Alternative histories at 'Something Else' Biennale probe society's workings and human nature

Soha Elsirgany , Wednesday 26 Dec 2018

Pakistani artist Saks Afridi and Egyptian artist Rodeina Fouad both question human nature by imagining different worlds at the second edition of Something Else, which closed on 15 December after 45 days of showcase

Darb 1718

The SpaceMosque changed our world, before it vanished – almost without a trace.

The vessel from outer space – a spiritually conscious spaceship, energy station and prayer gateway – granted people’s wishes, stirred their emotions and baffled their minds, before breaking their hearts and coming down to nothing, or almost nothing.

“If your prayers could be answered, would it change the world, or just yours?”

This is the question Pakistani artist Saks Afridi asks in his installation artwork ‘The SpaceMosque and the Miraj Phenomenon’, exhibited within Something Else - Off Biennale.

He is among the more than 100 artists who were invited to question the world by envisioning a different one, in response to the Biennale’s theme ‘What if it did not happen?’ under Swiss chief curator Simon Nijami.

This second edition of the Biennale – initiated by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr – took place between 1 November and 15 December, with five venues hosting the visual art exhibition across Cairo, alongside a parallel program of talks, performances and other events.

Some of the works in the massive show were more direct in their questions than others, as the various projects stemmed from social, emotional, political, and existential questions of all sorts.

The SpaceMosque and the Miraj Phenomenon - installation by Pakistani artist Saks Afridi, in collaboration with Rodeina Fouad

What If Prayers Became the Most Sought Out Currency?

The questions triggered by Afridi’s work expand in breadth and depth the closer you engage with the details of his multimedia installation, touching on human nature in regards to religion, politics, and society.

Floating in an empty sky, the mysterious vessel is said to have looked different to each person depending on their personal biases, as Afridi’s statement notes. The artist shares two of these versions in large posters; one resembles a single, sleek minaret with its tips pointed both upwards and downwards, the second is a more complex structure that looks like a futuristic, robotic mosque.

The story goes that the sudden appearance of the SpaceMosque meant that each individual on Earth got one prayer answered every 24 hours. And so it was, until the world turned to chaos, as “greed and morality were at constant war.”

To solidify his fictional-past-event, Afridi presents a body of evidence supporting his claim, giving some insight on how the phenomenon affected Egyptian society, and what life was like in its existence.

His feat was made possible through his collaboration with young Egyptian artist Rodeina Fouad, who undertook the task in Cairo while coordinating with Afridi overseas.

She introduced the project during a walk-through of the artworks with the public led by Brazilian curator Sheila Zagho (The Nomad Curator) – who curated seven of the 12 works displayed at the abandoned store space near Townhouse Gallery.

“At some point we lost the memory of this phenomenon, no one has a recollection of what happened, nor an explanation. But we found those things on display here that supposedly prove it all existed. It’s the first time this evidence is shown to the public,” Fouad tells the small group of attendees.

Surrounded by crumbling walls and pebbled floors, her insider information made it feel all the more secretive, pulling us further into the fantasy.

The SpaceMosque and the Miraj Phenomenon - installation by Pakistani artist Saks Afridi, in collaboration with Rodeina Fouad

Fouad was tasked with making the installation relevant to Egyptian culture, while making it period specific with material that would have been used 15 years ago when the vessel appeared.

The collection of images and items tell little storylines that viewers are encouraged to explore.

There are handwritten journals of people whose prayers were granted, photos of surreal encounters with dead relatives, and advertising flyers for a clinic that scans your ‘level of spirituality.’

A photograph of street graffiti in Arabic calligraphy that reads “Beware of the false god” gives an idea of the tumultuous energy at the time and the contradicting opinions on the street.

There is also a copy of a governmental document stating a change of constitution to criminalise prayer because of all the mayhem it had caused.

Some of these items were created by the artists, while others were simply found objects that in context support their claim.

One of the most immersive pieces of evidence is an audio track by Ahmed Badr. It’s a capsule collection of sounds, including the “Number 1 Prayer Service in Egypt,” a call center that took people’s prayers and channeled them through children and elder people, who were more likely to get their prayers answered.

While the whole installation engages the viewers, as it invites them to touch and examine it’s different elements, Afridi further incorporates interaction by asking us to write our own prayer/wish in a large notebook.

We find ourselves not only asking his original question, but other existential ones; What do we really want? Are we really individuals, or just threads in the canvas of society?

It also prompts us to question society and how it functions; is a dystopia really inevitable if we all had our prayers answered? What is power, and where do our freedoms end? Was it necessary to erase this event and its evidence from our memories? If we believe that history repeats itself, is it better to never know what happened?

The whole narrative may be triggered by this alien, floating vessel, but it is strongly rooted in reality, presented in Afridi’s serious but also whimsical and humorous approach.

Fouad further revealed that the installation is a teaser for the larger body of work Afridi created, including 3D-prints of otherworldly objects found in the SpaceMosque, and other paraphernalia.

“While these items didn’t make it to the Something Else showcase, they will all be displayed in New York alongside more material from the project’s application in Pakistan and the USA,” she said.

Fouad also has her own project within the Biennale, displayed at Darb 1718. Titled ‘Terra Nullius,’ it is one of the projects that stand out in that venue.

The SpaceMosque and the Miraj Phenomenon - installation by Pakistani artist Saks Afridi, in collaboration with Rodeina Fouad

What if No Man's Land stayed that way?

Not unlike her collaboration with Afridi, Fouad’s work also crafts a fiction, as she imagines the landscape, population and utopic history of a Terra Nullius (No man’s land).

She was interested in questioning the idea of an ultimate reality, and how there can be different versions of the truth, and it’s never simply black or white.

“What is reality, and what is truth? Where do we get truths from? History. Where to do we get history from? People’s stories. There is no way that man-made stories are 100 percent factual, because you have to have a perspective and a bias,” she tells Ahram Online.

Fouad imagined if the grey area between truths was a land, a place beyond good and evil. She questions the idea of space, and more so reality and truth, how we construct them, and how easy they are to revise.

Fouad wanted her display to feel like you’ve stepped into a museum, to make the reality of Terra Nullius so tangibly real that you believe it and question everything you know.

Everything from artifacts to dates, names, and manuscripts give hints about the land and its people’s traditions, and even about the deadly virus that wiped out their civilisation.

In glass box displays we find specimens of bones, earth rocks, and pottery from the land of Terra Nullius.

A mind map also works as a physical one, as it connects ‘The Land’ with ‘Subjectivity’ and ‘The Truth’ and other notions as if they were foreign places.

Rodeina Fouad
Terra Nullius, instillation by Egyptian artist Rodeina Fouad

“It’s not so much about critiquing anything, but just saying ‘please embrace the grey area,’ because if you ask me what truth is; I don’t have an answer,” the artist says.

Her primary interest was to explore human behaviour and its psychology, yet her multidisciplinary project allowed her to delve into biology, chemistry, archaeology, and more specialised fields.

In contrast to Afridi’s work, which she helped put together, Fouad did not pull from Egyptian culture, instead she was thinking of how to make it unfamiliar.

The old crumbling manuscripts are in a foreign script and language we cannot decode, telling stories we do not know about a people who lived a reality unlike ours.

The display is an extended version of her graduation project, and was two years in the making.

“This time the project is larger and more developed, and I filled in some gaps that were in the early version,” she tells Ahram Online.

Rodeina Fouad
Terra Nullius, instillation by Egyptian artist Rodeina Fouad

While Afridi’s work is displayed at the run-down store space, which suited the work’s underground and excavation-like mood, Fouad’s work at Darb 1718 sits in a wholly different ambience that also suited her work.

She takes up a corner that allows her to showcase her items in relative isolation from the neighbouring works.

However, this was a unique setup in the venue of Darb 1718, where the open space was packed with many works which often had little room to breathe.

Nonetheless the work of both artists in the same show demonstrates how the Biennale was conducive in more than just physical spaces: the virtual space that connected a young Egyptian artist with an international established one.

Connections like these are one of the ways Something Else stayed true to the heart of its vision; to create a bridge between local artists and the international art scene, supporting them with exposure and placing them in an international context, as Rehab Ragaee, general manager of Darb 1718, shared in her interview.

Rodeina Fouad
Terra Nullius, instillation by Egyptian artist Rodeina Fouad

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