Context as content: Sherif El-Azma and Ahmed Shawky's dual exhibition at Cairo’s Sharjah Gallery

Soha Elsirgany , Wednesday 20 Nov 2019

Both artists share an interest in how spaces and contexts affect experiences, highlighting contemplation as an antidote to homogeny in their show titled Inauguration

Sculpture by Ahmed Shawky Hassan (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Inauguration, an exhibition of installations by Sherif El-Azma and Ahmed Shawky Hassan, sparks questions on the institutional dynamics of art representation, the architecture of rituals, and the relationship between form, content and context.

The exhibition opened at the Sharjah Gallery at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on 28 October and ran through 11 November.

Works by the two artists were displayed on two separate floors of the gallery, each distinct in tone and approach.

“I knew from his solo at Townhouse that we were both questioning the formal systems of art representation, and the psychology of architecture and associations,” El-Azma, who took the initiative for the dual show, tells Ahram Online.

In its most direct form, the systems in question are the architectural features and contexts of certain spaces which get entangled with contemporary art representation when used as an exhibition space.

Their brief exhibition statement describes these underlying dynamics as “infrastructures” and “lexicons” which they wanted to reveal and dissect for a better understanding.

El-Azma’s approach is more historical excavation, and extends to more branches where these systems can be encountered and dissected. Shawky, on the other hand, is more concerned with the present moment and takes a direct-spotlight approach that is more accessible, while serving as an entry point into El-Azma’s more nuanced work.

Commemoration by Sherif El-Azma
Commemoration by Sherif El-Azma (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Foam and content

Shawky’s texts, images, sculptures, and video ask an underlying question: When a space imposes itself on the artwork, what does it serve?

Part of his installation is a text on his personal experience exhibited at Cairo’s Palace of Arts.

“[For] 12 days [I was] trying to hide the features of the palace as its characteristics did not fit my work frame; considering the fact that the place itself is a work of art,” Shawky writes.

His experience is relatable to countless artists, who exhibited at the palace for the annual Youth Salon or the General Exhibition.

“These places are connected to history, they have their own pasts and dictate certain contexts related to that,” Shawky highlights to Ahram Online.

The Palace of Arts, formerly the Nile Hall, was built in the late 1970s. It was managed by the Royal Agriculture Society and used for their annual showcases. In 1984 it was re-appropriated as an arts hall, and has since been the main arena for the largest national exhibitions.

But what is all this to the contemporary audience? Have they become desensitised to this architectural context which colours their viewing experience, or have they become simply unaware?

Commemoration - Sherif El-Azma
Commemoration - Sherif El-Azma (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

As El-Azma points out, there is a layer of nationalism attached to these spaces.

“Buildings like these emulate royal history, and were meant to serve specific functions. I think they are overburdened. It’s like a strained renaissance of culture, while making a statement of being contemporary. It becomes a politics of presenting nationalism,” El-Azma adds.

A small replica of the Palace of Arts (about 30x 20cm) serves as a sort of mecca to Shawky’s display. Viewed from above, it looks blocked, inaccessible, and distant, as if untouchable. He has turned it into an icon for all it represents, a trigger for collective memory and associations.

He wanted to use a medium that was masquerading as something else. “Instead of my initial plan for a bronze sculpture, I decided to carve it in foam and paint it bronze.”

The mini palace sits on a blue cube. Paired with the golden sculpture, they echo the colours of the AUC flag, an indirect play on context.

Shawky’s anecdote directly compares the Palace of Arts with Sharjah Gallery at AUC. Although it was more recently built, he describes it as a sort of déjà vu.

“I’m here to camouflage the relationship between both,” he says, on how both buildings function much the same way and their characteristics spill into the artwork they host.

In that light, the Sharjah Gallery was designed for nationalism rather than contemporary art – inadvertently propagating the same systems.

Ahmed Shawky Hassan
Ahmed Shawky Hassan (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


In a series of texts and photos, Shawky extends the comparison to spaces in Paris. A collection of texts titled Protocols, some written in Cairo and others in Paris, are couched in red velvet and placed on museum tables.

They recount situations in art spaces where he encountered discrepancies between context and content.

“Protocols is a word closely connected to openings, and so many of these moments were during opening days,” the artist says, which explains the exhibition’s title.

The texts document and attempt to rationalise these instances, but end up also mapping the invisible infrastructure of the standardised practices in art’s creation, display, and viewership.

A glossy white polyester sculpture of three hands holding a single scissor is displayed in a corner painted red. It’s like a monument for the red ribbon those scissors would be cutting – physically or figuratively - at all the formal official openings.

The colour red becomes symbolic of institutional convention and protocol, all the established customs and conventions of exhibitions.

Three charcoal drawings hang in small frames next to this sculpture; including one of an elaborate fire extinguisher found at the entrance of Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Red fire extinguishers come up a lot in a series of photos Shawky displays unconventionally on the glass part of the bannisters at the gallery. These are part of his archive from 2017, with some previously shown in his solo An Object Resembling an Artwork in 2018.

Installations by Sherif El-Azma
Installations by Sherif El-Azma (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


Whilst Shawky’s work mainly centres on the Palace of Art and art institutions, the spaces El-Azma deals with are more various: artists' studios, prisons, and an agriculture museum. His is a world of thoughtful riddles, buried in objects just beyond the familiar.

He presents another architectural sculpture on the gallery’s ground floor, right below where the Palace of Arts’ model sits, similarly displayed on a raised cube.

Titled Commemoration, this white structure is comprised of platforms and steps, and in some way resembles impossible architecture where the paths lead back to themselves and there seems to be no culminating purpose.

“It is an incomplete and hypothetical monument - a neutral one,” El Azma says.

“Post-colonial states and their public buildings are more commemorative than contemplative. They have their set of rituals. I borrow a lot from history, which plays a part in ritual. The steps which have always been symbolic in ritual; climbing up is commemoration, and climbing down is death.”

By simulating new spaces and toying with how the elements relate to each other, he is both mimicking those rituals and injecting contemplation into them.

The majority of his project involves seven installations of "trays" that evoke institutional meal plans (of hospitals or prisons), while resembling architectural models for peculiar spaces. They also give the impression that they serve very specific ritual functions, as their titles suggest.

One piece titled Libations is designed as a shallow maze, with a drain path that pours into a square basin. Other trays have different arrangements of what he refers to as "the building blocks of civilisation: the step and the cube” used as a positive or negative space.

Sherif El-Azma
Sherif El-Azma (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

El-Azma’s trays are visual ways of questioning function versus form, which he deconstructs, and recombines like puzzle pieces, giving rise to more questions than answers.

In The Scorpion, a plaque of plaster with high relief carvings, the artist mimics the pattern of the cell plan of El-Aqrab Prison (The Scorpion Prison) in Egypt, alongside two palms cupped as if in prayer.

“I wanted to inject the reference to prisons in several places to echo the idea of confinement.”

An overarching theme for him was the homogenising of the human experience, which he quietly rebels against.

“These systems want to put humans into a mould. How we’re supposed to eat, look at art, and perform rituals in a certain way. One of the questions I’m asking is: Can we use these trays for contemplation instead of rigid regime of nutrition, for example?”

He adds that “the small trays are meant to be a convenient size for usage, and the larger sized trays are meant to be read, like information interfaces.”

Some of the large trays include sculptures, like the pancreas in the tray titled Insulin, or objects attached such as a silicon form resembling a brain in the tray titled Alchemy.

In a separate room there are more small tray installations, as well as a table with a line-up of sculptures that border between familiar and alien. In the dark the items are minimally lit, as if glowing. It feels like a shrine in the heart of a temple.

“I considered the human drives involved in rituals, adrenaline, estrogen, testosterone, and the organs responsible for these drives (hormones). The final pieces are fantasised versions of these glands and organs, as if I’m creating an evolutionary system,” he says.

A small grey booklet titled Brass Kidneys offers a key to the more ideas behind El-Azma’s enigmatic, layered work.

It’s a symbolic narrative about a sugar factory which was turned into an artist’s studio, that is now diabetic.

Inside the factory/studio there are productions disappearing by night, and fragments of ideas that only come together when forced. It’s also a story of outside versus inside worlds, and the awareness of being viewed.

“Artists always operate with this inner versus outer conflict, much like the spaces in question,” El-Azma says.

Photo installation by Ahmed Shawky Hassan
Photo installation by Ahmed Shawky Hassan (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


The artists both agree that their work is not about critiquing as much as it is about triggering the audience to consider these dynamics and start conversations.

“We are suffering from a lack of concern for context. If this exhibition were to be shown in a white cube, we’d consider the context differently and make choices accordingly,” Shawky says.

The way El-Azma describes it is “how to re-inject contemplation, and how to use the system to look at the system.”

With the Sharjah Gallery being inside a university, one of the ways the exhibition has already stirred up contemplation is through the artists’ discussions with the students.

As they develop their own projects, perhaps they will be having more mindful and sophisticated encounters with space, form, and context.

The Palace of Arts by Ahmed Shawky Hassan
The Palace of Arts by Ahmed Shawky Hassan (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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