Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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On with the motley

By Nigel Ryan

Clowns, one might suppose, have been done to death. Just think of Pagliacci, endlessly applying his powder and paint. Or the rather fey Pierrot that wanders, coyly portentous, through paintings by Watteau. Clowns, you see, make us laugh, they are professional jesters, the stand-up comedians of history, but god how they suffer.

"And my poor fool is dead," laments Lear, as yet another clown is left dangling by the neck. If only the same could be said for Raouf Raafat, whose clownish muse is very much alive, occupying the upper storey of Safar Khan in an exhibition that coopts a great quantity of circus imagery to no particular end.

Raafat's clown ambles through any number of acrylic paintings, looking sad, of course, and at times positively irritable, but then who wouldn't when your fellow performers appear to get their kicks out of whipping you rather than the tame tiger. And the red nose looks goutish, the result of a tad too much drowning of the sorrows.

The paraphernalia of the circus -- unicycles, balancing rods, whips -- are here in abundance. If only the whole thing were more redolent of grease-paint, more mired in theatrical bathos, one might avoid the feeling of being on the receiving end of some symbolic short-changing. Or if, like Maggi Hambling's portraits of the great comedian Max Wall, they had had a real subject. But Raafat appears to think the symbol enough, to think the cultural history of the clown sufficient, to allow his depictions to speak for themselves.

Kamal Khalifa
Markus Brendmoe Raouf Raafat
Clockwise from top: Kamal Khalifa; Markus Brendmoe; Raouf Raafat
The result, inevitably, is kitsch. And like all real kitsch this show displays overweening ambition in inverse proportion to any self-awareness. Indeed, it constitutes a near perfect excursion in the form. With an ounce of humour, however slap-stick, it might have redeemed itself as camp. Instead of laughter, though, there is only a hollow ring.

Alongside these acrylic clowns there are portraits using elements of collage -- yellowing pages torn from books -- and a couple of china ink drawings of bulls, caught in a cartoon charge, or else reposing. Add to this a few lugubrious nudes, bursting their frames, and you have a show which doesn't quite get its atmospherics right. Beyond the atmospherics, unfortunately, there really isn't anything.

Downstairs Safar Khan pulls off a far more creditable display -- works by the late Kamal Khalifa. Ignore the waffle in the catalogue -- "these works of Raouf Raafat remind us of gypsum sculptures of Kamal Khalifa...which had the same intensity of expression and high power of presence because of the truth which comes through in the portrayal of reality..." -- it is a contrived and far from convincing attempt to link two artists who have absolutely nothing in common.

Khalifa left no real followers, his vision was far too idiosyncratic, far too ambivalent for that. To clutch on to him in an attempt to formulate another identity would be a foolhardy endeavour -- less clutching on to a straw when drowning than expecting to be borne aloft by shoals of luminous plankton.

Khalifa's particular sensibility, and it is very particular indeed, slips in and out of focus, as do his portraits of women, the colours washed, blotted, smudged by seemingly arbitrary drips. Often these women are twinned, less a positive-negative pairing than one in which the mists occasionally lift, but only slightly, parting to reveal a slightly more coherent outline but little else.

Strangely, the insubstantiality of these figures comes eventually to be felt as a passive aggression, as a stubborn refusal to solidify despite the artist's best attempts. They remain as ineffable as Khalifa's own sensibility, refusing to be pinned down or fixed by description.

The Safar Khan show acts as a mini-retrospective. The majority of Khalifa's works are, one can reasonably surmise, in private hands -- he is far too good an artist, far to unprogrammatic, ever to have found his way into public collections here in any quantity. The belated canonisation he is currently undergoing on the private gallery network -- a year or two ago Espace staged a show of his works, and several of the images in the current show look surprisingly familiar -- at least gives the public a chance to view works by a startlingly original Egyptian artists that would otherwise be kept firmly behind locked doors.

Khalifa is very much an artist of his time. He is rooted in the sixties, in the alternative cultural scene of that period. Alternatives have a disconcerting habit of becoming mainstream, and many of his fellow travellers from that time now have wallets full of disposable income burning holes in their pockets -- hence, perhaps, Khalifa's appeal to the private gallery owners. Their customers can buy a bit of the past in order to lend their own long gone radicalism a little authentic nostalgia. Khalifa's radicalism, though, is of an all together different order. This is the real thing, and even in the sketchiest of pieces constitutes a concrete achievement.

A scarlet head with hollow eyes -- a dumb Munch, lacking a mouth with which to scream. Perhaps Khalifa's art was always heading towards silence, which is why the figures that remain often appear so insubstantial. The same cannot be said for the scraps of drawing books and throwaway sketches, thankfully not thrown away and here displayed neatly framed. To hope this too too solid flesh might melt is one hope too far. These torsos, reclining or else seated figures, in china ink, may well be the artist's own antidote to his protoplasmic female studies. They are monumental, as heavy is granite, and immovable.

At the Mashrabiya Jean Charles Blanc exhibits recent work, the centrepiece being a tent emblazoned with a South Sea island scene, all straw huts and natives, erected in the centre of the gallery. It covers the image of a woman, reclining, printed on what looks like brown paper, and around the opening of the tent are large, poster-sized prints of table top displays, of trinkets, cups, saucers, second-hand shoes, tools, all neatly laid out as if on a market stall.

The surrounding walls contain photographs, sometimes of fetishistic objects -- a small medallion, ostentatiously tribal, perhaps even Polynesian. Or else of constructed fetishes -- two Iranian caviar tin lids are strung together, with cowrie shells as eyes, in an odd-take on the in-flight sleep mask.

These cowrie shells are everywhere -- in an assemblage of disposal cameras attached to the wall they are glued onto the camera bodies to suggest blind eyes and mute mouths. There is a framed photograph of a dollar bill, with appliquéed cowrie. There are the eyes glued onto clear circles of plastic and suspended between shelves, the eye in the spoon that rests atop the demi-tasse.

Cups of coffee, tents, huts, dollars, fetishes, glossy photographs and disposable cameras. The South Sea Bubble burst long ago, but not for Jean Charles Blanc. An imaginary Micronesia provides the starting point for this installation, a place where the inhabits do the watching, even as they are photographed, and whose unheard commentary crescendoes into a quite deafening silence.

Markus Brendmoe, whose recent work occupies three stories of the Townhouse, might at first glance appear intent on courting the whimsical. So scrappy are the cryptograms, the cartoons, the childish anatomy -- intestines like sausages, the interior reduced to unconvincing offal -- so inconsequential is the typography, so disarming the technique and lack of, that it all becomes one more take and the post-modern condition, on the endless multiplication of image, sign, signifier, that we must all disentangle as we pursue our daily lives. But of course, he is not courting the whimsical: that, I'm afraid, is my take. He is exploring the universal. Hence all the hangings, a whole room of them, that are in fact crucifixions. A certain topicality there at least, and one enhanced, ironically in this world of instant images and disposable news, by the passing of two millennia.

Like...Boring has a room to itself. A figure, painted in what looks like yellowing household emulsion, has a head comprising zeros and bits of arrows pointing nowhere in particular. It stands in front of bands of rose, the whole splattered with drips of resin, nicotiney, jammy and not very appetising. And then there is a collagey bit in the corner.

Bits of paper, bits of glue... think of clever things to do. I don't know where the lines come from, it's just a scrappy cultural reference I neglected to mentally index, but they kept repeating as I walked around this exhibition.

Brendmoe wants it all and as a consequence his canvasses are all big. Video Still crams in the crude anatomy lesson, graffiti, cartoon heads -- making its point about image overload and the by now crumbled hierarchy. Chinese Sony reinforces the point. But then it all turns serious. Slowly at first -- the Expulsion from Paradise involves, apparently, being a pedestrian rather than riding in a car. But the religious keeps rearing its head. Resurrection boats three figures, the central one terribly Turin shroudy, and all three against a background of eau de Nil with grey drips.

The cartoon figures are giving ground, but to what? To what else but the remnants of a shared symbolic order, those privileged images that sat for so long atop that now toppled hierarchy. And so up to the top floor, where those four crucifixion/hangings are displayed.

"Pictures of people, of suffering, disillusion, of sacrifice, of deceit and guilt. Of forgiveness that was promised but not given. The sacrifice that did not redeem after all."

So writes the artist in the catalogue accompanying this show. It was not until later that I realised the whole exhibition had been called Relevance to Doubt. Despite all the cartoonish posturing it is, in the end, a very religious show. Which might explain the contradictions, the scrappiness, the desperate attempt to sound so very up-to-date.

Cairo Berlin's installation by Kerim Seiler sees the gallery subdivided, the already small space messed around to provide two open-ended rooms, one with a broken table constructed from that board made of compressed wood that is reputedly carcinogenic, the other containing a photographic assemblage and localised incendiaries, or else psychedelically painted starbursts. I missed the earlier part of the opening, during which the Swiss ambassador dutifully broke down a temporary door with a sledge hammer. The scraps of wood, though, were still all over the place. Cairo Berlin, for such a small space, has managed once again to cram in a great deal.

For details of exhibitions, see Listings

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