Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 February 2003
Issue No. 626
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In progress:

Busy idlers

By Youssef Rakha

Khaled Hafez, born in Cairo in 1963, followed evening classes at the Fine Arts College for six years while studying medicine, graduating in 1990. He has had 10 solo exhibitions since 1987 as well as participating in numerous group exhibitions. Over the last 16 years he has established a fully equipped studio.

My ordinary painterly work has been on halt since the start of the [Young Arab Theatre Fund] Minya project, whose process has expanded in a remarkable way, developing interesting satellite projects of its own. But to give you an idea of what I normally do; that will help with the Minya project as well, since, what with the satellite projects and everything, it has overtaken my professional life entirely: I work on recycling media and advertising imagery that has entered into the popular consciousness with the object of subverting them as symbols. I use existing images, which I then manipulate, usually by painting over them, using the silkscreen technique or an inkjet printer.

It is a form of Pop Art, yes, that relies on both evocation and distortion. I am interested mainly in present-day icons of the three received taboos: sex, religion and politics. These are then presented in such a way as to question and play with their meanings. If I compile the most graphic kissing scenes from the cinema of the 1960s and work them into a video, for example, my idea is not only to provide a new perspective on the popular cinema in which these scenes belong but also to point to the extent to which the censor will let things pass. In a way, I think, the popular treatment of the three taboos works to perpetuate them. By injecting popular culture with prescribed doses of these themes, administered in predetermined frameworks, what happens is that they are neutralised and held in check. My videos would be a form of film therapy intended to counteract this kind of tendency. Like the two artists who are helping along with the Minya project, Muhannad Qasem and Ning Binbin, video remains to me more of a means; unlike Sherif El-Azma and Hassan Khan, I am a painter who uses video rather than a video artist as such. And whatever the medium my concerns remain.

The Minya project we've entitled "Idlers' Logic". And it's basically about two people, represented [the young singer] Basem Wadie and myself, who are idle. Well, of course it is not just that. The point is that there are these two figures locked up in a closed space by themselves -- in reality my studio, that space could come across as workshop or garage or anything of that kind -- and they are basically pottering about. One of them, the one you cannot see on the video, asks the other to sing; and so that other one starts singing. And he starts singing popular 1960s songs. At the same time the process is interspersed with stock footage insinuating the current, well, the evergreen, situation.

The idea is that whereas these songs, these times, spoke of hope, of major transformation, nothing has really changed since then. One example of how this is intimated is Abdel-Halim Hafez's love song Ana Kul M'aoul El-Toba (Every Time I Say It's Over) which was written by Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi and composed by Baligh Hamdi. All three figures are symbols of this drive for change; yet the point of the song, which plays on the idea of repeating your mistakes indefinitely, acquires subversive resonance in the fact that, every time Egyptian society has announced its decision to get a firmer grip on itself, nothing changes. Drinking, exchanging ironies and sarcasms, the two figures are really contemplating the abortion of a revolution. Another way in which this process develops is through the use of expressions from films of the 1960s, ones that have entered common usage and are here provocatively juxtaposed with images that reflect ironically on their import.

The project consists of two parts: a video, and a live performance with Basem singing, percussions and video projections -- the stock footage inserts rather than the whole video. I am very satisfied with our progress so far. The video script is complete, the stage script is currently being finalised; it is continuously modified and modulated. We have a production manager, we know where we'll edit. Everything is more or less underway. Now the most fascinating thing is that, through the presence of Muhannad and Binbin as well as Basem's friend Basem Adli, the rehearsals turned into an ongoing workshop that has so far produced seven videos that could be screened anywhere in the world as art videos with success. They don't directly depict the rehearsals, they just capitalise on the kinds of things that emerged. Basem Adli would start to use a glass bottle as a percussion instrument while Basem Wadie was singing, so Muhannad would start to tap on a zir, which would then be covered by a garbage bag to produce a different sound -- and Binbin would make slight adjustments and start shooting.

The same thing happened with movement, you will be impressed by the results. It shouldn't be too surprising then that the Minya project has taken over; it developed in so many interesting ways. Both qualitatively and qualitatively. We're hoping to market the videos separately once the project is finished. There are days when we don't work as diligently, of course. But overall I really am satisfied with the rate at which we've progressed. I am satisfied indeed.

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