© 2014 Valerie Dionne

“Histories of Now” at the Museum of Arts at Colby College by Joshua Richards

I recently took the time to explore the current exhibit “Histories of Now” a couple weeks ago in the Colby Museum of Art. It was actually only the second time I had been in the museum, and I didn’t know much what to expect. However, I probably went in expecting to see paintings, drawings and sculptures, things my brain naturally associated with “art.”

However, “Histories of Now” focuses instead on a collection of short films, made independently by different artists, all carefully compiled by Ahmed Abdallah and Joanna Sultan into the story that tells the narrative of the Egypt’s current political and cultural environment and the transformations currently taking place within the society. While each film is incredibly unique both in style and message, the six short pieces interact to perhaps give the viewer a different flavor of Egypt’s revolution from the events we read about in the newspaper and see on T.V.


When I walked down the stairs into the opening of the gallery, the first piece to the exhibit (I’m not sure if this is intentionally the first piece or not, but it is unmistakably present as you walk down the stairs so it’s really the first piece by default) is a shot of three Whirling Dervishes, Sufi dancers each dressed in a different solid color, spinning in circles as their dresses spin out around them. Titled Merge and Emerge, by Moataz Nasr, the piece shoots the three Dervishes from an aerial view, almost diminishing their human qualities as they twirl and divert our attention from their individual characteristics, instead lulling the viewer into a pensive appreciation for the simple dance. The videos take up most of the wall using three projectors that overlap between them and occasionally cause the dancers to partly disappear between the cracks of the frames. As much as I enjoyed watching these Sufi dancers do their thing, this frustrated me and I wasn’t sure why the film wasn’t done with one continuous shot, or at least edited to appear that way. However, the more I watched these beautiful dancers partially disappear between screens, I realized that the fragmented images helped complete Nasr’s commentary about the Egyptian experience. Here was something so beautiful and mesmerizing, yet incomplete and frustrating at the same time.


Another one of the more powerful films in the exhibit was also done in three smaller screens side by side. 30 Days of Running in Place, by Ahmed Basiony, featured images that rotated and changed every twenty seconds or so, forcing me not to lose myself in just one shot, but rather take the piece in its entirety. The films alternated between shots of Tahrir Square during January of 2011 and shots of Basiony running in place inside a glass box. He wore a special suit designed to capture his exertion, and as he pounded his feet up and down, I could almost hear the sounds of the Tahrir Square crowd chanting to the beat of his steps. Basiony runs so passionately but gets nowhere, exposed in his glass box for everyone to see. The metaphors are striking. He runs but he cannot escape; he is trapped as the whole world looks on. The Tahrir Square crowd roar on the screens next to him, a real life embodiment of the power and voice of the Egyptian people. Before they were trapped and running in place. Now they cheer and let themselves be heard.


A third powerful element from the exhibition was a piece by Shady El Noshokaty called Stammer – A Lecture in Theory. It features a video of a classroom full of students sitting at their desks and chanting in unison. They read from sheets of paper and looked up at the camera in front of them as their voices are amplified by a giant yellow megaphone that hangs from the ceiling above them. On an adjacent screen is just the professor and a blackboard. He uses both of his hands to draw an elaborate series of circles and spirals. I’m not entirely sure what the professor was drawing or what the students were saying, but the visual barrier between them served as a powerful image for the disconnect between teacher and student, and maybe also between Egypt and the world.

There were three other videos that I would go into if I had more space, but there was something about these first three that made them stand out in my mind. Each one of them embodied individual expression. Whether it was an amplified demand from a group of students, a piece of religious expression, or a physical takeover of Tahrir Square, each video used individual expression as tool to write a narrative for Egypt’s social and political environment. The very existence of this exhibit lifts the cover of censorship and exposes parts of Egyptian society that would have otherwise been hidden.

Egypt today sits in a very vulnerable place. It has a very fragile political climate (as the rise and fall of Mohammad Morsi showed), one that is still adjusting after electing and removing its first democratically elected president. The very same Tahrir Square that was filled by thousands for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was filled again last year as people demanded the removal of Morsi. Censorship is a very central issue here. People need to be uncovered and heard, and Egypt needs its true voice. Exhibits such as “Histories of Now” provide artists with voices that can help transform society. However, my question is simply, what comes next? It is one thing to look at this exhibit from a hill in Colby and it is another to be standing in Tahrir Square with your life and future on the line. As one group of people are uncovered, so are others whose views don’t align. Where does the line stand between fighting for expression and ensuring your safety and the safety of those around you?