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The Human Body: Representations and limitations

The Human Body Exhibition: Contemporary Vision that opened last Tuesday at the Palace of Arts in Zamalek–one of the country’s largest state run galleries–has been highly criticized in the Egyptian press so far. The show, which presents the works of 110 artists, was accused of unjustified display of nudity as well as being disrespectful of Islamic values such as the niqab. This might have been the reason behind the Palace of Arts management’s decision to oblige exhibition visitors to request official permits for taking photographs of the show after the opening night.

Much of the controversy was driven by the title of the exhibition as well as the poster design, which the show’s curator and director of the Palace of Arts Mohammed Talaat worked on with photographer Ayman Lotfy. But The Human Body is not about nudity.

Rising conservative tides in Egypt, like the ones reflected in the media responses to the exhibition, limit possible interpretations of the human body to the sexual. It puts pressure on Egyptian artists to work only within culturally sensitive representations of the human body and the nude model has been disappearing from Egyptian art universities, according to Talaat. The idea behind the mega show is to present the diverse ways in which the human body has been represented and interpreted in contemporary Egyptian art. The result is vast, but not entirely comprehensive.

Body language–the gestures, postures and facial expressions that convey a person’s physical, mental and emotional state–for instance, manifests itself in Hany Rashed’s paintings. A character is identically reproduced in each painting with the exception of the facial color, which changes from blue to green to pink depending on the character’s mood.

Fathi Afifi used his characteristic blues to continue his critique of the conditions of the Egyptian working class and convey his nostalgia for the industrialization era of the Nasserist regime, which he sees as more egalitarian.

Works that did show nudity were also engaging with politics and cultural values, such as Yasser Nabeel’s controversial painting of a woman wearing only a niqab on her head.

The problems with the show, however, originate in its curatorial vision, which is encyclopedic and claims to represent the whole of the contemporary Egyptian art scene. The curator made a conscious decision to focus on dominant and “traditional artistic media” like painting, printmaking, etching and sculpture that offer a smooth narrative for the development of art in Egypt from the modern to the contemporary period.

This is a recurring notion in state exhibitions, which often exhibit works of artists of the older and younger generations side by side to refute the common perception of a disconnect between the two periods. However, the exclusion of other media such as video art and performance, which equally deal with social issues using the human body, seems unjustified. The Human Body is only a partial study, in spite of its size.

Diverse as it is, the exhibition also stresses the contemporary nature of the show through its title. But this is contemporary work that makes extensive references to an Egyptian “essence.” References and motifs from the Phaoronic period, as in the exhibition poster; the Coptic period, as in the works of Ashraf Raslan; and folklore, as in the works of Asmaa al-Nawawy, who constructs a baby carriage out of folkloric motifs to discuss abortion, are present. This emphasizes the limiting Western notion that artwork from developing countries is foremost a representation of cultural and national identities.  

Whatever its shortcomings, The Human Body does help to redefine how Egyptian artists represent the body. It’s an insightful collection of perceptive and diverse visions, but hardly the final word on the matter.

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