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The Changing Room: Arab transformations exhibited in London

The Changing Room - a collection of photo, video and installation projects from the Arab world on the desire for change - is displayed in a magic shop, an underground gallery and directly on the London street

Sara Elkamel, Tuesday 28 Aug 2012
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Still from film by Soha El Sirgany in Public Screen
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The Changing Room, currently on show in London, tackles the ongoing transformations in the Arab world from an artistic perspective. Documenting history as it unfolds, Arab artists come together in London to provide an artful guidebook of insights into a region of rapid change, though at times not rapid enough.

As the project’s name implies, The Changing Room sheds light on the transitory dynamics of Arab countries. But these stories - told through the medium of artists who have been personally affected by the change, or the lack thereof - are not strictly political. The project is not called The Newsroom, it is called The Changing Room. It is where people shed their old clothes and try on new ones, in hopes of looking more attractive, but more importantly, in hopes of feeling more attractive. The projects hosted by London this summer reflect the desire of Arab artists and citizens at large for change.

Egyptian-Italian curator Aida Eltoire, who has five years of experience curating, aimed to develop a diverse collective that helps document the changing nature of Arab art and politics.

“There is an incredibly powerful relationship between art and politics,” Eltorie tells Ahram Online. “Since we look at works that are concurrent with the events that happen not only around artist's lives, but around the collective they wish to represent or associate themselves to, it is hard to separate art from politics.”

The concept that cultural change is a natural product in political dynamics in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab countries underlies The Changing Room. The project brings socio-cultural change to the fore through strong visual statements. 

The Changing Room was first conceived in March 2011 in the months leading up to the Venice Bienalle of 2011, where it was initially meant to be exhibited. Eltorie worked on two projects simultaneously, Thirty Days of Running in Place (an homage to artist Ahmed Basiony, who died on 28 January during the early days of protests in Cairo) and The Changing Room. The curator and the two artists who designed the project, Khaled Ramadan and Aladin, however, decided to move the exhibition to Torino. The Changing Room was thus showcased for the first time in September 2011 at the Metroquadro Arte Gallery in Rivoli, Italy.

Almost a year later, the British Council invited the curator to exhibit The Changing Room in the London 2012 Festival in parallel with the London Olympics. Now, The Changing Room comfortably dwells in London, chosen for its diversity and multi-layered society, which has acted as a sponge for various cultures throughout the centuries.  

In the duration of the exhibition artists from the Arab world occupy an underground gallery, a magic shop and an office hub, evoking signs of change.

Three Egyptian participate in The Changing Room, unveiling their personal relationships with the transformations taking place in their country.

Nermine Hammam exhibits her series Uppekha, which she had been working on since February 2011, taking photographs of the unfolding events in Tahrir Square, from protests to the army’s takeover of the streets.

“It is in Nermine Hammam's works that we witness a guise being made. The backdrop of the revolution is beautified and juxtaposed against beautiful young men wearing loose boots restfully leaning against their rugged tanks. The situation is magnified into an illusion of utopia: a belief that the people are being saved, while the reality is quietly untrue and completely questionable,” explains Eltorie.

Ibrahim Saad showcases his work at an underground space in the Charring Cross metro station. Saad’s project continues a series he started in February 2011 entitled Welcome Back featured at the Alexandria's Jesuit Cultural Centre, in which he paints symbolic images of public gatherings and groups of people in prayer, chanting and more.

Another Egyptian artist, Bassem Yousri, hijacks a magic shop as his exhibition space, where he creates conversations amongst the local surroundings, addressing crucial issues faced by global societies in a continuation of his project All the Important Issues.

Running in parallel with The Changing Room, Public Screen, a project curated by Yara Mekawi, puts the man on the street in direct contact with animated videos from the Middle East. Eliminating the boundaries between art and its audience, the project engages ordinary citizens; evoking interest in video art. Unassuming passersby experience short films in their natural habitat, not conditioned by a theme or gallery space.

This project strives to create dialogue between young filmmakers and the public through bringing video art to the street. It was first implemented in Shaware3na, which screened of video art projects across the Cairo's major squares. Now, Public Screen travels alongside The Changing Room to the heart of London.

“Public Screen was on view inside the Hub Westminster as part of the opening collective, showing works by 15 artists from the region,” says Eltorie. The rich selection of digital artworks made here was sponsored by the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. 

One of the artists with digital films featured in Public Screen told Ahram Online that she was overjoyed to have her work exhibited in London. As a young Egyptian artist working with collage animation, Soha El-Sirgany showcases two films produced in the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution, titled No Apologies and Titanium.

“The project started with the parallel development in Egypt's revolution at the same time I was remodeling my bedroom,” El-Sirgany tells Ahram Online. “I mixed symbolic elements from our collective memory of the revolution with my own interpretations. More subtly, my videos are about exploring the space, understanding it and transforming it to make it my own.”

Although El-Sirgany is excited that her work is being seen by a London audience, she speculates that the films are out of context. “I don't expect they'd directly relate to the culture-specific symbolism. Would that make it more interesting for them or less?” she asks.

Still, El-Sirgany is eager to help bring a sense of original Arab art to a European audience, instead of the romanticised, standardised art wok expected from artists from the region post-Arab Spring.

“You know how there's this romantic aura around how the world sees art from Arab countries, about Arab countries. Especially post the revolutions,” the artist says. “I hope I, along with the other artists, can present an original view on contemporary art over here, its not all graffiti and paintings.”

The Changing Room, which opened 15 August in London, features the following artists: Abel Abidin, Karim Al Husseini, Sama Alshaibi, Anas Al-Shaikh, Kader Attia, Khaled Hafez, Hassan Hajjaj, Hermine Hammam, Ines Jerray, Assia Lakhlif, Ibrahim Saad, Steve Sabella, Marwan Sahmarani, Larissa Sansour, Khaled Ramadan, Bassem Yousri, Mostapha Ashraf, Alaa Edriis, Soha El Sirgani, Ibrahim Jawabrah, Monther Jawabrah, Ahmed Mohsen Mansour.

Programme:
Open now until 30 September

The Hub, Westminster
First Floor, New Zealand House
80 Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4TE

Underground Gallery
Charing Cross Underground Arcade
The Strand, London, WC2N 4HZ

Davenports Magic (store)
7 Charing Cross Underground Arcade
The Strand, London,WC2N 4HZ

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