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Still moving pictures
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 11 - 2007

Last month saw a particularly vibrant exhibition scene. Making the rounds, Rania Khallaf found moving walls to be worth the effort, while Nahed Nassr spent time boring into the soul of Egypt
Moving Walls is not an action movie; rather, an exhibition of documentary photography held at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC, 4-22 November). Sponsored by the Open Society Institute, a private grant-making institution based in New York City, Moving Walls features work by seven American photographers on a tour of the Middle East, the Caucus, and Central Asia. The word "documentary", with its heavy politicall connotations, may be off-putting in itself, but these photos prove to be deeply engaging -- so much so that, an hour into looking at them, you do not want to leave the space. One picture of a beggar is particularly arresting, all the more so since it is not immediately obvious that the subject is, in fact, a beggar. One's personal understanding of property reflects one's own beliefs about what is important enough to obtain, so goes photographer Gary Fabiano's caption for the story of which it is part. Property is acquired at all levels of society, and wealth does not set the standard for what property is or should be. I hope these pictures, taken in the United States, will help viewer look at people who are homeless differently. Rereading it and looking back at the picture by turns, I have an experience not unlike that of viewing a documentary film -- something that will happen again and again at this CIC.
Equally interesting, if less painful, is the story entitled "NY Masjid: The Mosques of New York City" by Edward Grazda. An inspiring vision of New York Islam: the buildings, the faces, the sense of incredulity induced by the fact that all this is happening the non-Muslim capital of the world. A sense of slowness belies the stereotypical image of the Big Apple, while text informs us that in this city 75 percent of whose inhabitants are immigrants, there are 100 mosques and 800,000 Muslims including African Americans and, increasingly, Latinos. Another room plays host to the gloomy drama of life behind bars, whose population in the US has tripled since the 1980s. Andrew Lichtenstien, the author of this story, started visiting prisons in 1995, spending time in "12 facilities in Texas, the state with the greatest expansion in American" , and he shows the full gamut of detainees, from first-timers to the mentally ill. Curiously, this work has an uplifting effect.
A non-profit initiative, the CIC comprises a group of artists interested in the photographic image as a means to developing visual culture. "Our main goal is to create a platform for an active local community that supports contemporary artistic and professional practices," says Aliya Hamza, administrator and board member -- to generate positive dialogue around current visual culture by organising exhibitions, educational and professional training programmes. Occupying one floor of a charming villa dating back to the 1920s in Mouniora district, the space offers photography courses, documentary film screenings, performances and workshops on regular basis. Like other independent cultural venues, it benefits from foreign presence through studio-residency programmes. Affirming this international dimension, the CIC showed work by John Perkins, who in 2000 began, among other projects, to photograph the daily life of people caught up in the second Intifada. Perkins, who currently lives in Cairo, contributed a story on the Asian workforce in Dubai to Moving Walls, revealing the sadder face of this hub of business and pleasure, where immigrant workers are routinely exploited on two-year contracts, their passports held by the employer, living in overcrowded desert camps hidden beneath the city's gleaming skyline. Walls, indeed: this exhibition does move them, suggesting strongly that perhaps, all things considered, they should really be brought down.
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Writing on walls
Until 2 November the American University in Cairo's Sony Gallery showed Helwan University professor and post- or rather quasi-conceptual artist D George Fikry's From Earth, Heart, Eyes, Soul, to the World -- comprising four long-term projects-cum-installations that combine traditional and experimental methods to "claim ownership of metaphorical presence". These vastly ambitious works are Earth Mythology (1993-1996), The Soul, Body and Dream Series (1997-1999), The Legend Series (2000 -2001) and Narrative Icons (2005 - 2007). Invariably, he says, Fikry is motivated by "the search for feelings of (re)birth that simultaneously express and are expressed by me -- signs, symbols and elements that together make up an existential presence reflecting memory" -- and the effect is one of being enclosed, even caught up, in a world of references bound only by a loose sense of identity. "Social, economic and political factors give birth to Egypt's present reality on the walls." Which are covered to every last inch, let that be made clear. "It's all about combining opposites: stability and change, the static and the dynamic, individuality and collectivity, the voluntary and the involuntary, the self and others..." Reflecting his work at the university, where he teaches history of thought, folklore and aesthetics, Fikry's art is, as he puts it, "a quest for innovative means to relay identity, giving it visual life".
Thus his raw material ranges widely, from Arabic calligraphy to photography, from sound as an integral part of the viewer's experience to the performance aspects of the contemporary installation. "I work against order, attempting to recreate concepts rather than binding myself by them. It is a narrative process, and always risky, because it does away with beauty and sense in favour of process." A sense of the sacred infuses motifs and symbols, with geometric form galore. Yet Fikry manages to be sensual at the same time, fluctuating dramatically within the space of a few centimetres: the way he thinks of it, he is telling a story, invoking emotions and provoking thoughts; elements speak to each other to push the plot forward. And in line with his general approach, he uses pastels, charcoal, dyes, stickers and many other media; he builds his own constructions, stimulated by each element in its own right. "Such elements captivate me before I've even embarked on the creative process. I interact with them, which is how they come to interact with each other; their spiritual energies are unleashed through intellectual correlations fuelled by recollection. The use of one colour in its full range of hues -- black and greys, for example -- will of course contribute to a sense of unity within each project."
Mythical, ritual and iconic overtones reflect historical and religious popular culture -- "the main drive of contemporary Egyptians", who continue to thrive on customs, traditions and collective memory and maintain a remarkable degree of temporal and spacial continuity. From Earth, Heart, Eyes, Soul, to the Wall is best appreciated in the light of the artist's previous work: Simulating the Trilogy (1997-2003), for example, inspired by painted walls in rural houses and classic murals alike, combined ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic influences, using the same oxidisation technique which, originating in ancient Egypt, was adopted first for Christian iconography and later for non-figurative Islamic decorations. In the present exhibit, similarly embedded impulses can be traced back through time in the manner in which Fikry approaches such topics as man-woman relations. The physical possibilities of persons and objects reflect the values rooted in the culture, drawing on an existing pool of emotions to enliven the scene. "These persons, objects and creatures could take the form of comic-strip characters: clowns, kings, queens, saints, savages, sages, even 'transformers'... They may occupy a central or peripheral position, but they live by evocation alone; they remain a consequence of direct experience occurring through social relations and street-life experiences. The alleyway and the interaction it is witness to between different social classes also colour the whole. But however collective it all gets, it all remains personal."


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