'Latitude' is the first chapter of a larger 15-part conceptual experience titled 'Colony', the multimedia work of artist, curator and educator heading the visual arts programme at the American University in Cairo, Shady El-Noshokaty.
The exhibition highlights the artist’s respect for research, and pushing the boundaries with an ice sculpture, an intriguing new medium the artist himself is yet to explore and master.
El-Noshokaty examined a birthmark on his own skin, and thoroughly surveyed the earth to find 15 existing cities and locations that match the contours of the birthmark.
The exhibit largely consists of over 60 abstract drawings produced between 2012 and 2015 that fill the central rooms of Gypsum, along with a cement sculpture placed on the floor, cast in the same shape as the birthmark.
The heart of the project lies in the inner room, where the mystifying ice sculpture stands on a white octagonal box and an informative animation is projected on the wall, listing facts about the 15 locations that match the shape with varying percentages.
The inception of 'Colony'
“I noticed that my father and grandfather also had birthmarks, so I began researching into heritable genetics,” El-Noshokaty tells Ahram Online.
He found that the biological meaning of the term 'colony' refers to a mass of cells that mutate, one of the causes of skin colouration.
At the time, the artist had also started developing a fascination with maps, which led to extensive studying of cartography as a form and as a concept.
“With cartography in mind, I was noticing all these shapes around me, these borders and outlines."
“I wondered if this birthmark that is mapped on the surface of my skin, is also a place mapped on ‘the skin’ of the earth; if it’s a place that I will go to someday, or maybe somewhere I will die,” he says.
Using Google Earth, he methodically tried to fit the birthmark shape onto the globe, until he would find a match. A research team then helped him gather all the information on these locations.
“I was surprised to find so many places, including one in Haifa, Syria that matches 100%. So I thought to colonise these places. So far they are 15, we can still find more,” he says.
Like a virtual war game (without the violence), it is as if by having this symbol on his hand he is allowed to lay claim on these grounds that match it’s contour.
As such, 'Colony' marries two concepts, the study of these lands identical to what is marked on his skin, and the idea and activity of colonisation.
“It started with a sparked curiosity of finding the places, and transformed into an obsession of colonising, applying the colonial mindset of physically taking over a place, and also the concept of colonisation as something ever growing,” El-Noshokaty says.
Installation of ice sculpture, with animation playing in the background (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
His quest to find material that can grow or mutate led him to explore ice as a medium, which though ingenious, proved challenging in execution.
Eventually he worked with technicians to modify an air-conditioning unit, and used Freon tubes as a skeleton for the ice to grow on, making it look like a dormant magical being.
The effect is quite whimsical, owing to bright pink colouring that blends with the white ice. The artist chose this pink for its sensual allure, evoking a sense of fantasy and the sweetness of candy, things that stand in contrast with the hard facts and research involved in the project.
The candy-coloured cold sculpture is meant to grow to fill in the shape of the birthmark carved around it, and also grow vertically to have mountains that create valleys, resembling the geographic illustration projected on the wall in the same room.
Interestingly, El-Noshokaty himself is trying the medium and technique for the first time. While the concept is research-based, particular and planned, this part, the most significant, is given free reign, presenting an exciting play of control and liberation.
“The whole exhibit has this surreal and organic aspect, and that was a choice I made to present all this dense research material with an aspect of sensuality, not as purely scientific,” El-Noshokaty says.
The framed small drawings also reflect this odd balance between precision and abandon.
Using pencils, pens and bright colored pencils, layers of floating spaces and structures on paper seem like the scribbles of a skilled hand, enchanting the viewer with a mixture of grounded looseness.
Though occasionally there appears a tree, or something resembling part of a building, they don't illustrate anything, but only suggest surreal architecture, they aren’t places or studies or sketches, they are simply an ode to drawing as a medium.
“I find the strongest type of drawing is when its directly connected to the movement in the brain. Its closest to subconscious doodles,” the artist says.
“They are not the project,” he says. The drawings run parallel to the project, mapping the movement in his brain at the time when it was occupied with conceiving 'Colony'.
Yet as the project evolved, the drawings evolved with it. The whole collection may seem similar, but there are two sets of drawings that differ in terms of process and ‘brain movement’.
“The collection on the squared paper is closest to the truly subconscious drawing, I have no validation for the way they turned out, they are the result of flow,” El-Noshokaty says.
“The other collection on the plain paper have more awareness in terms of technique and how it can serve the subject, by borrowing techniques from geography."
“With these I make some decisions, I think of the type of line I choose, its weight, its nature, how the layers connect in the space, how many layers and the nature of their overlapping,” he says.
Display of Shady El-Noshokaty's drawings at Gypsum gallery (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
El-Noshokaty is interested in the dynamic space between fact and fantasy.
“The most important aspect for me is the transformation from scientific information into something else, something sensual, and making it into art. It’s not about illustrating research, it becomes art when it transforms into fantasy,” says the artist.
From his initial education and training as a classic fine artist, over the years, El-Noshokaty’s approach to art had evolved to become larger than life.
In this grand project, El-Noshokaty follows the art to a metamorphosis, allowing the research experience in itself to become the art.
“I used to be very personal and very present in my artwork, but over the years I began to realise that by wearing a mask to distance yourself from the art, you become more free and unbound by anything,” El-Noshokaty says.
“In the project 'My Grandmother’s House', I was looking for metaphors. Then in 'Stammer' I began letting go of the idea that I’m illustrating a personal topic, and moved towards investigating it. I was dealing with the concept of stammering itself, approaching it as a subject of research beyond my personal link to it. 'Colony' is a step further in that direction,” he says.
Though still sprouting from very personal issues, with this evolution towards research-centered work the artist’s relationship with 'Colony' becomes but one aspect of the layered artwork.
Image from the artist's studio, showing part the artist's thought process (Photo: Shady El-Noshokaty)
Beyond the work
When it comes to audience consideration, very often conceptual art can alienate itself by being too abstract. Some artists believe creating work for an audience weakens it, others think disregarding the audience is pointless, and some, like El-Noshokaty, try to walk the line.
The otherworldly sculptures, the playfully precise drawings, the hypnotic animation, all exude their own sense of beauty.
“Perhaps it goes back to my classic training, but I care about aesthetics. I think it’s important that people enjoy what they’re looking at, even if it is based on research, it builds a connection with the audience,” he says.
As an educator, El-Noshokaty’s audience also involves many of his students, which he admits can be a weight of responsibility, but never interferes with the artistic practice.
“My relationship with the audience only starts when I come to install the work,” he says.
“During installation I can take certain decisions so the students can emerge with some experiential knowledge. An example of this is displaying the drawing of mice from a previous project as a reference, something I tell my students to do,” says El-Noshokaty.
The reference of mice in 'Latitude' is a subtle undercurrent. But in 'Colony' they play a significant role we can expect to see more of in the coming 14 parts of the project.
“Mice are on the flag, as a symbol of colonisation. These creatures have a direct relationship with humans, with lives running in parallel to our civilization, even when they are unwelcome,”
He elaborates by saying he interchanges mice with humans in his work, as they resemble our colonies in the way their society grows very quickly.
“All the scientific tests are run on mice, because their genes are the closest to humans,” he says.
Next steps include the exhibition of 'Latitude' in Germany by mid 2016.
“'Latitude' is just the prologue,” El-Noshokaty says.
The other chapters of 'Colony' will slowly unfold, the coming part titled 'Manifesto' promises handmade maps, surreal sculpture, more evolving ice and other paraphernalia from the artist’s colonies around the world.
Image from the artist's studio, showing part of his research material, some of which maybe used in the upcoming parts of Colony (Photo: Shady El-Noshokaty)
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