Thawing Amal Kenawy’s memory

SHARJAH, UAE: In late 2009, artist Amal Kenawy staged a performance in downtown Cairo called “The Silence of Sheep.” The intervention saw a dozen or more adults (working men mostly, with a few of Kenawy’s female colleagues) move flocklike through Cairo on their hands and knees.

Pedestrians and motorists looked on, curious or perplexed. The piece provoked some controversy, partially documented in the 2010 video “Black Dog.” After showing the performers crawling across a busy city street, an intertitle announces “Fight 1” and the scene opens upon a man confronting Kenawy on the sidewalk.

The artist makes an effort to explain her work, equating it to Aragoz street puppetry, but the man’s anger doesn’t slacken.

Later, another man challenges Kenawy with a litany of complaints so similar to the first that you wonder whether you’re watching the same exchange, shot from a different perspective.

“Black Dog” doesn’t dwell upon what Kenawy intended with “The Silence of Sheep,” but she seems to have been interested in staging a metaphor for conformity and mass culture and exploring how it would be received.

The men who attack the performance in the two “Fight” interludes don’t dismiss it as incomprehensible a common response to unconventional art but condemn the work because it mocks Egyptians.

These condemnations can be read in various terms. They might be vigorous advocacy for the self-esteem of the working-class men who’d been paid a few Egyptian lira to participate. They may betray sexism, a reaction to the largely male group of performers crawling on their knees behind a female artist.

Were Kenawy’s intervention seen as a critique of popular compliance to state authoritarianism, the men’s anger might also be read as aggressive expressions of support for conformity to the state’s political culture. (Kenawy and her collaborators were arrested and briefly detained after the performance.)

“Black Dog” is among the works on show in “Amal Kenawy: Frozen Memory.” Staged by the Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with the Kenawy Estate and Darat al Funun, this is the first retrospective of the artist’s work since she passed away in 2012, overcome by leukemia at the age of 34.

“Black Dog,” and the juxtaposition of art and public it documents, isn’t particularly representative of the works in this exhibition. Though the artist’s form is sometimes present in these videos, photos and drawings, the circumstances they depict are never so baldly political.

Kenawy’s work distills a range of visual motifs of human bodies - generally female, not infrequently her own and the culture and society, ritual and gesture that enclose them.

In her art, the body is an instrument and a vessel of memory and mortality, confinement and violence.

Sprawling through two floors of SAF’s Bait al-Serkal, “Frozen Memory” is a rich exhibition. Kenawy’s drawings, paintings and video works are nested alongside archival material sketches, journals and video documentation of performances.

For those unfamiliar with Kenawy’s work, this exhibition is a useful primer. It is riddled with the striking, sometimes troubling, imagery that preoccupied her production, tracing its evolution from delicate line drawings and watercolors to brooding movement - in animated films, live action video and hybrids that feature the artist.

The 2002 work that names this exhibition, “Frozen Memory,” is a fixed-camera video of a water-filled vertical glass tank reminiscent of something Harry Houdini might have escaped from.

Objects seem to materialize and dematerialize in the water. A paper sculpture moves fishlike through the tank. An envelope appears, then a letter. Flames somehow ignite in the water, growing stronger as an object (an old-fashioned ball gown or wedding dress) reconstitutes itself. Finally, tentatively, a woman’s face appears.

Several of these themes are reiterated throughout this exhibition, including in the phantasmagorical video “The Room.” The work on show at SAF originally accompanied Kenawy’s 2007 performance of the same name. In it, the artist sat onstage alongside the video screen, stitching a wedding dress that was illuminated from within, before being set alight.

The video shows a woman sitting in a bridal gown, clutching a bouquet of weeds while a shower soaks her with water. In an animated segue, a clay model of a tree is deconstructed and reconstituted as a human heart. Accompanied by keyboard music, a woman’s hands are shown above a beating human-sized heart. Wearing lace wedding gloves, they sew dressmakers’ bling to the still-beating organ with needle and thread. Panning back, the heart is revealed to be framed by ornate white cloth, the sort you might find lining a coffin.

The scene changes to show the artist lying on a bed to which her wedding dress has been nailed. A network of threads connects the nails, as if to further restrain her, until the bride disintegrates.

Also from 2007, the 22-minute video document “Cairo is Eating Me Inside” gazes down upon a rodent scurrying a circuit around the inside of a white pail.

A man and woman’s voices can be heard chatting while a telephone rings in the background.

The motif of confinement is oppressively persistent in “Frozen Memory,” with one exception.

Shot with a stationary camera, “Sky My Heaven,” a 53-minute video from 2007, captures the sky overhead while the sound of traffic, hammering and construction is overheard, unseen, below. The only action that unfolds is the movement of cloud between the sun and the camera lens.

“Amal Kenawy: Frozen Memory” is up at Bait al-Serkal, Arts Square, Sharjah, through Jan. 19.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 29, 2018, on page 12.




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