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Occidentalism: Contemporary Artists from Egypt, a visual art exhibition and program of events curated by the Cairo-based Lebanese gallerist Karim Francis, was open in downtown Cairo from 13 to 23 May 2007 at the temporarily converted Pension Suisse. The exhibition pulled together 19 artists under the umbrella of "Occidentalism", showcasing works that explore the complicated relationship between East and West, driven by the question "How do you see the West?" The selection of artists extended across different generations and various camps within the local art scene, with a range of works that made use of a diversity of media and approaches.
This exhibition marked the curatorial debut of Francis, who has been actively involved in the Egyptian art circuit since the launch of his downtown private gallery space Espace Karim Francis in 1995. Since April 2006, Francis and his team had conducted regular meetings with the group of invited artists during which they had extensive discussions about the theme in question. Not all of the works on exhibition were exclusively commissioned for
Occidentalism. Nonetheless, many of the works seemed to have been generated from lines of enquiry that engaged with the theme at hand, some subtler than others.
Occidentalism inevitably locates this exhibition within a post-colonialist discourse, more specifically in relation to the position put forth by the late Edward Said in his text
Orientalism, in which he argues that dynamics of power and domination inform the construction of categories of "orient" and "occident". Samia Mehrez, Professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, who references Said in her catalogue text entitled
Under Egyptian Eyes, raises a very pertinent question about the project as a whole, namely whether the collection of works on exhibition, which the curator regarded as an attempt to produce an intercultural dialogue, will end up reproducing the very binary oppositions they seek to challenge.
A number of artists examined this self/other dialectic in their work.
Justice for the Mother, Lara Baladi’s large-scale wallpaper photomontage, depicts an iconography of a paradise lost that subtly blends into the surroundings of the Pension Suisse, given its visible appropriation of a popular kitsch aesthetic. The piece, which is part of a larger work-in-progress, is also an arresting portrait of her father riding a motorbike out of a savage chaotic jungle landscape replete with images of wild animals, sexuality, and political conflict (representing his past), towards an invisible unknown, namely the West. The language and iconography embedded in this multi-layered work suggest the impossibility of clear-cut definitions within the two clashing value systems representing East and West.
Homo Occidentalis, a series of 7 vertical figurative paintings, Adel El Siwi playfully toyed with the idea of constructing identities by presenting 7 different images of Western stereotypes, born out of layers of personal and collective memories. In the only female representation in the collection,
Diva Occidentalis, Siwi depicts a larger-than-life goddess-meets-material-girl figure clad in an extravagant bright red dress. Other characters in the series include the artist, tourist, detective, marine, and saint, all carrying pseudo-scientific stenciled titles within the picture frame as if they were archeological specimens on exhibition at the natural history museum.
In one of the most powerful pieces on exhibition, entitled "Powerchord Skateboard", Sherif El Azma presented a quasi-autobiographical two-screen video installation that reads like an audiovisual diary. In this video, El Azma imposes a fictional timeline that refers to real events, combining a mixture of archival footage and recorded material to construct a fragmented narrative in which the viewer is given room for their own associations. The piece is also about the complex relationship between images, language, personal memory, and collective history. In one part of the video, El Azma explores the birth and death of the image through a time-lapse documentation of an artist’s creation and destruction of a commissioned graffiti portrait of the former Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat, whose political reorientation towards the US in the 1970’s positioned him as an icon of Western authority.
Other themes that ran through the exhibition included political conflict, power and domination, media representations, consumerism and the impact of globalization, cultural identities, personal histories, and narratives of belonging. While the parallel panel discussion and program of open forums that attempted to contextualize and critique the practices of the participating artists within the curatorial framework failed to dig beneath the surface, the exhibition in general created a buzz in Cairo, at least in its scope and diversity.
Currently, resident curator at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. Periodically lectures and writes about contemporary visual arts in Egypt.
Occidentalism: Contemporary Artists From Egypt
13 - 23 May, 2007
26 Mahmoud Bassiouni St. (Antikhana), 6th Floor
Curator: Karim Francis
Nermine El Ansari
Sherif El Azma
Hazem Taha Hussein
Hazem El Mestikawy
Shady El Noshokaty
Adel El Siwi
Hisham El Zeiny