Wear them out
Nudes that jerk the tears and rend the hearts with Durex, silver leaf and mordant pigment, stir Gamal Nkrumah
As a dyed-in-the-blood addict of nerve Nadine Hammam is stepping gingerly into the realm of painting nudes in a predominantly Islamic cultural context. Oops, I mention a dirty word -- Hammam hates brown, and ginger is a variation of the "pooh colour that I never, ever use in my work." Upon closer inspection, shades of brown are transitional colours linking the negative and the positive aspects of her thought process.
The hideous colour is a composite mix and mismatch of the common green, a colour Hammam does not particularly care for and the primordial red, the innate passion we all have read all about.
For some of us these will never be purely academic questions. Hammam's works, after all, are entitled "HEARTLESS". The competing claims of the silver leaf silhouettes of Nadine's nudes are simultaneously both wordy and mute. They embody the heartfelt, innermost desires and yearnings. How eloquent can silver leaf be, and especially if these figurative nudes bespeak of the poignantly personal incommensurability trap?
Moreover, there is a pathological point of some importance. Red is the colour most subject to moral judgements. Crimson is crazy, simultaneously seductive and uncouth. Scarlet is simply scandalous. Ruby is alluring. Carmine is erotic and rose is arousing. Finally, she says she is fond of pink, too. But there is no need to fret about these personal judgements for her colour preferences are all too obvious in her paintings. But by taking her taste in colour into account, red is a license to love.
There is, however, a perplexing paradox. Hammam's works are not so easily displayed in public in a conservative society like Cairo's. She had a hard time finding a gallery that would stage her exhibition. Mohamed Talaat, founder, director and curator of Gallery Misr, Zamalek, was enthralled by Nadine's nudes.
Nudity does something to mitigate the evil consequences of false religiousity, of monotheism bereft of spirituality. Mind you, some moral philosophers might think otherwise. "My work is not a reaction to forehead piety 'raisins', prayer beads, beards or the niqab. It is not a response to anything going on in the country at this particular historical juncture. It is simply about my innermost desire to be deeply loved," Hammam hisses, her voice petering out into hushed tones.
There have been many good modern nudes reflecting ponderously on human rationality and irrationality, but only one masterpiece: "Just Love Me".
Heartless is not an exhibition into which one sinks passively. Works on this subject tend to emphasise the failings of relationships, creating an impression of immense emotional irrationality. "After the Maspero incident, when my exhibition was originally scheduled to be staged, I felt it was inappropriate and I had to postpone it. I felt like I was working in my own little personal bubble and that Egypt was afire, so I cancelled the exhibition."
Hammam's exhibition was too precious to postpone for perpetuity.
"But I could not postpone my exhibition indefinitely." And, she was determined to exhibit in Egypt. "Do you think you would have been as shocked by my work had it been on display in let us say New York or London?" I ponder the question for a minute or two. Perhaps, but the more I peer into Nadine's nudes the more I perceive that she has eloquently articulated the depths of her innermost feelings in a most melodramatic manner. I would go further and say that she does not flinch from exposing her very soul, unveiling pent-up feelings and emotions that others dare not undress.
Readers just recovering from casting their votes in the first round of the parliamentary polls should be aware that this daring artists works is not that erotic exhibition of the nude depicted primarily by male artists. Her portrayal of the nude is principally for political and more precisely ideological considerations. Hers are the most ephemeral of nudes. They are not meant to render her morals impugned.
To wax eloquent on the carnage of crimson background, of ruby and blushing pink are not designed to convey a sense of an unpardonable evil. Nor are they the reckless etchings of an extravagant Easterner with Orientalist pretensions.
Moral turpitude is often draped in scarlet robes, often finding its lecherous apogee in seductive nakedness. But neither the full extent nor the excess of the magical sensual indulgence of the nude is much on display in her works. Even if her proficiency in the unspoken language of women's rights, a rejection of the designation the "lesser sex" prevails in her works, the onlooker gets the impression that the artist discovered that certain specifically female philosophy and frame of mind.
A woman's weltanschauung is of the essence in this particular historical juncture in Egypt. Representations of the female abound in Egyptian society. By representing the woman as naked has nothing to do with irreverence. Rather, it is as if it is a defiant protest that Egyptian exuberance is in scant supply. A respectable Egyptian woman, like women the world over, remove the fig leaf with much trepidation, particularly if the backdrop in a vivid and startling scarlet.
What is striking about red is that the enigma of life and death does not hold any true mystery. That is the mystique of red, it can be read as both life and death, love and hate for it is simultaneously the passionate and the dispassionate -- at once the symbol of selfless sacrifice and the eye-catching flirt. It is the beginning and the end and everything in between. Clearly the colour is subject to much interpretation. Whatever the rendition, few individuals are indifferent to red.
"Moral judgements are out of the picture. Red is the text, the text is red."
Red has also emerged as an intriguing metaphor for raw emotions, the very psyche and soul of a person. The colour is a notion of a visual marker. Silver leaf is a technique of dividing endless blotches of red that represent particularities in a sentimental gesture of possession.
There is a touch of blue, too, in "I Need a Revolver More than I Need You". The condoms are cerulean. The sharp-eared bunny is suggestively provocative. Likewise there is a bit of blue in the crotch of the "Just Love Me" nude. The cutest navy blue bonny rabbit takes pride of place, or is it the Playboy emblem? In Egypt, the rabbit stands for plenty -- for the procreant and the plenteous. The rampant rabbit breeds like no other creature on earth and it is also a symbol of money aplenty in Egypt. The rabbit illustrates the power of a pure symbol in contemporary Egyptian culture. "There is always a game in these works of mine, a sexual intent and a double meaning."
Such authenticity is captured with a rapturous wit and a rhapsody of predictable colour schemes that represent a paradoxical cocktail of profundity and fortune, profusion and the pleasures and pains of passion rather than carnal appetite per se.
"If you are trying to recreate a feeling. We all get terribly familiar with those feelings," Hammam shrugged in abandon. Love is not quite a lost language in this day and age. Why do we need clothes in the pleasant climate of Egypt? They are more to delineate than to defend our prudence and primal gesture of defining chastity. The predicament posed by clothes is that they constrict as must as they define. Clothes define our social class, our ideological orientation and our religious dispensation. Clothes also become a symbol of our alienation from society.
Despite its debasement of nakedness, though, itself remains the most potent of a particular kind of pureness, genuineness and naturalness. "For How Long Will You Love Me" is an example of the nakedness of feelings in its purest form.
"You Said You Wanted Me... Well, Here I Am" is equally candid. It represents a kind of fall from fall from paradise, the very manifestation of coming face to face with the naked reality of rejection. Perhaps it bespeaks of forlorn love, unrequited love. It is at once a rhetorical question and an expression of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.
"Dubai is just about selling," Hammam quips. "I am fed up with someone buying my work, a nude, and hiding it in his seaside holiday home facing the Mediterranean."
Hammam's statement is a witty, unsettling take on the sordid semantics concerning a relationship that is over, or nearing its long-anticipated end. "I'm not there to shock, I don't find this in the least shocking. Basically, I see this as a dialogue between the public and the private domains."
The works of Hammam are akin to emotionally overblown scenes. "The red I adore, I am in awe of, is the bright crimson that oozes out of the sheep's slaughtered throat. It is the colour of life, self-sacrifice, love, violence there is a passionate polarity about red, an innate contradiction which I find striking," she extrapolates.
"I want to be loved for me. I want my lover to look beyond the initial gaze." Highly charged emotions. "Red stands for desire, passion and it is a colour I cannot get away from. For me, it is the first colour that comes to mind."
Nadine's nudes are far more than the sum of her supposed seductions.
What they all have in common is content. The bunny rabbit veers sharply between vulnerability, virility, and promiscuity. "The basic need to be loved played out as sexual politics" is how Hammam describes her works. Her hallmark is frankness. "Live the talk or don't talk it."
The pummeling between secularist and religious must continue below the belt, or rather the navel in contemporary Egypt. Between the two ideological and political protagonists they must cover the usual schoolyard litany.
It is against this chaotic debauchery of the depravity department that Hammam had her weapon close at hand. She is currently engaged in a project that would otherwise disappear into the bacchanal.
The project is caught up in an age-old funding hitch. The chance to make a tinted, dyed nude sit atop a tank is not yet in her grasp. She plans to illustrate nudes atop a tank, at once advertising effeminacy and the phallic symbol being ridden by a nude woman. Understood in that sense, the military's fellow triumvir -- there is the militaristic, the religious and the secularist vying for power in contemporary Egypt -- Hammam disported herself on the very symbol of masculinity and military might, enraging the religious with her nudist works of art. She, too, has the inalienable human right to lust for despotism in a deadly contest that boiled down to one between magnificence and machismo.
Hammam ingeniously employs amorous adventures in her art. Her works are translated in countless ways, from the indecorous to the risqué.
"I am not trying to please everyone. I've got women coming up to me after viewing one of these works and saying, 'That's me',"
"I feel I am connecting."
She detests the ribald and the raunchy in nudist depictions, though. "I always think to myself why is the collector buying my nude?" given the rapid- fire rhythms of her nudes, she often ponders the reason behind her customers' downplaying the essence, the throbbing heart of her works.
"I can think of only two collectors in all Egypt who bought my work and have openly displayed it in their sitting rooms. People are worried about what the waiter or cleaning woman will say."
Her nudes have nothing to do with the Vestal Virgins. How can they be illustrated bedecked in lurid condoms? The meticulously placed plastic platitudes are Nadine's nudes' only accessories. "Durex for me is a euphemism for the male. I use condoms in my art in this particular context." Is her creative incorporation of condoms in her art designed to unman at one stroke both the military and the religious zealots?
"My work is inspired by intimate conversations, by friends' stories. I often think to myself I've been there before, it is love." Her works belong not to the realm of the intemperate and the irrational. "The female presents herself as an object of beauty. Women feed into that role. They dress up, they make up," she extrapolates.
I was in Tahrir Square. I am an Egyptian nationalist. I love my country, but I am not a political animal. I don't want to use my art for political purposes. I am very guarded politically even though I understand that the popular uprising was hijacked by the military," explaining why she did not cast her vote in the current elections. "What matters is that we as Egyptians have broken the fear barrier," Hammam notes.
"To me being an Egyptian is maintaining an unconditional faithfulness to the Nile," she muses. "My work is about sexual politics and not about politics per se."
Nadine Hammam is not inclined to the path of least resistance. Brazen, brave and graphic with her works of art, she fears none. "My works are more than unrequited love. They are an exploration of different stages of love and the charting the course of a romantic relationship from a deep retrospective perspective." And for those who suspect her genuine frankness she speaks with a sober head to those who question the purpose of her nudes. "There is nothing self-pitying. Nothing regretful or sorrowful."
She scorns scurrilities. "Staging an exhibition about the 25 January Revolution would have been insincere. The revolution -- and I believe it was a popular uprising and that it is still unfolding -- is far too young. Vulgar battles are going on."
She is not contaminated by the artistic languor. "I want to be the artist without a face. Why does anyone need to see me in person or see my image to judge the quality of my work? The buyer of my work doesn't need to know what I look like," she muses.
"I have taken hundreds of photos of friends and images of Tahrir Square. The most memorable moment for me personally was the ride on a tank from Ramses Station to Tahrir Square. That was really cool," she harks back to the venue, the Cairene landmark that has come to define revolutionary defiance. "For me, Tahrir was a mini-republic, independent and viably functional. You had to be physically there to understand it or you missed out altogether. The Tahrir Square was one of the most amazing moments of my life," she confesses. "It was Utopia."
Life, however, is not so hunky dory as some make it out to be. "I don't want to be eternally alive, immortal, like the ancient Egyptians wanted to be. But, I do want to be eternally loved for as long as I live by the man I love," She adds somewhat surreptitiously. "I cognitively understand that everything isn't forever sustainable. That's life."
Nadine Hammam's exhibition HEARTLESS was scheduled to be staged this week, and due to the closure of Tahrir Square and the parliamentary elections it was postponed to February, the month of St Valentine's and Love