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LONDON - “From Facebook to Nassbook” exhibition opened last Wednesday at London’s Mica Gallery, showcasing the work of nine artists active in Egypt's art scene. The exhibition is part of London’s month-long “Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture” and is meant to pay tribute to the 25 January revolution.
Nass is the Arabic word for people, and with the internet outage on 28 January, people shifted communication from online social media back to the real world through word of mouth.
The artwork is diverse, comprising photography, conceptual and interactive media, and illustrates how artists of various age groups have interpreted this year’s revolutionary fever.
An installation to honor experimental artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during the 18-day revolution, is also on display, showing quotes taken from his Facebook page.
Mica Gallery is also exhibiting and selling stones collected from Tahrir Square and signed by public figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa. Whereas some might see this as a gimmick at best, or at worst a move toward commercializing the revolution, artist Ashraf Foda, who personally collected the stones, insists that it is for a good cause - to raise money for the families of the revolution’s victims.
Occupying pride of place in “From Facebook to Nassbook” are three pieces by versatile artist Khaled Hafez, whose work art buffs are likely familiar with. His series, “First Temple of Flight” and “Tomb Sonata in 3 Military Movements: The Sniper,” was shown at the 12th International Cairo Biennale. Yet in 2011, they appear in a revolutionary setting and seem to have taken on new meaning; Hafez now describes them as “premonition pieces."
It is “Tomb Sonata,” however, that he is particularly proud of.
This painting, completed in 2010, "shows elements that I actually lived and saw a month and a half later in the field, the field being Tahrir Square,” Hafez tells Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The vast canvas is dashed with color and seems fragmented yet full. It combines military iconography with his trademark ancient Egyptian symbols, in this case, the cow goddess Hathor.
“I use the basic rules of ancient Egyptian painting - the flat graphic surfaces, with human forms striding across rigid registers - because this medium lends itself so perfectly to my message,” explains Hafez, who insists that the military elements in his paintings should not be seen as a literal reference to Egypt’s military conflict.
“They are designed to develop a generic alphabet inspired by media propagated war images. These modern-day hieroglyphs explore the stereotyping of the Middle East as a region solely defined by, and reduced to, conflict,” he adds.
Art can be a powerful tool to address stereotypes and present new perspectives; and it is this that Reedah al-Saie, director of the Mica Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition, seeks to achieve. Saie speaks of the “tremendous respect for the Arab world” in light of the Arab Spring and sees this show “as a positive way of engaging with different communities.”
The exhibition provides examples of how art can take on new layers of meaning that reflect momentous changes in society, such as revolution, making earlier pieces seem current and part of these changes.
This is a concept that Pakistani-born artist Mansoora Hassan engages with. She explains how her previous works “become relevant again and again... This is the beauty of good art, it’s not just caught in time but it keeps evolving and changing.”
Hassan exhibits “Bound/Unbound” at “From Facebook to Nassbook.” The montaged photographs are part of a series she started before 25 January, yet they’re another example of ways in which art can acquire new meaning.
“Bound/Unbound” depicts a man being wrapped, or “mummified,” and then unwrapped in cloth covered with calligraphic Arabic-looking script.
“It is about being caught in a cycle,” she explains, “of being free and then somehow being bound and constrained once again.”
The work is not purely political though, Hassan explains. It also refers to certain traditions that one seeks to escape, such as narrow-mindedness. As such, “Bound/Unbound” is an interesting metaphor for the ongoing processes of revolution and social change.
While the more established artists at the show have found the currents of revolution running through earlier works, their younger counterparts are showcasing work that was directly inspired by it.
Foda, who works in advertising and hasn’t had an exhibition since he was a graduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2007, describes the revolution as an awakening on a personal level.
“One of the good things about it is that I started making art again. …I became more conscious about what was going on in my country," Foda said.
Foda’s bold installation combines street graffiti with spray-painted slogans from Tahrir Square. It is powerful in its simplicity and directness, acting as a record of his involvement in the revolution.
Natalie Ayoub, a recent graduate from The American University in Cairo, displays a piece that she also sees as very personal - one that she never expected to be shown in a gallery. Ayoub explains how “the revolution inspired new artistic expression” in her and others. Her mixed media piece, that incorporates international newspaper headlines and video stills of celebrations from across the globe the day Mubarak stepped down, aims to show that “the world was celebrating with Egypt.”
“From Facebook to Nassbook” captures a trend post-25 January, with art being reinterpreted in light of unfolding events and social upheavals, as well as, inspiring new and innovative waves of creativity and expression.