Glimpsing Modern Egyptian History

On the one-year anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests, where Egyptain citizens successfully overturned the militant political reigme in power, Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts has put on “Histories of Now,” a fascinating exhibit about Egypt’s social and political past, present, and future. The show features seven works by Mohamed Abla, Hala Elkoussy, Shady El Noshokaty, Sabah Naim, Motaz Nasr, and Ahmed Basiony, six contemporary Egyptian artists who present their unique visions through a series of video installations. Though the videos cover a wide range of materials, each touches on the importance of preserving the past during a rapidly evolving present.

The installations are organized in two large rooms, and each room highlights distinct aspects of Egypt’s cultural landscape. They also jointly provide a candid portrayal of the everyday lives, concerns, and dreams of the artists and their subjects. The visual recordings are projected onto walls or played on television screens, creating a captivating spatial dynamic that reflects the diversity of the subject matter associated with each video. The audio attached to some of the recordings also creates an ethereal atmosphere, which, paired with the dark walls, easily draws the viewer into the glow of the each video.

For example, Noshokaty’s “Stammer—A Lecture in Theory” is a two-part installation that features elements from a classroom. It features a video of a man drawing furiously projected onto a blackboard and a video of a classroom full of chanting Egyptian students projected onto the wall behind it. The juxtaposition of these images represents the conflict between memorization and free thought in Egyptian society. The loud chanting resounds throughout the space, and the repetition of the phrase is strangely haunting.

The mesmerizing vibe of Noshokaty’s video is complimented by one of Nasr’s works in the adjacent room. The video, entitled “Merge and Emerge,” is a three-screen installation that takes up an entire wall of the room. In the video, three Sufis wearing bright, monochromatic robes practice whirling—the traditional meditative dance associated with Sufi Islam. As the dancers “merge and emerge” between the screens, the bird’s-eye view of the camera creates hypnotic shapes and shadows. The soothing and somewhat mysterious mood of Noshokaty’s video stands in stark contrast to the tones of some of the other videos.

The often abrupt change in tone between the seven videos is a thoughtful reminder of the scope of cultural assets and issues that Egypt holds. Works like Elkoussy’s “First Story—Mount of Forgetfulness” pairs religious and historical mythology with snapshots of modern Egyptians, while Abla’s “Out of the Water” presents the past through the lens of a documentary film about the physical preservation of Qorsaya Island.

Naim’s “People of the City” presents a story of life in contemporary Egypt through the fleeting impressions of people on the subways and streets of Cairo. “People of the City” faces Nasr’s video of the whirling Sufis, emphasizing Egypt’s historical and cultural richness as well as the major differences between this artist’s two works. One video features an intriacte tribal dance juxaposed with a deptiction of urban Egyptian citizens travelling on a subway. The deliberate disharmony in the overall design of the exhibition reflects the cultural energy that is present in a city as large as Cairo.

The mix of subjects, themes, and presentations also works to create a powerful effect, especially in light of the recent political upheaval in Egypt. Basiony’s “30 Days of Running in the Place” and Nasr’s “The Echo” both deal with civil revolution, and while watching the videos it is possible to place them in context of the country’s recent cultural shift, though the revolution is not explicitly the focus of either video. The former pieces together footage from the Tahrir Square protests with shots of the artist running in place, while the latter takes a video of revolution speech from a film from the 1960s and places it next to a video of a woman in the modern day performing the same speech. These artistic commentaries on historical conflict work with the rest of the exhibition to highlight the current cultural climate of Cairo and Egypt as viewed by their citizens.

The exhibition is altogether powerful in its subtlety. The variety of questions and topics that the pieces of art portray are made even more dramatic due to the use of the video and sound mediums. With “Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo”, the curators have succeeded in providing the audience with a glimpse of Cairo and Egypt through the eyes of its own people, creating a truthful and compelling exhibition.

—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at jihyunro@college.harvard.edu.

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