© 2014 Valerie Dionne

Histories of Now, A Noontime Art Exhibit by Stephanie Marano

Presented in association with Censorship Uncovered and displayed in the Colby College Museum, Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo presents a unique and distinctive critique on the current cultural and political climate in Egypt. Displayed on the third anniversary of the first Tahrir Square protests, the exhibit celebrates the works of some of the most innovative and inspiring contemporary Egyptian artists.  Histories of Now removes Western perspective and, instead, explores the complexity of the social and political conflict within Egypt through the direct engagement and experience of these artists. Most of these pieces were completed prior to the revolution and project a longing and need for political and cultural change. Each artist was chosen based upon commonality and overlap of ideology, sentiment, and purpose. Featuring works by Mohamed Abla, Ahmed Basiony, Hala Elkoussy, Shady El Noshokaty, Sabah Naim, and Moataz Nasr, the exhibit illuminates Egypt’s continued struggle to redefine itself socially, culturally and politically.

Out of the WaterOn February 27th, Colby welcomed the exhibit’s founding co-curator, Ahmed Abdalla, as he led an audience of nearly fifty individuals in a noontime art tour. The event began with the documentary Out of Water by Mohamed Abla. Filmed in 2010, the video offers a pre-revolutionary critique of the aggressive and overbearing military presence throughout the Egyptian island, Qorsaya. The film compliments the striking visual images of the blatant military takeover with outraged commentary of the inhabitants of Qorsaya as they attempt to salvage their homes and lifestyle.  The documentary introduced a theme present throughout the exhibit: individual suppression.

We then moved to the second work, Merge and Emerge by Moataz Nasr.  Created in 2011, the film records the almost hypnotic dance of whirling dervishes captured in a three-channel video projected against a blank wall.

Merge and Emerge

Within the video, the downward facing camera angle, minimalistic musical accompaniment and confined space of the recorded image evokes elements of intense paranoia and suspicion. Yet, Abdalla explained that the work also contains elements of optimism illuminated through the video’s physical position within the museum. According to Abdalla, the architectural space – the location of the film within the museum – asserts sentiments of hope, inviting the audience in and optimistically suggesting potential for unity. A highly political piece, Merge and Emerge illuminates the mass repression and paranoia inspired by the highly militarized political presence within Egypt and calls for solidarity amid mounting conflict.

Abdalla then led us to the third piece within the exhibition, First Story – Mount of Forgetfulnessmount of forgetfulness, by Hala Elkoussy.  The film recounts the plight of a young man as he realizes waves of mass pollution are “killing” stories and attempts to save them from total destruction. Here, the death of these stories symbolizes the death of individualism and the disappearance of a culture. Through narrative and cinematic technique, the artist attributes an absurd quality to the film.  It is through this absurdity we see the slow dismantling of the Egyptian heritage and the dissolution of a once united people.

We then moved to the fourth piece, People of the City by Sabah Naim.

People of the City

A collection of still images, the film pays homage to the citizens of Cairo. Shot before the revolution, the images prove a foreshadowing of the hostilities and frustrations soon to erupt and exude an air of anticipation for a needed change through drastic action.

30 Days of Running in PlaceThe tour continued, stopping at Ahmed Basiony’s 30 Days of Running in Place.  Created in 2011, the piece is a three-channel instillation compiled by a friend and colleague of the artist following his death during the 2011 revolution. The first film, 30 Days of Running, documents Basiony physically running in place for one hour a day, everyday, for thirty days.  Sensors attached to the soles of his feet, arms, and chest gather information from this physical exertion that is then transferred to a computer.  Using software, the computer creates a digital display, converting action into image.  Rooted in revolutionary sentiments, the piece evokes powerful symbolism and metaphor.  Running in place, getting nowhere, Basiony eludes to the futility of individual action, an inability to escape the confinement of larger social and political forces, and the isolation and contemplation of inner thoughts.  Only through unity can cultural change be achieved.

We see this in the second installation Revolution Footage. Filmed one year later, this documentation of the revolution in Tahrir Square lasted four days, ending with Basiony’s assassination on January 28.  Abdalla suggests that death proved the artist’s final liberation, an escape from the confinement and seclusion from which the artist was running.

Revolution footage

The final work observed on the tour was Stammer – A Lecture in Theory by Shady El Noshokaty.  The piece spans nearly six years and depicts an ongoing lecture discussing the creation and production of art.  However, the lesson never reaches completion; rather, it remains a cyclical discussion of unfulfilled objectives illuminating the limitations of verbal discussion and expression within a culture so heavily suppressed.






Themes of cultural limitation and repression within Egypt saturate these works of art as their creators struggle to find voice in such a censored environment. Abdalla asserted Egypt is “back again to a limited era” in this revolutionary period. Freedom of expression through creative mediums is an internationally recognized right enforced by global legislation in the International Treaty of Civic and Political Rights and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  As stated in these documents, publishing, media and the arts should not be censored.  While recognized and addressed within the Egyptian constitution, the articles pertaining to free expression include exceptions allowing authorities to intercede and enforce censorship during times of Emergency Law and war. The implementation of censorship becomes a tool through which the Egyptian government limits information and controls public opinion.  As evidenced in Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo, the limitation of individual expression has not silenced art, rather it inspired a wave of revolutionary creativity and a fervent desire to be heard.  Artists call for the revival of Egyptian culture, celebrate their heritage, and seek unity among a divided people.

* All images found at: http://www.smfa.edu/egypt