In ‘The Journey’, Marwa Adel rebels against the stories of traditional femininity and the glorified institution of marriage, to which girls passionately, yet blindly, aspire to from the day they are born.
Born in 1984 in Cairo, Adel uses photography and graphic design to tackle controversial issues in contemporary Egyptian society. Adel’s work is largely autobiographical; in The Journey, she communicates her feelings and frustrations at living in a society that, as she perceives it, strips women of freedom and choice.
In what marks the artist’s fifth solo show at Safarkhan Gallery in Zamalek, Adel strives to liberate women from the shackles of stereotypes and traditions, through telling the story of the pre-determined rituals of marriage. An alluring nude woman’s contours appear in the foreground of carefully constructed Orientalist backgrounds that recreate old Cairo landscapes, complete with old costumes and picturesque buildings.
Adel’s monochromatic palette returns in The Journey where it is perhaps more appropriate than ever, as the artist represents modern-day women as being caught in a cultural flashback. In this collection of multi-layered pieces, the visual artist borrows images from old Islamic history books, patterns from an ancient mosque wall in Dubai, and maps from Google, combined with nude photographs of a single female model she has relied on for her work for the past four years.
The photographs hanging on the wall at the Safarkhan gallery pull the viewer away, into an alternate universe. An Orientalist sense embraces each of her paintings, continually juxtaposed with the soft curves of a nude female body seemingly in distress.
The timeless body of a woman is, in a sense, rebelling against the snapshots of old Cairo rendered in the photographs. Each piece in the exhibition emerges as an episode in a pre-determined life; the steps towards marriage.
As you journey through the collection at Safarkhan, you become a traveler, exploring a woman’s life materialising beyond her control. Marwa Adel explains that the exhibited collection narrates her personal journey and experience with an early unsuccessful marriage, and an ugly divorce.
“From the day you are born, society starts to pressure you and prepare you for your wedding,” Adel says. “It doesn’t matter that you are not ready.”
For the artist, The Journey also refers to the man’s search for a suitable woman, and naturally, he hankers after the “more obedient girl with better manners.”
“He chooses the veiled girl, and I am not speaking of the headscarf - I mean the intellectual veil.”
Marwa Adel’s collection plays with the ideas of space, and how contemporary society forces us to locate genders on a map. She explains that the Google Maps on some of her canvases show the location of her ex-husband, who lived in the United States, but insisted that her “intellectual address” is rooted in Islamic society.
Among the dainty architecture, serene landscape and soft contours of a woman’s body, Adel inserts disturbing, oversized insects into some of her canvases. She explains that these represent the forces that eat away at the identity of women in Egypt.
Adel is disturbed by how culture and religion join forces to render a woman’s place in society as a housewife whose sole job is to look after her children. In one of her pieces, a woman cooks for her child, and he subsequently extends a hand with a rose to congratulate her. In the artist’s view, oppressed women only raise boys and girls with the same restrictive attitudes towards gender roles.
Continually representing the quest for freedom, Adel’s work boldly presents the human figure – a clear taboo in Egyptian society - and introduces text and symbols that help her create a context for expression and rebellion. In this exhibition, Marwa Adel once again proves that she has a unique style which combines photography and computer graphics, rendering her one of Egypt’s most prominent contemporary artists.
Her images reflect the universal struggle of women faced with gender stereotypes everyday across the globe. Her conceptual photographs are not simply aesthetically impressive; they are a revolutionary force, urging women to break free and seek a journey of their own.
In this body of work, Adel represents the struggle for identity. There is nothing joyful about the body language of the women encased in her photographs - they are in agony, rejecting the lives they did not choose to lead. Because the woman is dominant in each of the portraits, your eyes fixate upon her. Adel forces you to look at the scene through tracing the contours of the female body, and not vice versa. In that sense, this collection is a revolution, in which Adel gives a voice to women, who are no longer satisfied with existing in the mold drawn for them by society.
‘The Journey’ runs until 29 December.
Safarkhan Gallery, 6 Brazil Street, Zamalek, Cairo
Opening hours: Monday – Saturday, 10am - 9pm