In the elegant Mashrabia Gallery, tucked behind Talaat Harb Square, an exhibition entitled “On Edge” opened the fall season. But what exactly is “On Edge”?
As is common of group shows in the city, the works of the 14 participating artists seem to have fallen out of a back cabinet somewhere, crawling out of some dark, deep crevice, only to find themselves assembled on any given occasion on the same wall; most of the works at “On edge” seem to have nothing more in common than the wall itself.
Despite this lacklustre arrangement, there are marvellous pieces in the show. Works by artists Amr Fekry, Ahmed Kamel and Qarm Qart are by far the silliest and most intriguing of the mix. All three artists subvert typical representations of images present in the streets and in contemporary culture.
In the earliest days of the photographic medium, photography was considered to be a window into the soul of the subject, revealing some sort of preternatural truth about the model. What, indeed, would Kamel’s large-format photographs standing near the window over Champollion Street reveal to the gallery-goer?
Glossy portraits of young men show them posing unabashedly and awkwardly against a background of laser starbursts. These images would only make sense in Cairo. And in this lies Kamel’s genius; displaying these photographs in a gallery suggests both the style’s particular universality in the city, and distorts what could be considered the “common” nature intrinsic to them.
A trip down any of the busiest streets of the country will introduce even the most casual observer to the magic and fantasy of Egyptian studio photography. Customers go in with freckles and a tan, and leave with a smooth, pale complexion. Their eyebrows have been shaped, their moustaches coiffed, kohl lining the lids of even the most reticent of subjects. They have been made beautiful, or whatever this happens to mean to the ordinary studio photographer. This is to say nothing of the breathtaking backgrounds that fill the negative space of the compositions. In these photos, fantasy becomes reality: winter scenes, giant animals, space exploration or giant hovering figures of your children are all possible themes in this fantastic dreamscape.
Kamel’s work is a little subtler though. These photos are meant for the gallery. Their size and shine lends an air of authority and intention. Mina, one of the photographer’s subjects, suggestively stares at both photographer and viewer, hands grasped to his front, leaning flirtatiously on one leg. It is difficult to tell whether the posture is affected or natural, but standing on the edge of this distinction in terms of posture and composition is what makes Kamel’s work successful. Mohamed Saed – another model – is dressed for a formal occasion. There is an intimacy and bareness to his posture, directly confronting the viewer with his stare. The models seem unaware of both the backdrops behind them, and the unintended irony of these images.
Qarm Qart (Carmine Cartolano to the uninitiated) made a splash earlier this year with a show at Mashrabia, and returns in top form with a few of his gorgeous composite-photograph-mixed-media pieces, as usual making fun of the way things are and the way they could be in his home-style scrapbook-joy displays. A police officer stands looking over some paperwork, bedazzled with a jazzy hot-pink glittery racing stripe running up his police cap, matching pink glittery high heel on his right foot. A treasure trail of glowing white balls trace the location of his foot to the edge of the photograph. In another image, white balls of light rain down on a pyramid. A hot pink camel looks appreciatively toward its apex.
Qart here jokes about gender, masculinity and representations of motifs common to Egyptian life: the police force and the pyramids. What else could be so characteristic of life here, distorted wildly in such a silly way to invoke a deeper critique of typical ways of viewing? In previous interviews with the press, Qart said that he is creating another world in his photographs. Indeed, a more utopian one than the tedious and exhausting world that exists. In his own rebellious, understated way – despite how much glitter he chooses to plaster on the photos – he is questioning power: traditional representations of power and the power of representation. His world is a composite world, and it’s the interstice between imagination and reality that makes his work meaningful in this time of change.
In sepia-toned images of landscapes and mosques that look as though a visiting Englishman could have shot them a century ago, Amr Fekry reworks the photographs, changing the spaces with careful coloring and the addition of calligraphy directly implanted into the landscape. He reclaims Egypt’s history through the tangible: land.
In light of the past few months in this country, his work seems particularly reminiscent of the graffiti that has possessed public spaces in the city. It is a political act that reforms the topography of an individual’s environment, yet Fekry has modified the form of creative defacement for the gallery to beautify. In his pictures the defacement of these spaces is aesthetically pleasing and tasteful. The meaning is the same though: individuals and communities have chosen to assert themselves over the landscape, claiming ownership of the spaces they inhabit. The only difference in this assertion is the form that the ownership chooses to take.
The works of Fekry, Qart and Kamel are almost so artistically cool and now that it would be very easy for the passerby to miss the deeper core of meaning in their work. Under the guise of the modern, the kitschy and the tasteful are polemical ideas about the potentialities of counter-culture. Don’t let the laser beams, glitter glue and marker pens fool you – they are all simply aesthetic vehicles for discussing the power of contemporary culture to change environs and representations of our world.
“On Edge” is shown at Mashrabia gallery until 16 October
8 Champollion Street, Downtown, Cairo
The gallery is open daily, except Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Phone: 02 25784494
Mobile: 010 1704554