|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 May 2002
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Feel at homeMore visual than tactile, the current exhibition at Espace at least provides plenty of art works. Nur Elmessiri visits
The title You Can Touch, under which are exhibited more than 200 works by over 20 contemporary Egyptian artists spanning various stages of each artist's career, is misleading. There is far less sculpture than one would expect. Mostly it's paintings and drawings, the majority not particularly touchy-feely, covering the walls of the small gallery and more paintings, framed, in stacks leaning against the wall.
The gallery is a restful space. There is very little attempt to disguise its origin as a bourgeois one- person wist-al-balad apartment. So, having taken the old, well-preserved but slow lift up to the second floor of 1, Al-Sherifein St, and having stepped through the high art deco front door and into the quiet flat on a mid-afternoon, the effect of a 200- plus art works show like this one seemed reminiscent of those 18th century paintings which bourgeois art collectors commissioned depicting the walls of their homes all-but-plastered over with framed paintings. "This is what I own," was the message. Which is not to say that the intended message of this "installation" -- (one can look at the show, at the curatorial process, as an installation, a whole greater than the sum of the parts of which it is comprised) -- is "You can buy." You can, but, if you are the average Cairo art lover, it is hardly likely that you will have the wherewithal to acquire the luxury of a several thousand pound bibelot.
Still, it is touching that such a small, homely space as this can house such a vast array of art works. And, if the space declares itself in this show as "gallery" in the non-mystifying sense of "a place to shop for art objects," it is a casual, welcoming place where, indeed, whether or not you will buy you are allowed to browse, to touch, to linger alone, mid-afternoon light coming through half-open shutters, far from the hubbub outside and the distress of things historic. Whether or not the exhibition achieves its aim, as defined in the accompanying flyer, "to break down the idea of a classical show by desacralising art and closing the gap between it and the public" (what gap? what public?), whether or not it succeeds in its attempt "to expand the classical definition of an art exhibit," is beside the point.
You can operate the video machine and watch videos by Hassan Khan, Shadi El-Neshoqati, Sherif El- Azma, Khaled Hafez and Wael Shawqi -- and, should you need one to make yourself feel at home, an ashtray will be hospitably provided. On screen -- not Al-Jazeera, not CNN, but Neshoqati -- pain takes the shape of a huge red flower where a mouth should be on a startled visage, is embodied in the sound of a drill drowning out a music box tune accompanying a cherubic blue sky. On screen, Hassan Khan, megaphone in hand before a projection screen on which images of Cairo captured by him in other films are flashed, tells the viewer of a friend who hates art and calls into question the whole enterprise of image production.
Ayman El-Semari's mixed media (wood, dried mud, metal sheets, iron, paint) evocations of doors, imaginary entryways to somewhere the curious child within knows how to get to, do invite handling, as do Sobhi Guirguis's gentle-sad, square-headed folk and Essam Darwish's bronze oblongs, the latter, if only to turn upside down in order to find out who the artist is -- and the price.
With very few exceptions -- namely, Moataz Nasr's well-executed, tasteful abstract oil paintings, Ahmed Nosseir's Miro-esque surfaces, Hisham El- Zeini's whimsical mixed media works, Mohamed Taman's petri dish plexiglass displays -- the human figure and, particularly, the human face constitute the dominant leitmotif of this collective retrospective. Omar El-Fayoumi's Fayoum portrait-inspired portraits are there, as are Assem Sharaf's cork jigsaw puzzle figurines: cells or amoeba or submarine beings verging on, and crossing over into, the human.
From the poetic introspection and esotericism of Hossam Saqr, to the exuberant (yet not without a gravitas worthy of respect) totemic evocations of Maher Ali's wooden canvases becoming building blocks becoming pieces of sculpture; from Hani Rachid's small prints of linear insectile figures where the grimace takes over face and body, where, thus contorted, the human body becomes script and ideogram, to Karem Mahrous's allusions to other ages and other styles of portraiture where the emphasis was on psychology; from Gamal Abdel-Nasser's fantastical spatula heads and chair-persons to Alexander Molostov's abaya-clad figurines; from Mohamed Moneim's washed over with rust watercolour charcoal nudes to Hanafi Mahmoud's shadow silhouettes on spray painted corrugated card -- it is humans humans everywhere.
They play musical instruments in the vibrant Georges Bahgory drawings and paintings on display. Music becomes line, colour and shape; musicians become their instruments: the human figure, even in its residual form, dynamic, full of inspiration, exhuding energy. They dance in Sanaa Moussa's paintings inspired by a similar interpretation of folkloric representational idiom and symbolism as that which once inspired Hamed Nada, and, more successfully, they (mostly women) become decorative units in her smaller black and white engravings.
Similar songs of innocence transpire from Mohamed Abla's 15 images of Nile-related activities and characters: the ibis, smiling faces, stick figures, fishing boats and fishermen. Employing a variety of techniques including collage, these are displayed side-by-side (three across, five down), like a game board. Whether or not this "multi-panel" mode of display is an allusion to Abla's Snakes and Ladders phase, it certainly emphasizes the cheerful, convivial spirit of the artist's work.
Not displayed to their best advantage, at least those high up, Sabah Naim's small photographs, photocopied and then retouched with gold, are intriguing and thoughtful. They manage to express, with Joycean eloquence, an epiphanic vision of the human being in an urban context, but without turning a blind eye to that quintessentially urban feeling of loneliness-in-a-crowd that sociologists called anomie. Two girls with backpacks, thanks to the superimposition of gilded decorative motifs, become women in kimonos; five disparate figures are unified in the transformative space that a flat, golden, Byzantine background can provide; man reading newspaper alone is graced with the company of stars. Beautiful Naim's urban visions, and, though hinting at something like compassion, not sentimental.
Whether or not the current collective exhibition at Espace Karim Francis is, as the flyer states, "a new way for the gallery to exhibit art, one that [...] is more suitable to" something vaguely called "the Egyptian reality," it does provide a glimpse, in comfortable surrounds, of the contemporary scene.
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