al-Qalsh and Rauf Mus’ad. Compared to the immersive viewing experiences offered by some of the other works, this showing definitely falls short.
Dams are among those phenomena that poetically demonstrate how the functions associated with certain bodies of water are subject to change, and how these changes affect people’s lives. For the Nubians, the river “was stagnated as a lake,” as the curatorial text states. The High Dam’s intricate relationship with the lives of workers and Nubians is a compelling subject, one that would have emboldened this exhibition had it been unpacked and presented more grippingly.
Another work-in-progress exhibited is “What Things May Come,” a 10-minute video by Alexandrian artist Marianne Fahmy that uses mythological and futuristic narratives to engage with fictional scenarios of the drowning of the Nile Delta. The video is visually striking: it mixes, for example, fantastical underwater landscapes with documentary footage of a recent flood in Alexandria. The music accompanying the video is, however, blaring, ominous and overpowering, somewhat detracting from the intriguing qualities of the imagery and the storytelling, which is delivered in small text at the bottom of the screen.
Although the collective exhibition is not necessarily packed with work, you still get the sense that it’s a lot to handle. Despite the curators’ efforts to bring together projects that tackle the subject of water from various entry points — futuristic, socio-political and environmental — the exhibition allows little room for depth and nuance, leaving us yearning for a more comprehensive engagement with the subject. Perhaps one way to do that could have been to focus on only one or two of the artists, tracing the role of water more thoroughly in their oeuvre.
Submerged — On Rivers and Their Interrupted Flow runs until December 15 at CIC.