As the third anniversary of the January 25 Revolution nears, an exhibition by acclaimed contemporary Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi offers a visual archive capturing the collage of moods and events that have unfolded since the winter of 2011.
Lutfi was born in Cairo in 1948. She holds a PhD in Islamic culture and history from McGill University, Canada. In collage, painting, photography, installation, and video art projects, the prolific Lutfi creates works that at times explore historical narratives inspired by Egypt's multilayered Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic, Arab and African cultural fabric, while at other times her work reacts to contemporary societal dynamics.
Scattered across the length of the tall walls of the Townhouse's factory space, works range from video to collage to installation, carrying symbols from a three-year ordeal otherwise called the "revolution and its aftermath." In 'Cut and Paste,' Lutfi’s pieces, each executed differently, displaying her resourcefulness and flexibility with materials, tackle a wide range of issues, including the Badrasheen train crash in January 2013, which left 18 dead, the forced virginity tests of female detainees that took place in March 2011, protester-police clashes, among others. It is as if you are swallowed into a vessel of Lutfi’s version of history, and you are unable to step away.
Huda Lutfi’s downtown home gave her direct access to the epicenter of the revolution, Tahrir Square, and a chance thus to chronicle events as they unfolded. Treading the line between artist and activist, Lutfi often found it difficult to practice as a studio artist in the shadows of constant change and violence. What the artist could do, however, was take photographs. Many of the artworks exhibited in 'Cut and Paste' are therefore based on photography.
“So I started taking lots of photos because it was the only thing I could do … in the immediate situation the camera was the only tool I had,” Lutfi told Ahram Online.
When Lutfi was not protesting or photographing, she was fastened in front of her computer screen, flipping through web pages and downloading piles of material, including news articles and photos. A historian by trade, she felt compelled to archive events and transformations that she knew would shape her country’s history.
After Morsi’s election in June 2012, Lutfi recalls that a need to produce artwork that would convey her take on a year-plus of turmoil and change overcame her. “I started feeling that I needed to get it out, you know, everything I’ve been through,” she says.
Cut and paste
The exhibition's title, 'Cut and Paste,' pays homage to the artist's beloved medium: collage. But it also captures her personal reading of the political scene over the past few years — a dizzying dance of trial and error.
"I think the works here are about how I saw and experienced things in the last three years," says Lutfi. "It’s very personal, in a way, and therefore subjective."
Like an oversized, masterfully illustrated journal, this exhibition provides insight into the artist’s reflections on the many waves of change in the country’s socio-political context.
In one of her pieces, dubbed 'Cactus Walk,' Lutfi appears as urging the public to move on from the romantic notion of revolution, which everyone clung to during the initial 18-day uprising, and instead start to confront the jagged edges of the revolutionary path. The installation is made up of a group of feet scattered on the floor, some edging towards two wooden ladders leaning up the wall. The feet are covered in a pattern of cactus plants, and the ladders are worn down and broken.
"I wanted very much to use the cactus as a way to evoke that this is going to be a period of a lot of suffering, and that it is a period that requires patience," the artist explains. One of the many silver rings on her fingers bears calligraphy that reads: "Patience is beautiful."
"But it is a period that will bring about positive results. So you know the staircase in the installation is broken, that's true, but it's still heading upwards and there's one step on it where the rest are still ... (with her ring-bearing fingers she makes a gesture for scattered).”
For Lutfi, assembling this exhibition was a cathartic experience. “Of course I feel much better, I feel relieved,” she said with a smile.
Ripping things apart
Perhaps the most expressive piece in the show, the artist explains, is a large grey sculpture of an ironing board painted with depictions of floating flatirons with spikes sticking out of them. Lutfi believes this to be an extremely reflective, conceptual piece with which she makes a statement on contemporary politics through appropriating an old image of a Surrealist object by American artist Man Ray.
'The Gift,' created in 1921, represents a subversive modification of a household appliance, the flatiron, by placing a row of brass tacks on the flat surface that is intended to iron out wrinkles from fabric. Ray belonged to the Dada group, of which Marcel Duchamp was a member. They used humour to pose the question: What constitutes a work of art? Ray's 'The Gift' was also a pioneering example of Surrealist art.
Surrealism, which emerged in 1924 with the publication of "Manifesto Surrealism" penned by André Breton, was an activist movement in many ways, as it sought to free society from cultural constraints, and to inspire imagination, including dreaming of enhanced living conditions and greater freedom. Surrealism echoed in Egypt in the 1940s, and inspired the establishment of the Art and Liberty group. Although Lutfi is much younger than this collective, her oeuvre carries undeniable surrealist resonances, and demonstrates that she is constantly merging art with activism.
"I thought it was appropriate because this specific image shows an ironing board trying to iron things out, but at the same time it is damaging things. I think this is the experience that we’ve been going through," she explains. "Trial and error and ripping apart things."
Beginning with the self
Another surrealist piece in this exhibition is 'Castor Oil Detox Formula,' which is a wooden shelf with soft curves with a number of glass bottles of castor oil, a traditional cleansing remedy, placed on the top.
"I thought I would offer it as an idea for people to think; that maybe we also need an internal cleansing, a brain cleansing."
Lutfi points out that this idea of refurbishing your mind, and questioning how you think, pervades the work of many young artists, particularly those working with graffiti and graphic design.
"We need to start with ourselves, question where we’re coming from, question our ideologies, our prejudices, and now is the right time for that," she says.
This invitation for change reoccurs in the exhibition, this time in an installation showing three rows of female baby dolls painted silver, their black hair tied above their heads, their arms flailing in the air. Lutfi straps an oppressed-looking female visage on the dolls' bodies, repeated across the rows for emphasis.
The artist explains that she created this piece as a reaction to the profuse media coverage on women's experiences in public spaces. Dubbed 'You Don't Want To Make Me Upset,' this piece is a social critique, highlighting the fight for women's rights in contemporary Egypt and challenging patriarchal social norms. Lutfi explains that the general oppressive rhetoric, combined with the widespread practice of harassment and sexual violence, perpetuates the existing "social and ideological attitudes towards women as subordinate creatures."
“But I mean, come on. Let’s change," Lutfi says.
The voice of freedom
One is reminded of the chants that resounded throughout Egypt’s cities as Lutfi wraps white sculptures of fragmented bodies in strips of black text that defiantly read: “Repression has never changed tomorrow” or “The voice of freedom is becoming hoarse.” She uses these thin strips of text again, this time on an installation dubbed 'Narratives of Power' showing five police figures hanging from strings at a distance from the wall, their shadows cast hauntingly behind them. This time, we do not hear from the revolutionaries; instead we read: “It’s not the time to protest,” “Haven’t they had enough?” and “Foreign funding ... Baradei’s women ... thugs ... aliens” At once we recall the statements that have flooded media outlets across the transitional period.
One painting, entitled 'Traffic,' shows a large number of turtles assembled messily and densely on a large canvas, utterly stuck in their place. Juxtaposed with other poignant pieces, this relatively banal and amusing depiction of Cairo’s sluggish traffic provides comic relief, begging a grin and nod of recognition.
What is interesting about this exhibition is that it tells multiple stories and does not enforce a single narrative. The artist presents a myriad of works that range from being revolutionary, to poignant, to daring, to hopeful, perhaps mimicking the collage of thoughts and feelings that have pervaded the wrinkled fabric of Egyptian society in the past three years.
Lutfi explains that she does not stick to one narrative, because she simply does not have one. While navigating the collage of unfolding events, her views and angles change. As a historian and a visual storyteller she channels her various interpretations of events through artwork. She does not claim to hold the true version of events. She explains that whenever you read history, you are experiencing it through the subjective lenses of various sources. "You get a picture of how they saw it, not what the reality was," she says. "That's why we have alternative narratives."
A video project dubbed 'Cairo Resonances' is the centerpiece for the exhibition. The three-minute video set to loop is an intrusive study of Hotel Viennoise, a run-down hotel located in downtown Cairo. Windows perpetually swing open and swing shut, letting light in and out at various points along the video, as we are taken on a tour down the hallways and along the ailing walls of the aging hotel. A sense of solitude grips you. The call to prayer imposes itself, edited to sound as if it was transmitted through a long tunnel. The video, capturing a barren and old building, offers a contemplative contrast to the exhibition that is both vibrant and busy. It is unsettling, but also leaves room for meditation on the future of a struggling people.
Exhibition runs until 8 January 2014.
10 Nabrawy Street, off Champollion Street, Downtown, Cairo