There’s a splendid exhibition currently on at Manchester’s Cornerhouse. Entitled Subversion, it presents a selection of artworks, a good number of which are moving image pieces, from various artists who are united by a strong connection to the Arabic speaking world. We’re already in loaded territory, for all sorts of obvious reasons. Those reasons could give rise to a long discussion which I’m not going to approach directly here, instead simply quoting a programmatic statement from Glaswegian Egyptian-Turkish writer Omar Kholeif, the show’s curator:
‘Like many of the artists I was looking at, I felt that collectively curators and writers associated with the politically unstable Arab world were being asked to step up and perform to an identity that the world wanted us to play. With Subversion my aim was to do just the opposite. I worked with artists who referenced this very language but who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition.’
And, in case you’re wondering, he succeeds richly in this aim and, I think, more.
If you can get to Manchester with at least a couple of hours to spare before 5th June your life will be enriched thereby.
I’ve already written a short piece on the show, with a couple of video clips, on DVblog and I’ll be writing a longer review, including consideration of some of the thornier question alluded to above, for MIRAJ 4, out in June 2013.
What I’d like to do here is to look in some detail at one particular piece from the show, a short video by Khaled Hafez. I don’t mean to suggest that it is somehow best in show although I do love it - the show is too diverse for that kind of simple-mindedness. I do think a careful examination of it will yield support for Kholeif’s position. What we have here is a complex work of art, which bears repeated viewing, which doesn’t bend or break but thrives under that hard scrutiny and which, although inevitably stamped with the experiences, background, the moment in time, the physical location of its creator - what isn’t! - is universal (Problematic term! Of course we can’t know what 100 years will make of it but we can assert its current universality and adduce evidence that it is a work which promises to be of some long-term interest too.)
Hafez is probably better known as a painter of striking mash-ups of ancient Egyptian gods, comic book heroes, bodybuilders and models set against richly textured, feverishly beautiful and largely non-perspectival landscapes of the imagination. His paintings are characterised not only by this content (and of course what we lose in a run down of content is the aftermath of the act of painting, facture’s narrative, the play of line, geometry and colour. I’ve seen none of his pieces ‘in the paint’ but I’d bet money they’re good enough to eat.)
Furthermore, series, numbers, line-ups, multiples and queues of those Gods, comic book figures, bodybuilders and hybrids thereof seem to be important to him (and I don’t think I’m wrong in perceiving an echo of hieroglyphs and their implied grid and of pre-Arabic Egyptian art too).
There’s a strong sense of directionality and of motion arising from these lines and groupings and even if one knew none of the background it wouldn’t be surprising to learn of Hafez’s deep interest in moving image.
OK - to the piece itself. Let’s stay zoomed-out for a while and point out first that it was made in 2009, two years prior to the revolution which brought down Hosni Mubarak, exemplifying the ‘storm petrel’ effect whereby artists, who can often be infuriatingly ditzy as politicos, nonetheless, in virtue of their trade - their looking, their seeing, their empathy, empathy often of a strangely disinterested variety except for the can-I-make-art-from-it question, which question perhaps even makes their antennae the sharper, their sensitivity to society’s emotional weather, their readiness to make apparently random or intuitive connections - can be uncannily prescient about impending social change. Artists often ‘get it’ before the key actors begin to have the confidence to move.
So, you need to know that the piece contains so much reference to social conflict that, at first sight, to the outsider at least, it could have been made in the last year.
We start in darkness. Titles: “Anubis productions presents". A number of soundtracks sewn together in a kind of faux short wave radio polyphony which resolves to a solo piano playing something doomily romantic which I don’t recognise (on subsequent listening it appears to be of a piece with the up-tempo stuff that follows, so I assume it’s especially composed). Over this we hear an extract from the resignation speech given by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in the immediate aftermath of the defeat in the six day war against Israel in June 1967. (He resigned for a day, coming back to office surfing a wave of popular support and grief and then ruling until his death in 1970).
I presume that to quote Nasser is a potent gesture in Egypt. I assume, despite any criticisms anyone might make of him he carries a ‘father of the nation’ type weight and that an allegorical comparison between him and Mubarak would come naturally - here is a flawed but somehow heroic figure, indubitably at the least a genuine anti-imperialist - offering his resignation, but, now, in stark contrast, his pale epigone, his inheritor as dictator but not as hero, clings grimly on by force and brutality and mired in sleaze.
The audio continues and we see more titles:
“The A77A Project (On Presidents and Superheroes)"
Hmm – presidents. In the plural.
Also: you don’t strictly need to know this, but it was gleefully explained to me by the artist that A77A is Egyptian blogger ‘slang’ in that it represents Arabic characters difficult to transliterate directly to Roman for the Arabic word for ‘Fuck’. Of which more soon.
The next thing we see is a detail of the lower centre of a painting by Hafez from the previous year, “Outside Temples". We focus in on three figures seen in profile. They are almost identical except that whereas the two outer ones have the jackal heads of Anubis the central one wears… a Batman mask. They stand in profile, in body builder pose, right arms raised above and in front of the head forming a sinuous S curve to mirroring left arms behind the lower back.
We zoom into these figures as music changes to a metronomically regular disco drum and cymbal rhythm and the two rightmost figures ‘detach’ themselves from their background and walk forward out of frame to the right.
This detaching happens five times - series in time as well as space.
Three sets only of the figures then parade past us with the arms that had been set in the raised arm pose pumping up and down (crudely animated by pivoting at the shoulder, a similar device setting the legs in motion) in what I surmise is an offensive gesture. It is certainly charged with a raw and vulgar vigour. At this point the figures march against a plain white field - slowing the piece down reveals stray blocks of pixels generated in the animation process. This lack of polish, the retention of rougher edges, feels like a Brechtian distancing. It certainly helped to sharpen my attention as well as endowing the piece with a kind of elephantine grace.
We move to a landscape, I’m guessing a poorer or outlying area of Cairo, with a building site before us. Two of the figures continue their rightwards motion across the frame. They loom large against the background and even allowing for distance, dwarf the human figures behind them. Interestingly the background imagery appears to have been shot from a vehicle moving across the frame to the left, which further cranks up the energy level.
We cut to a 3D software generated mannequin walking in the same direction in a similar landscape. The two painted figures catch up and merge with it - by the somewhat clunky use of a split screen – giving birth to a single Anubis headed mannequin who is our protagonist for the rest of the piece.
The figure continues into a landscape dominated by a still of the Sphinx of Giza, ( Abū al Hūl, in Arabic, translating into English as The Terrifying One) which, in a move straight from Terry Gilliam, picks up the next words of the Nasser speech, ‘mouthing’ with a detached and hinged lower jaw . In the background, the ‘sky’ – in fact simply the background where the image has been cut out in Photoshop - cycles through various colours from a fierce red through multiple greys to black. As you might have surmised realism is not the key term here… except…except …there is a kind of higher realism going on… A pastiche of the stuttering effect so overused in popular music in the early days of sampling is applied to the ends of words in the speech – and here, in Nasser’s Arabic translated as ‘I decided to step down’, the bloggers’ A77A appears, repeated and repeated, a splendidly childish and satisfying equivalent to shouting ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’
From now to the end every background image is a still and our Anubis - visitor from another realm, mostly an observer, bemused God in a world gone insane, who intervenes only once and then as a kind of trickster, stepping backwards to change a banner in English reading “Presidential Elections" to “Presidential Erections" ( and then the Arabic banner too - Hafez told me that, strangely, a small change will accomplish precsely the same transformation in both languages) but who pauses politely to allow a photographer to snap five women with cheesy shutter noise and all - processes inexorably rightwards through a number of frames of varying character: some, surreal collage: a man on a bike with a wheelbarrow on his head; some whose strangeness arises from a sophisticated deployment of the warped perspective arising from the lo-fi animation technique - another man-on-bike whose movement at an apparent 70 degrees ‘through’ the frame emphatically underlines the constructed nature of what we are watching followed by a subtle but delicious section where the background image is smaller than full frame size and Anubis steps decorously up into and then down out of it; some, more serious - confrontations between demonstrators and riot police, with the arm-pivot device once again deployed to enable a middle aged women make our putative vulgar gesture repeatedly to the cops.
Anubis finally vanishes into what I take to be a polling booth.
This is such a rich work. It is both enormously local and particular and at the same time hugely general. It is full of ‘content’ but at the same time driven by smart, knowing and dextrously deployed formal devices, which reside not in the background but near to the surface and greatly add to the pleasures of the piece, which presents weighty and serious matters, but does so with great geniality, a geniality and humanity I for one wish to firmly identify with the awakening oppressed as they genially, but definitively and unsentimentally, sweep aside and settle accounts with their former oppressors.
This review is a collaboration between Furtherfield and DVBlog.
Watch the film on the DVBlog website