Running in place in Tahrir
On the anniversary of the 25 January 2011 revolution I attended ‘Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo,’ an exhibition co-curated by Ahmed Abdalla and Joanna Soltan for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Egyptian-born artist and educator Shady Elnoshokaty presented his three-channel works in a large auditorium and gave a lecture on contemporary Egyptian art. But it was his video tribute to his friend, the late Ahmad Basiony, that struck the rawest nerve. (A separate memorial to Basiony, by the American sound artist John Kannenberg, is a 4’33” field recording made outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It can be heard here.)
Basiony (1978–2011) was gunned down by a sniper just four days after the Egyptian uprising began. He died of gunshot wounds fired from an Egyptian Police Force vehicle in Tahrir Square. At 31, he was among the most important rising experimental artists in Egypt, and the father of two children. In reflecting on his friend’s death Elnoshokaty noted that he died at the ‘age of the [Mubarak] regime when it died,’ the only regime Basiony had known from birth to death.
Among Basiony’s works on view is 30 Days of Running in the Place, a three-channel video installation edited by Elnoshokaty for the Egyptian Pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennale. The project features two works: the first shows Basiony jogging in place for an hour every day for 30 consecutive days, while a digital display shows information gathered by sensors on his body. Alongside the artist’s recordings is Basiony’s footage of the uprising captured in downtown Cairo up until his killing on 28 January. The choice to feature the Artist as Artist and Artist as Activist in the same large-scale installation was a thoughtful one—when was the last time a choice was made to put the artist-activist’s hybrid life on the same platform, in any country?—and as the curators note, it captures a ‘portrait of a culture determined to run in a different direction, albeit an unknown one.’
Basiony was also a serious and beloved arts educator, serving as a painting and drawing professor at Helwan University in Cairo. Among his contributions was an independently-developed experimental sound art workshop that was adopted as an academic program at the university. Documentary footage shows Basiony using a truly interactive pedagogical method and every available sound technology (beginning with the sounds that can be produced by the human mouth) to reach his students, notable for their diversity in age, sex, and class background.
As an arts educator, Elnoshokaty writes, Basiony
paid close attention to the power of group learning, the importance of interaction and the merging of experiences as well as experimentation in the execution of ideas. Most of the ideas were a result of direct brainstorming evolving through group interaction into a sound piece that tickles the mind and senses when heard in a live performance studio.
If Basiony’s intellectual legacy (cut woefully short, just as his work was reaching a critical depth) resonates with post-2011 Egypt in one unforgettable way it is the belief in the egalitarianism of creativity it demanded. Perhaps like no other time in Egyptian history ordinary people became self-styled artists after the revolution, as witnessed in the thousands of markings in public space that would undoubtedly get one arrested, or worse, prior to the revolution (of course this doesn’t negate the repressive strain of counter-revolutionary forces, but to say that the crucial element of fear was largely swept away). Semi-anonymous conversations in the form of graphic sketches, collage, painting, and political posters crowded on top of each other on walls. Comic-tragic memed graffiti characters like the Sad Panda were created. As Elnoshokaty remarked, ‘The war moved to the wall,’ where the shadowy presence and ruthless tenacity of SCAF’s hold over post-Mubarak Egypt created a wall of words (written, erased, written, erased) between the people versus the military. Graffiti covered even public sculpture, challenging not only the government-sponsored art work but the very idea of what it means to be an ‘original’ Egyptian. One clip from the exhibition shows a wheatpasted poster plastered on the granite relief of the previously sanctified Mahmoud Mukhtar sculpture. It was a how-to poster on the electoral process targeted at women. However enigmatic the outcome of the 2011 uprising may seem one year later, it is undoubtable that opposing ideologies in the form of visible space-taking not only co-exist but are a force to be reckoned with in the public sphere.
[Related: Street art from Cairo]