Navigating silence: Huda Lutfi talks about her latest exhibition in Cairo
Soha Elsirgany, , Tuesday 26 Mar 2019
A talk with Huda Lutfi last week at Oriental Hall focused on her solo exhibition held at the Tahrir Cultural Center last February


On Tuesday 19 March, the American University in Cairo hosted a talk by artist Huda Lutfi in light of her recent exhibition at the Tahrir Cultural Center.

Lutfi’s show was one of two solos – the other was for Sherin Guirguis – curated by Shiva Balaghi to inaugurate the Tahrir Cultural Center. Both shows ran in parallel through February.

In her talk, Lutfi gave a brief presentation of her oeuvre "to contextualise the shifts and connections in her work" leading up to her last solo.

The exhibition ‘When Dreams Call for Silence’ delves into Lutfi’s personal world and her meditations on different forms of silence in the spaces between life and death.

Between silences

In a detour, or perhaps a consequence, of the socio-political subjects she presented up until 2015, Huda Lutfi is personal and emotive in this new solo, presenting a body of work that is both graceful and disquieting.

Comprised largely of paintings, alongside installations and an animation piece, this recent collection shares much of the aesthetic with her last solo in Cairo,Dawn Portraits held at Gypsumgallery in 2017.

In muted grey tones, with rare blushes of pinks and purples, the images seem to come from a similar place of having time for oneself and looking within.

The imagery in ‘When Dreams Call for Silence’ probe life and death, not as events but as a journey on a spectrum of grey – the color of the in-between.

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Several pieces feature groups of figures taking this journey in processions. In the painting titled ‘Candle Bearers’, they walk in a line with lit candles on their heads, while in ‘Dreams Time’, their upper torsos are replaced with crows.

The projected animation piece is the most dynamic of Lutfi’s processions in a show where time seems to stand still. Here we only see a queue of legs, walking from one side of the frame to the other, and back again.

On the floor in front of the projected video is an installation of two lines of shoes completely wrapped in white muslin, placed on opposite sides of a black muslin line.

Both the video and the installation are expressions of crossing over, not only from life to death, but back again for rebirth and a new cycle.

In Lutfi’s lexicon, legs are used as symbols for life and movement, or the lack thereof. Throughout the show we encounter shoes and disembodied feet. They act as placeholders for people; someone who is, was or should be there, but whose presence is never cemented.

Feet, heads, eyes, ears and hands are scattered in Lutfi’s artworks, as this theme of disembodiment runs through the works, bringing along its inevitable cousins: loss and grief.

In the painting titled ‘Resting’, a disembodied head lies gently on its side on a chair in the corner of a room. Instead of being disturbing, the image manages to evoke a sense of ease through the blissful expression of the face and its gentle smile. The head is literally resting in peace, even though it has lost a body.

Meanwhile, a chair from the artist’s home is on display cradling a handwritten “Do not disturb” note. Perhaps for Lutfi, inanimate objects are just as sentient as disembodied heads.

An integral part of Lutfi’s practice has always been about including found objects and material things. In addition to the chair and several other items from her own home, we find old dolls, boxes, mannequins or parts of them making cameos across the exhibition amid all the painted works.

As the artist turns inwards, it seems natural that she rely a little less on external materiality and more on capturing internal images.

Even the mannequin’s torso, an item we’ve seen her use in previous shows with a socio-political context, takes on a new role in the context of her latest show.

“The mannequins in Cairo’s downtown storefronts have always intrigued me for their performative aspect, and how they can reflect and breed gender power dynamics and aesthetics,” she says in her talk.

This subtext takes a backseat in ‘When Dreams Call for Silence’, where a silver mannequin’s torso has a flattened face that is painted black, as if turned inwards to look within itself.

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Floating and grappling

With Lutfi’s oeuvre in mind, it’s easy to read the title of her show with a political subtext. Those familiar with her work and viewpoints will guess that she is seeking peace in trying times, something she noted briefly during her talk.

“If there is a type of silence that is forced from the outside, it paves the way for seeking a new kind of silence within,” the artist told Ahram Online in an interview.

Lutfi was orientating between a silence that is imposed and a silence that is sought.

For her, the external and internal worlds are not in direct contrast nor are they running in parallel. “It’s more of a dialogue. I’d say they are in constant negotiation,” she says.

The prevalent mood is neither celebratory nor melancholy, but swings between blissful surrender and a twitchy discomfort. It’s like a cathartic journey of coming to terms with carrying both life and death within us.

In her minimalist compositions, she plays around with spaces. Looking through the work is an ebb and flow between confined, intimate spaces, and wide, open-ended landscapes of no man’s land.

Another fluctuating tide is between individuals and collective groups. Many of the paintings are lonely in their subjects, with just one figure, body part or item, while others have multiples, utilising Lutfi’s signature use of repetition.

This tool of repetition has always stemmed from the artist’s own cathartic process and linked to her Sufi practice of meditation. “I use it to hypnotize the viewer, and myself,” she shares in her talk.

Used with different subjects throughout her career, repetition serves different effects, sometimes to reinforce absurdity, other times to express overwhelm or heighten an emotion.

In this show, particularly where meditation is both the subject and the means, repetition serves twofold and reaches the audience even more powerfully.

One installation, ‘Floating’, features multiple sleepy-eyed figures hung by strings so that they appear to float. Their bodies are wrapped in white muslin sheets that hang loose like summer dresses. Yet they hold together like leaves on a water current.

This sense of being alone yet together is also in the installation ‘Hand of Silence’. Here instead the figures are in a glass vitrine, bound tightly with the white fabric as a little hand creeps out from the folds to cover each lip.

If ‘Floating’ channels a blissful surrender and light sense of freedom, ‘Hand of Silence’ evokes restraint and rings closer to death, albeit a peaceful one.

In the latter, the lifeless figures still wear their earrings, a nod to the mummies of Ancient Egyptian tombs which are buried with their jewels and treasures.

Lutfi, a historian, was interested in bringing in the pharaonic influence to her works, if only subtly.

“It was so interesting to revisit the Book of the Dead and the ancient Egyptian ways of expression, and to try and make it contemporary,” she tells Ahram Online.

She has done so in the animation piece, but we see it more directly in several works featuring a silhouetted seated figure, knees pulled close to its chest. It is a familiar, unassuming figure that is as ancient as it is modern.

Copies and copies of this figure are cutout in transparent-bluish paper, displayed to hang like a curtain. This installation titled ‘Grappling Silence’ sits alone on an upper deck in the gallery space.

Even though the stairs leading to it are the first thing we encounter from the entrance, perhaps it is best saved for last – it’s lightness better appreciated after the journey at the bottom.

The installation seems to rise from the small room underneath it – where a recorded meditation by Rupert Spira plays – as if these transparent seated souls have transcended both physically and spiritually to a higher place.

And yet, even up there the silence is struggling, or ‘grappling’ as the title notes. It is neither easy nor stable, but an ongoing process.

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