Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Owls and crows

Gamal Nkrumah contemplates Ahmed Kassim’s pictorial take on the Gothic horrors of a ghostly contemporary Cairo peopled with vampires and vultures, sheep, saints and Salafis, whose morals lag behind their sermons

Brain Attack
Brain Attack
Al-Ahram Weekly

Tis no sinister nor awkward claim
Picked from the wormholes of
Long-vanished days,
Nor from the dust of old oblivion raked

How far should the sinister owls and crows fly without the spoiler alerts? Ahmed Kassim tackles the strange case of crows and owls who in paint, at least, their passions are tautly held in check. Yet cynicism and profound immorality is written all over the onerous faces of the evil owls.
The artist is quick to point out that in colloquial Egyptian parlance, owls are a euphemism for the Muslim Brotherhood. For those who still do not understand what the all the fuss is about in the first place, the owl provides preliminary answers. Egyptians are primarily frustrated about bread and butter issues. That unfortunate foresight offered Kassim a unique provenance, as well as an astounding approbation — that the upper echelons of the military would finally break bread with the Muslim Brotherhood. Tellingly, in Kassim’s last exhibition, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were depicted as owls. In his latest exhibition the owls metamorphosed into Muslim Brothers. Moreover, in modern Egyptian mythology, the owl is the harbinger of ill-omen, and in particular penury.
The countenance of the crow is equally portentous. The owls, the Muslim Brothers, came to power and inflicted Egyptians with the plague of poverty, argues the artist. His owls sport beards, it is pretty obvious who they are, or are meant to be. The Ultras Ahlawy, the soccer supporters of Al-Ahli football team — Egypt’s largest and most popular —  famous for their banners and pyro shows, played a prominent role in the 2011 protests that eventually led to the toppling of the regime of ex-president Hosni Mubarak and later clashed fiercely with the police and state security on the Battle of 2 February 2011, better known as “The Battle of the Camel”. Ultras members were in the front-line in Tahrir Square defending the revolutionaries from raids by the police and security forces. The nickname given by the ultras to the state security forces was “Crows”, the scavenger, like the police is dressed in black.
Kassim’s exhibition at SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek, is entitled “Chaotic Order”. It draws out the political dimension of contemporary post-25 January Revolution Egypt. And, this is not the first time that SafarKhan has hosted young artists enamoured by revolutionary themes. There is a hard-edge to Kassim’s paintings at SafarKhan this time round. He illustrates the great ideological battle that drives and divides Egypt on the second anniversary of the revolution.
Kassim catches the chaos vividly. The characterisation in his works have an alluring vitality. His reading of the revolution renders his paintings reckless, peppered with anachronisms and yet studded with hidden gems cleverly concealed beneath layers of colour.
“Brain Attack” is a brilliant work of art. President Mohamed Morsi is squeezed clumsily into a most peculiar outfit — crumpled bright green jacket, dandy-like and ill-fitting sapphire blue trousers, nondescript primrose shirt and an embarrassingly short scarlet tie. It took me sometime to realise that the artist intended Morsi to be the clown in a circus, not even of the president’s own making.  
Egypt’s fretting on this topic evolves in phases. Nearly everything is larger than life in “Gamblers”, oil on canvas, like the rest of Kassim’s works and his choice medium. But let us not be fooled. Revolution is a gamble. The militant Islamists’ favourite CD is Playboy and the artist leaves it to the imagination of the onlooker to determine his favourite Play Station game. The bearded robot is actually a couch potato. His playing companion is a red-faced liberal, furious for not being in control of the political game. He is equally nauseating.
But, back to “Brain Attack”, with every brushstroke Kassim throws a new twist or adds a fresh insight into the inner workings of post-revolution Egypt. And, the swings — an obese Salafist in a glistening white gallabiya enjoying the swing like a willful and wayward kid in a hair-raising playground with nothing better to do. Fervent naughty women in pitch black niqab compliment the overweight swinging Salafist. The women revel in their servile past and seem to have grasped the scale of the changes afoot in Egypt from the pinnacle of their swings.
The sad truth, as far as Kassim is concerned, is that the silent majority are sickening. His depictions of the powers that be are over-bearing. But, if all this symbolism makes Kassim sound a rather insolent, sharp-tongued and egoistic individual, the opposite is true. He is a most approachable artist and he is good-humoured. “I like to mix colours straight from the tube, and mix them thoroughly.  I don’t chose colours deliberately at furst. It is the painting itself that chooses the colours that predominate,” Kassim tells me. He combines a very practical streak — as his remark about his approach to mixing colours reveal — with a natural inclination for risk-taking.
Kassim’s artistic career to date is full of daunting firsts, and SafarKhan was instrumental in marketing his paintings. He concedes that he is no businessman. “I hit on an idea and I immediately begin to put paint on canvas,” he tells me wryly.
“I suppose,” he chuckles, “my work looks daring or foolish, depending on which way you look at it”. You could never pigeonhole Kassim as an artist preoccupied with the Arab Spring and the Egyptian 25 January Revolution in particular. He plays on symbolism in his paintings. “Ana Ikhwan, ana maataf didan — I am a Muslim Brother, I am a basket of worms,” he quotes a popular Egyptian proverb.
With varying degrees of truculent critique, Kassim depicts SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood as repulsive birds of prey and scavangers of the skies. The owl may be cute and wise in Western tradition, but it is a hideous herald of disaster to the Egyptian mind.
Likewise, the eagle in the Egyptian flag, a national symbol, metamorphoses into a vicious vulture. It falls from grace — the proud eagle of national rennaisance becomes the ravenous vulture voraciously devouring carion and decomposing corpses.
Braying and praying are interchangeable in Kassim’s works. And, the blind followers of the Muslim Brotherhood are sheep. Kassim has them dumped in a truck off to nowhere. In “Brain Attack” the sheep are neither dead nor alive and are painted in a ghostly shade of grey. All these animals hint at a hidden process of natural selection. The constitution, or rather the committee appointed to draft a new constitution is portrayed as three braying donkeys.
“I painted a train in the middle of ‘Brain Attack’ because as I was working on this particular painting I heard the news of yet another train crash in Egypt. This was the eigth train crash in three years,” Kassim complains. It is preposterous, I suppose.
Stuck in the mud trucks? Deadend train tracks? “The negliegence, the lack of respect for human life, it is all too painful to contemplate. The authorities are just apathetic. They just don’t care, or give that impression. For three years I have felt that tragic events just keep repeating themselves. It is depressing,” the artist bemoans the current state of affairs.
“Ladies’ Night” is peopled with 13 women and each one has her own narrative. Yet, they all look alike. Again, either dead or asleep. Even the artist cannot tell. Kassim is posing tough questions about ticklish issues. In Cairo crowds have taken to the streets. In the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, which witnessed the first spark of the 25 January Revolution, angry protesters are demonstrating. The same goes for Alexandria, the country’s second largest city and in several key Nile Delta cities like Tanta and Al-Mahala Al-Kubra. Yet Kassim is focussed on Cairo, the capital, as a common denominator linking the frustrated all over the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s sweeping victory at the polls was a Phyrric one. The banner of the Muslim Brotherhood crops up here and there in Kassim’s paintings. Sometimes the flag flutters and elsewhere it appears half mast, or just downcast.
A particular painting, I cannot recall which one, is expressly grusome. Is it “Stalking” or “Dark City”? A stark naked woman practically fills the entire space in the painting. She is the centrepiece. Vampires are on hand to cover her up and to celebrate coming to power. The blood-sucking vampires are the militant Islamists. The woman is bleeding profusely. The vampires are no longer lurching or lurking in the dark. They have discovered that they can draw blood during the day.
Daylight breaks and the murky waters of the Nile turn a pus-like yellow — the sickly colour of a dreadful diarrhoea. The lights are flickering dimly. The Salafist vampires are trying desperately to clothe the undressed bleeding woman. The vampires hover ominously overhead.
The nude is watched in monastic silence, disapprovingly. The buxom victim adamantly refuses to embrace the Islamist trend herself, wearing nothing and slumps in the centre of the city. The nude is a shadow of her former self. She was the liberated Egyptian actress of the 1960s and 1970s. Today she is the Salafists’ seductress. Breaking taboos is no longer socially acceptable.
Admittedly, with its eye-catching severity and distinctly heavier feel,the niqab is not the most forgiving of garments. A woman has to be careful if she is a heavier size because the niqab is not the most slimming of outfits. Yet, the vampires insist on forcing the portly naked woman into the niqab.
The rotund nude is not perverted by the clarion call of the lecherous Salafists. Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi and SCAF are elbowed out. They were the megastars of Kassim’s exhibition last year at SafarKhan. This year they were relegated to the periphery of his paintings, brow-beaten and dejected. And, Kassim is literally taking the piss in “Our Culture”.
A grotesque, corpulent creature is urinating on the sidewalk of a Cairene street. The windswept scene is dreary and bleak. The bright yellow of the urine contrasts sharply with the dull grey of the dust-encrusted city. And, on this note of irreverent self-referential Egyptian humour, Kassim and I part company.

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