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The house of mirrors
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 01 - 2010

Depicting the human body has always been a central theme of art, and with the rise of post-modern arts it has grown further in status. Sayed Mahmoud takes a close look
In a sense, depicting the human body has become a means for making sense of the modern world. In his book, The Body and Social Theory, sociologist Chris Shilling poses interesting questions about the nature of the "living body" and how we can learn more about ourselves and our environment through our bodies. Questions such as these must have inspired Stafania Angarano, curator for the Mashrabia Gallery, to put together a show of variant displays of the human body by Egyptian artists. The exhibition was shown at the Samaakhana (Auditorium) located in the Khalifa district of Cairo.
According to Angarano, "attempts to ignore the body and reduce it are growing at such a rate so that one can say that it has turned the human body into mere material and robbed it of any intrinsic value. It has become hard for the aesthetic onlooker to see the body as a possible source of joy. In its artistic expression, the human body is reduced to a mere element of composition. The human body, meanwhile, has disappeared from public discourse. It is no longer a multi- faceted subject and is rarely brought up except as a material for worry and suspicion. As social pressures escalate in current culture and as totalitarian ideas grow, the body stops being a property of its lawful owner and becomes a field in which many authorities exercise their actions and display their power."
The fact that the human body has been distorted in public discourse did not stop Angarano from arranging an exhibition in which more than 20 artists provide disparate interpretations of the subject. Consequently, the "private body" shown in the exhibition is quite different from the social and economic context in which it has developed.
"Contemporary Egypt lives under the burden of an escalating population growth that has gone out of hand. In this country, human bodies are multiplying and become squeezed into crowded cities and homes. And yet the human body is diminishing as an inspiration for thinking and a measure for reality. This is quite ironic," Angarano says.
In the 14 rooms of the Italian-Egyptian Centre for Restoration and Archaeology, the art works on display may be divergent in style and viewpoint, but they are complementary in their interpretation of the human body. As one walks from one collection to another, the exhibition acquires a pluralistic meaning quite in harmony with the post-modern view it offers.
Most compelling of the displays were two paintings by Adel El-Siwi. Known for his well-know fascination with faces, El-Siwi offers us a view of "a dancer's body" on the outlines of a human mouth; then he introduces several animal motifs that belong to the genre of "folk surrealism" pioneered by Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar and Hamed Nada.
In another room there are photographs by Marwa Adel arranged in a sequence that describes a story line. Her three main paintings show a face contracted in the three familiar expressions of "cannot see-cannot hear-cannot talk". Her next display involves a nude body put together by Photoshop, one that resembles a Roman statue assuming different positions.
Also of interest is Ahmed Kamel's collection named "Pictures from a Virtual Society". Commenting on the virtual societies created by online chatting and Facebook, Kamel says that, most of the time, the individuals shown in the pictures are aware of their situation, their clothes, and their facial expressions. "When you think of downloading these pictures or viewing them, the private becomes public and these pictures become a subject for comment. Virtual societies allow the browser to see a large scope of diverse societies and notice how they interact in their own environment."
A photographic show was projected on a wall in another corner of the exhibition. However, the characters displayed on the wall have been separated from their "real" backgrounds and appear against a neutral grey colour that distorts the point of focus. Consequently, the images on the screen appear as if they are an iconic drawing on the wall. The artist uses such techniques to separate the viewer emotionally from the subject of the picture.
Hani Rashed offered a collection of colourful paintings of the human body, all suggesting various degrees of loneliness. He portrayed man's alienation from his social milieu, and his paintings are accompanied by texts explaining how the human body has been pushed into "a state of inaction and capitulation".
Another artist, Rania Ezzat, brought a sense of humour through her cartoon-like paintings of two bodies embedded in a flower. According to the catalogue, Ezzat is referring to the rules of society and how hard they are to escape, just as hard as it is for flowers to escape their pots.
Conceptual displays include a show by Helwan University art professor Shadi El-Noshoqati. His video piece, called Talathum (Stuttering), is part of a seven-part work due to be exhibited at the Darb 17 18 gallery in Fustat in the next few months. According to El-Noshoqati, the video reflects the contradictions of the body as it seeks to break away from social reality and its own mental conventions.
El-Noshoqati says artists have to work with the material of the world. "This work is intuitive by nature, one that uses all mental processes, and one that is free from the constraints of the craft," he said. For El-Noshoqati, it is the idea that matters, not the dexterity of the artist.
Hisham El-Zeini's work focuses on the faces of Egyptians walking on the street. There is some "similarity" in the middle of the asphyxiating streets of Cairo. "There is also a phobia that is inevitable considering the packed streets and the crowds," he says. El-Zeini substituted people for dummies, arranging them in a ring, each staring at the back of the head of the one in front. "They don't meet or communicate. They are trapped in mysterious ritual leading to nothing," he said.
Ibrahim El-Haddad sees the human body as a medium of communication with time and space. "It is through the body that we can recognise the outside world and the outside world can recognise us. The nature of communicating with the body is just a mirror for the nature of our communication with the outside world," he says.
El-Haddad's work aims to illustrate the contradictions that one cannot customarily see on the surface. It reminds one of Andy Warhol's depictions of Marilyn Monroe. In one case, he offers an image of an advertisement wrapped in cellophane. It is as if he is trying to protect the incidental from disappearing.
Mohamed Sabri brought parody into the scene as he fiddled with pictures from Al-Ikhtiar ( The Choice), a film by Youssef Chahine from the 1970s. In the film, the main actress wears revealing clothes in the bedroom. In Sabri's interpretation, however, she is shown through a mirror wearing a face veil. Her husband has a beard. This is his comment on the social changes Egypt underwent in the past few decades.
Jewellery designer Suzanne El-Masri decorated a display dummy with pictures from the past. The dummy was covered with images of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, Faten Hamama, Shekoukou, and King Farouk. The nostalgia here is symbolic, the point being that the body too bears the marks of the past.
Hala El-Qusi's film Ehna Ala Al-Bahr Delwaqti (We are on the Beach Now) consists of 13 short dramatic scenes depicting normal people and their daily concerns. As a whole, the film offers a view of the city as seen through the eyes of its dwellers.
A video piece by Hossam Hedhed illustrates his view of land as a metaphor for the human body. The piece involves shots of ice blocks melting on a piece of agricultural land threatened with random urban development. According to Hedhed, video art and installations offer a powerful means of comment on current affairs.
The exhibition will run until 24 January.


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