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Amal Kenawy: Society and the street

As part of the 12th International Cairo Biennale, the Palace of the Arts is currently hosting a multimedia installation by Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy. During the opening of the show, Kenawy cooked and served food for a diverse audience of artists, critics and students, as well as the palace’s janitors and technicians, who gathered in the comfortable setting created for her three video projections. Plants and Christmas lights dangled from the walls over graffiti drawings made by her ten-year-old son, Yassin. Kenawy projected a video of a young man unsuccessfully trying to escape from a wheelchair along with another of Yassin playing the piano on his birthday. The central work, however, was “Silence of the Sheep,” documentation footage of a short performance Kenawy orchestrated on 14 December, 2009 in downtown Cairo.

In “Silence of the Sheep,” Kenawy leads a group of casual laborers and artists, who crawl across Champollion Street stopping traffic. The performance is a commentary on people’s submissiveness to local living conditions and cultural norms. For the past 13 years, the idea of conformity has manifested itself in Kenawy's diverse body of work. In “Frozen Memory” (2002), Kenawy collaborated with her older brother and mentor, Abdel Ghany Kenawy, to produce a video piece highlighting the individual's alienation from different value systems. In her 2009 installation “God Speak,” she approached the same topic by juxtaposing the word “Allah” (God) written with bee lights against a blue background, with a sermon discussing the true role of the intellectual based on the writings of 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche playing as a sound piece in the background.

Kenawy believes in the power of art to frame events and attitudes that people normally dismiss, forcing the audience to reflect on them more critically. In “Silence of the Sheep,” Kenawy took these ideas to the street.

“The public was offended by the 'Silence of the Sheep' performance, although it basically mirrors what people discuss on a daily basis,” explained Kenawy. The community accused her of humiliating Egyptians and challenged her decision to perform on the street rather than in a gallery or theater. The deep engagement of the public–the fight–which Kenawy highlights in the video piece supports her work's argument. But a problem remains: since the public’s reaction was predictable from the very beginning, what, if anything, was Kenawy actually exposing? Perhaps Kenawy was more successful with this approach in “I am an Organ Garbage” (2009), a painting of a dead, decaying stray dog. Generally ignored on the street, Kenawy’s painting reoriented her audience towards the dead animal, discomforting them and forcing them to consider its significance.

Kenawy was born in 1974. As a child, she aspired to be a fashion designer, designing her first school uniform at her uncle’s clothing factory at the age of six. Pursuing that dream, Kenawy joined the historical dress, animation and decor section at the Cinema Institute only to discover that it had nothing to do with fashion design. Her extensive training in stop-motion animation, however, has become her signature style in videos such as “The Purple Artificial Forest” and “The Room.” After two years at the Cinema Institute, Kenawy applied to the Faculty of Fine Arts, where she studied painting and received her BA 1999. Her highly interdisciplinary arts training is reflected in the diverse media she uses, from drawing and painting to sculpture, video and performance.

Kenawy considers her elder brother her true mentor. Together, they visited various museums and galleries in the city conducting their own research about modern and contemporary art. It was not until the 1997 Youth Salon that she exhibited her first work, a sculptural piece she created with Abdel Ghany. Their work was awarded the first prize.

One year later, at the 1998 Cairo Biennale, the artistic duo presented “Transformation,” for which they received the UNESCO grand prize. Through “Transformation,” the Kenawys tackled the idea of spiritual rebirth and liberation. The piece was composed of a metal tunnel that led the audience into an enclosed space covered with a chiffon garment. At the center lay a metal tomb overlaid with clay and an ice cube. The tomb was designed so as to channel the melting ice water–a symbol of life–into the clay, before it froze it again.

Kenawy worked with her brother for the following two years, renting garages as studios and funding their art through loans from friends and family and their own savings. Then, between 2000 and 2002, Kenawy took a break from art. Married with a child, she used the time to better reflect on her practice and what she wanted to achieve through art. The diary she kept during this period inspired much of her work until 2006.

Her first solo work, “The Room,” was exhibited in 2002 at Cairo’s Townhouse gallery and a cultural festival in Minya, Upper Egypt. The video piece and live performance critiqued social pressures on individuals, with marriage as only one example. In the animated video work, a bride seated in a bathtub is shown sewing ornaments onto a beating heart. A white butterfly continuously tries to escape a glass room. Next to the video projection, Kenawy sat sewing beads onto a real heart and, at one performance, setting fire to a wedding dress.

In "The Room," Kenawy uses recognizable visual symbols like trees, butterflies, mice and mutilated limbs–borrowed from dreams and memory–to communicate people’s struggle within society. Contrary to expectations, the Minya audience, who came to see the folkloric dance scheduled after Kenawy’s performance, were eager to talk to the artist about her work. This reaction, from an atypical art audience–rural and less educated or wealthy than their Cairo counterparts–proved to her that the public’s dismissal of art is more related to the exclusivity of gallery space rather than the content. Seven years later came the “Silence of the Sheep.”

Kenawy continues to tackle topics related to domination and control, but she also demonstrates an unrivaled ability to experiment with new visual symbols. In 2010, she exhibited “Fighter Fish” at the Why not? exhibition at the Palace of the Arts. The video installation was set up in a church-like structure and investigated forms of social, cultural and economic control. Using video, Kenawy recreated an image inspired by the Philip Burne Jones painting “The Vampire," in which a seductress straddles an unconscious man. In “Fighter Fish,” the image appears both moving and still, the man both in pleasure and pain. “I chose this particular image because it is not violent and hence conveys the various forms of exploitation among people and nation states,” explained Kenawy.

Her latest project, “My Lord is Eating his Tail,” was exhibited at the 17th Biennale of Sydney earlier this year. The video piece, which was installed at the convict precinct of Cockatoo Island, looks at states of social stagnation brought about by miscommunication. The piece is based on a short story written by Kenawy. The two protagonists fail to communicate, since one is colorblind and the other deaf. After living in a house for years, they both set off to experience the world for the first time, yet they fail to communicate their experiences of the world to one another. Working with two contemporary dancers, Kenawy translated the narrative into pure physical expression–the same technique used in a video exhibited along with “Silence of the Sheep."

Over the years, Kenawy has expirimented with different media, with varying degrees of success. Putting aside ideology, Kenawy’s work leaves a strong impression on its audience–both in the gallery and on the street.

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