As part of the centennial celebrations of the American University in Cairo (AUC) last week, three exhibitions were inaugurated at the Tahrir Culture Center (TCC) in three different galleries – connected by the theme of art’s relationship to technology.
Curated by Shiva Balaghi, senior advisor to the President of AUC, the three shows are a perfect opportunity for imagination to extend the boundaries of rigid technology. The shows also examine the relationship between technology and society in the most creative ways.
With the aim of hosting shows that bring together art and science departments, Balaghi started organising this project a year ago. “In addition to the need to have a database on artists whose artworks harmonize with the theme, I wanted the artworks to look good together,” she explained.
At the Margo Veillon Gallery, “Glitch” showcases paintings, drawings and digital animations by a group of Egyptian and international artists. The show casts light on how past, present and future could be mediated through the intricate games of technology.
Artists participating in Glitch represent different countries, including UK, Iran, Morocco, Bangladesh, US, Egypt and Pakistan.
“I actually picked artists with works I like,” Balaghi said, “and whose works are relevant to the theme. And it so happened that the majority are women. I don’t think the biography of an artist stands in the way of accepting their participation.
“I don’t think that knowing the artist is Iranian would help the viewer understanding the work better.”
Among the highlights are three pictures by Basim Magdy, an Egyptian artist whose works capture themes of love, beauty and time, combined with his own poetic texts.
“AUC’s mission is to be a global university in Cairo,” Balaghi went on. “Therefore, our policy should reflect being both global and rooted in the Egyptian culture.”
Balaghi mentioned Petra Cortright, a popular US YouTube artist whose works are being exhibited for the first time in Cairo. Cortright collects images from the Internet. They could be anything: a picture on Facebook or an advertisement. Then she makes videos or digital paintings out of them, posting them for free.
One of these artworks is exhibited in the form of a painting, featuring a format resembling a vase of blossoming flowers, which are actually made of hundreds of images on the internet. The painting echoes the composition of traditional Dutch still lifes with floral themes, according to Balaghi: “It is all made digitally on the computer, so we call it a digital painting.”
Equally interesting is Aish baladi or local bread, a digital installation by Egyptian artist Haytham Nawwar. In digital black and white drawings, bread emerges in different forms and situations like different expressions of human face. As aish, life, and baladi, my country, have different connotations in Arabic, Nawwar plays an ingenious game connecting digital and human worlds.
“The culture scene in Cairo is thriving, with a huge number of artists and events. However, it is hard to bring artworks by international artists or Arabs who live in Europe or the US to Cairo because of the high expenses. And here is our point of uniqueness, because there are few places where international artists can show in Cairo,” Balaghi said.
In addition to “Glitch”, the Future Gallery hosts artworks by Laila Shereen Sakr, an Egyptian-American artist and professor of digital arts at the University of California. Laila describes her exhibition as a “personal biography”. She invented the name VJ Um Amel for herself as she likes the idea of being an Arab cyborg.
“VJ Um Amel is a name I use in a set of art performances where I examine the association between the identity of mother and techno-feminist construct of a cyborg and local and international conceptions of ‘Arab’,” Sakr explained.
The exhibition suggests that there is no longer any division between theory and practice and that the routine integration of technology into every aspect of our daily lives actually reflects the fact that we are immersed in a huge digital experience.
Sakr earned her MFA in digital arts and media from the University of California Santa Cruz. Her scholarly writing and art practice are intertwined around glitch aethetics and Egypt. “I had my first baby, Amel in the middle of my studies, so this is how it started. Now that I had my first baby, I realized that I needed to stay at home more. Therefore, I started to learn more on how to do art via internet.”
“Beit Um Amel” (Um Amel’s Home) is the artist’s debut solo exhibition in Egypt, where she was born. The paradox is not lost on her: home refers to an emotional warmth, but the exhibits present a lifeless virtual world. They portray digitally treated pictures, either taken by the artist or given to her by friends living in different countries.
One intriguing picture is an appalling scene of destroyed homes in Yemen. The artist adds threads of torn clothes, enhancing the drama. Another interesting picture, The Beach, was originally sent to the artist by a friend in Columbia. A favourite destination of hers, the beach has become a fixed corner of her virtual home.
Sakr uses different techniques, gama, glitch and pixel sorting, to produce a totally different version of the image.
Other pictures feature images of her own profile, and her belly while she was pregnant.
“I attempted to bring motherhood, softness and love back home,” she said. “I have been doing this sort of art for eight years now. My girl, Amel, is 12. I guess you have a better understanding now of the concept of my project,” she laughed.
At the Marriott Gallery, “Corners of a Dream” by Bahiya Shehab – professor of arts at AUC – takes up a fairly narrow room barely big enough five viewers: four documentaries visualising four lines by Mahmoud Darwish – “My country is not a suitcase”; “Those who have a land have no sea”; “Imprisoned butterflies”; and “We love life if we have access to it” – are shown one after another, but each uses four screens.
The viewer has to shift their eyes between the four screens to grasp the message of each film. The most intriguing film is “My country is not a suitcase”, which features scenes of empty suitcases with anxious hands adding some vegetables in one scene, or spice cans on the opposite screen, books and newspapers on the third screen, and clothes for a newborn girl on the fourth.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.