Just a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to protest the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak, and set off a revolution. Now Egyptian artists are playing a vital role in helping sort out what comes next. “Histories of Now: Six Artists From Cairo,’’ at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, offers several video works that plumb the traditions, conflicts, and quandaries of Egyptian culture.
Egyptian artists haven’t always had the freedom of expression to explore such themes. Following the 1952 revolution, which expelled the ruling British, Egypt was best known for government-supported art that bolstered the national identity. It wasn’t until the 1970s that independent exhibition spaces started to pop up and artists began to show work that didn’t follow the party line, and not until the 1990s that Egyptian artists developed a strong enough independent voice to attract global attention.
Today, artists are keenly aware of the effect of oppression’s muzzle. With the fate of the government still in flux, it falls to them to document, critique, and mull over the huge changes occurring as a result of the Arab Spring, and to preserve what they deem worthy of preservation.
Museum School curator Joanna Soltan teamed with artist and Museum School alum Ahmed Abdalla to organize the show. They identified artists whose work ties together many strands of Egyptian culture, from the political to the spiritual to the intellectual.
The star attraction is Ahmed Basiony’s startling three-channel video “30 Days of Running in the Place.’’ Basiony was in Tahrir Square last year, documenting the uprising with his camera, and he was killed there on Jan. 28, 2011. He was 32. His colleague Shady El Noshokaty put together this piece for the Egyptian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. It pairs footage that Basiony shot in Tahrir Square with documentation of a performance the artist undertook in 2010, during which he jogged in place for an hour for 30 consecutive days, with sensors on his feet, arms, and chest providing data for a visual digital display.
It’s a jarringly effective juxtaposition. The performance, also called “30 Days of Running in the Place,’’ occurred outside the Cairo Opera House and Palace of Arts within a transparent plastic room - a vision of isolation and stagnation, although I’m not sure that was Basiony’s aim. A new media and electronic artist, his passion likely was making data from his physical state into something that sparkled aesthetically. Here, the lone runner in place contrasts with the sweep of thousands who catalyzed a revolution.
Much of the work in this show was made in the years prior to the Arab Spring. In some of it, such as Moataz Nasr’s striking 2003 piece “The Echo,’’ the dissatisfaction with the status quo is palpable. Nasr uses a split screen to pair a speech from Youssef Chahine’s 1969 film “The Land’’ with contemporary footage of a young woman reciting that same speech to men in a cafe. The film is about the relationship between peasants and landlords in rural Egypt in the 1930s. “They beat us, and they jailed us,’’ the speech goes, “but we were men and we stood up like men.’’ In “The Land,’’ the listeners are attentive; in the cafe, the coffee drinkers look away as the woman rails passionately in front of them.
Nasr has a second, more contemplative work, a lovely three-channel video installation made last year, “Merge and Emerge.’’ It depicts a different kind of revolution: Three dervishes whirl in monochrome outfits, with tall hats and circling skirts, videotaped from above. These Sufi practitioners gain spiritual balance as they whirl, and Nasr’s installation supports a similar balance in his viewers.
Another haunting, even surreal, piece by Hala Elkoussy, “First Story - Mount of Forgetfulness’’ (2010) honors Egypt’s tradition of storytelling. It’s a hero’s journey in which a young man sets out to collect stories and save them from oblivion. The tones are lush. The narrative is full of metaphor and allegory as the hero finds himself in one tale after the next; trios of dancers and singers underline themes.
Sabah Naim takes her camera to the streets and subways of Cairo in “People of the City’’ (2007). She uses stills and digital manipulation - panes of color over the sepia video, or scratches that blot out all but a single figure - to draw out faces from the crowd, and to halt the hustle and bustle that so rarely stops in the city.
El Noshokaty has his own work in “Histories of Now,’’ the obtuse two-channel video “Stammer - A Lecture in Theory’’ (2007-2010), a consideration of pedagogy and theories of mind. On one screen, pupils sit in a classroom beneath a fan of green bullhorns, reciting oddities by rote. On the other screen, the instructor struggles before a blackboard, which he eventually draws on.
“The mind is a computer,’’ he says.
“My mind is a red mahogany piano,’’ the classroom chorus recites.
“I woke up, I found my brain lying on the floor like a pomegranate,’’ bemoans the suffering instructor. El Noshokaty struggles to bridge theory and practice, to get out of his thinking head and into his drawing body. We feel his pain, but it’s wearying, like reading a novel about writer’s block.
Still, on the whole, “Histories of Now’’ captures a vital cross-section of Egyptian art during a moment of grand shift in a society gravid with both tradition and possibility.