Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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Saluting beauty

By Nur Elmessiri

The space of Anna Boghiguian's artistic labour -- a sample of which (40-something ink drawings) is currently on exhibit at Safarkhan gallery -- hosts a fugue of poets' voices, poets who wrote about cities, some of whom Boghiguian may have never met or read but whose lyrical voices are still in the air and for whom she has a fine, caring ear. The city we see in Boghiguian's work, be it Cairo or Alexandria -- or, in previous exhibitions, Pompeii, Montreal, Bombay, Marseilles, Paris, Athens and Rome, among others -- has already been transfigured by what Walter Benjamin, writing of Baudelaire's particular type of lyricism, calls an "allegorical genius," one "which drew its nourishment from melancholy." Continuing his discussion of Baudelaire in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism -- but what Benjamin says here is relevant to the tone and atmosphere evoked by Boghiguian's work -- Benjamin writes: "This poetry is no local folklore; the allegorist's gaze which falls upon the city is rather the gaze of the alienated man. It is the gaze of the flâneur, whose way of living still bestowed a conciliatory gleam over the growing destitution of men in the great city. The flâneur still stood at the margin, of the great city as of the bourgeois class. Neither of them had yet overwhelmed him. In neither of them was he at home. He sought his asylum in the crowd... The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room."

Which is not to equate Boghiguian herself with the gazing flâneur in whose shoes we are invited to step when we look at the images she has "collected." Most of the drawings on exhibit are an exercise in that exacting discipline which Keats termed "negative capability," namely, the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, to give life to another by lending one's own. What Boghiguian offers up to our eyes is something without ego, something that gently, sotto voce says: "This is what he, the poet who once passed this way, saw." Baudelaire. Nerval. Eliot. Abdel-Sabbour. Donqol. Surour. Jahin. Qandil. Others whom we know or do not know -- and Cavafy. With time, portrait after portrait (including the three on show at this exhibition), Boghiguian has come to know Cavafy like the back of her hand, like the face one sees when one looks in the looking glass.

"The Paris of (Baudelaire's) poems" -- the Cairo or Alexandria as seen through the eyes of the composite poet evoked by Boghiguian's drawings -- "is a sunken city, and more submarine than subterranean. The chthonic elements of the city -- its topographical formation, the old abandoned bed of the Seine (the Nile, the Mediterranean) -- have indeed found in him a mould. Yet with Baudelaire," as with Boghiguian's poetic double, the one with whom she strolls through the streets of the world, "in the 'death-loving idyll' of the city, there is decidedly a social, and modern, substratum... (And) it is precisely the modern which always conjures up prehistory."

As an artist, Boghiguian does not offer the tasteless, pre-digested package tour, the commodity that flatters the tourist into believing that he can comprehend a place. Though lyrical indeed, the Alexandria she shows us is not made of the same stuff as the good-old-days cliché that tires, nor is her Cairo subject to the trite "folkloric" formula of which today's gallery goer has seen more than enough.

Where are we? At the moulid of Sidi El-Rifai where dervishes in white sway in front of a tapestry bearing Jain or Hindu fer forgé motifs; in a museum, the Græco-Roman, in a room showcasing a crocodile's sarcophagus and, where one would expect Hellenistic busts, passport snapshot obituary page faces; on a balcony looking down at Soliman Pasha Square, literally a circus, red green yellow blue, fanous coloured, with its host of beasts, freaks and men; at the Fishawi café or Riche, long ago, after hours, mirrors reflecting no face, windows turned inward and looking out to nowhere, a crocodile on the wall, the chandeliers caught in mid-metamorphosis. The fall of the leaf from the chandelier branch is frozen -- as if time had just stopped dead.

Anna Boghiguian
Anna Boghiguian
The "where" with Boghiguian is at once fabulous, strange and familiar, by turns colorful, by turns terribly dark. When dark figures crouch in corners from which a white silhouette flees, this "where" can be a disturbing middle-of-nowhere.

"When" is now, at a zar, the swaying exorcist-musicians in colours that, one imagines belong to strange creatures of the deep. When is Nasser and Sadat. When is a procession, a motor cavalcade, excited crowds and the colour of khaki -- or a lonely figure, monument or wind blown effigy facing the Mediterranean, a phantasmagoric vision of Saad Zaghloul high up on a plinth, as alone as the stick figures or turbaned forms walking the streets. But because Boghiguian is possessed of "the historical sense" which, as TS Eliot defines it, is "a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together," when and where are never parochial in her work. Two half circles, the curve of the Corniche and the curve of the road's bend, and a hurricane of blues, browns and whites can transform Saad Zaghloul into a whirling dervish.

Where are we? In Egypt, of course, where buses are red oblongs, where baladi mother-and-child sits before a mosque and has chickens at her feet, and where lions at moulids resemble the sphinx. There is also, in this exhibition, a pyramid and a sphinx -- a real, uncastrated sphinx, terrible, sublime, crouching like some prehistoric monster about to leap into the now. The pyramid and sphinx in the horizon literally tower above the ochres, browns and greens of the village of Nazlit Al-Semman. Considerably larger than the figures and houses in the foreground they do not play to what are commonly referred to as "European notions of perspective." Boghiguian's pyramid and sphinx belong to the same cultural tradition that produced in 13th century Baghdad illustrated manuscripts of Maqamat Al-Hariri; they belong to the same world as Turkoman Aq Qoyonlu Islamic miniatures -- the same artistic universe that gave birth to Paul Klee. History is a palimpsest; the great outdoors is a tapestry; and the modern city, the site of epiphany and prophetic ascension, the plinth from which equestrian statues regulate traffic or take flight.

Something unspeakable -- a sacrifice? a circumcision? in any case a very serious rite -- is taking place in a blood-red and green room. The sebou' candles are unlit. This is not quaint folklore, or local colour; it is not yet another image to add to the contemporary Egyptian art scene's image-repertoire of "popular (sic) areas and their customs and rituals." It is an image dredged up from the ocean of the collective unconscious, a memory of Abraham and his son, of a mother and a child, of blood-letting to appease the chthonic Furies.

Where are we with Boghiguian -- and when? Downtown Cairo midday. The outskirts of Salaheddin's city at night. Winter time in Alexandria. Elsewhere. Now. Long ago.

Where is Anna Boghiguian? In what she shows us there is not the slightest hint of the petty "me" or "mine," but rather, artistic maturity and selflessness. Her signature is discreet. Sometimes she even signs on the back so that when you look at what the poet who once passed this way saw you do not see her. She does not waste art-time expressing her own "personality," but is a "medium" in the finest sense of TS Eliot's word. In the gestation of great art, Eliot writes, "what happens is a continual surrender of himself (the artist) as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable (the past/tradition). The progress of an artist is a continuous self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." Which is not to say that Boghiguian lacks personality or vision -- very far from it. When Eliot writes that poetry (and art in general) "is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality," he immediately adds: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

Boghiguian's work is very powerful, energises rather than exhausts. Sometimes, in this age of visual overload, one simply cannot bear to take in another image. Boghiguian's imagery, however, is exceptional. If, having visited Safarkhan gallery, you want more of what she offers (and you will), visit the foyer of the American University in Cairo Press which Boghiguian's tireless hands, Demeter-like, have transformed into a cornucopia. On the AUC press walls the dead writers have been resurrected; the living ones given another life form. The world in which our brief lives unfold is colourful, rich, strange and heart-breakingly beautiful.

Is Anna Egyptianian? A petty question to ask once you have had the privilege of seeing her work, as meaningless as the contention that you have to be able to trace your lineage back to the Pharaohs to claim you are Egyptian, as futile as trying to claim that the greatest Ottoman mosques are un-Islamic because Sinan, the master builder who designed them, was inspired by the Hagia Sophia and was born a Christian to Greek or Armenian parents.

Anna Boghiguian was born in Cairo, currently lives and works in Cairo, has lived at least half of her life in Cairo. Sometimes she does not sign her work at all, as if to say, like visionary Rimbaud: "Cela s'est passé. Je sais aujourd'hui saluer la beauté."


For exhibition details, see Listings.

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