"I am not political," Nermine Hammam comments on a decade-long body of her work

Ati Metwaly, Sunday 25 Mar 2012

Prior to the opening of her exhibition Anachrony on 27 March at Safar Khan Gallery in Zamalek, Ahram Online explores the themes and influences informing the photography of Nermine Hammam


Soon after she graduated from New York University's Tisch School of Arts, and though she got a BFA in filmmaking, worked with Simon & Goodman and later on with renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, Nermine Hammam realised that cinema was not her vocation. "I watch lots of movies, but on the level of work my mind is not looking at reality through a cinema lens. I remember shots but I can't make one story out of them." For Hammam, reality is truncated into separate frames. Cinematography gives way to photography. "I can't tell a story, but give me shots and I'll figure sense out of them." Her cinematic background, nonetheless, allows Hammam to frame people's behaviour, to see people's gestures. 

Hammam held her first exhibition in 2001. Portraits was hosted by the Hanager Arts Centre while Mitigation was displayed in the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo. Ever since she participated in a number of solo and collective exhibitions held in Egypt and internationally. She also evolved as an artist and as a person. As much as her work has a clear continuum, each series stands on its own also. Though one work leads to another, each series represents a certain idea that is being built in the artist's mind and that finds its clear beginning and closure.

There are many parameters and many layers that characterise Hammam as an artist and it is important to look into her complexity of interests in order to understand what each of her photographic series represents. As such, Hammam's works are very personal but also carry an inspiring depth with a multitude of direct and an even larger number of hidden messages, all generated by the bubbling mind of the artist and a need for a valuable self-realisation.

Passion for research and a quest for enlightenment found in books, philosophy and research into cultures, brings justification to her creative thoughts and leads to practical artistic productions. Juggling between cultures and religions, Hammam explores different perceptions of reality finding that none is definite. She looks into Christian and Muslim beliefs and traditions in Palimpsests (2007), whilst the multicultural system is reexamined in Escaton (2008). She has already encountered Nirvana in the Mitigation (2001) triptychs, explored ecstatic transitions in El-Moulid (2003), depicting festivals celebrating birthdays of holy figures, before moving to Japanese Zen and Mandalas which reappear in number of her works and help her find a timeless transcendence. Being esoteric and sealed in herself, Hammam hopes to unlearn and to get free from common terminologies chaining our perceptions.

Having oriental sensitivity and using skills learnt from the West, exploring the consciousnesses of a variety of cultures, Hammam combines elements to build series that are both personal but that touch international audiences. For instance, the series that she is still working on and that will be exhibited in London later this year is a strong commentary on current Egyptian realities. Yet, here again, it is also equally influenced by far Asia's culture, on both ideological and technical levels. The final output is an expression of reality that is ultimately her perception at that moment.

On the other hand, each of Hammam's different photographic series reflects specific influences generated by artistic practices she lived through. The series entitled Ashoura (2006) links the heritage of Ashoura (day of mourning in Shia Islam) with the discourse representations of the international mass media. The culture of advertising and film congregate in Escaton (2008). Finally, it is in Anachrony, created in 2010 that Hammam's cinematic voice emerges again.

Anachrony, to be displayed in Safarkhan Gallery, makes evident use of her cinematic eye. Ideologically, Hammam connects the series with her preceding experience, Metanoia — 77 photographs taken in Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital.

Metanoia started out of artistic curiosity and became a political statement. Hammam herself faced a number of problems while taking the shots. Not all photographs were accepted to be displayed in her exhibition that took place in April/May 2010 at the Townhouse Gallery. Moreover, the exhibition was removed altogether days before its planned end. "I am not political," Hammam says, defending her work. "I am not consciously political. I just do my work. Naturally, due to a political situation it will be political and some of my works are perceived as such."

To Hammam, taking photographs in Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in Cairo was very personal experience. "I saw the patients in the garden when crossing nearby the area. It was fascinating. Somehow they looked like ghosts." This observation brought back questions on reality. "There is no definite reality," Hammam says.

"I spent first month getting to know people and earning their trust. It is when I brought my teenage daughter with me to the hospital that a breakthrough happened. The patients gave me the pictures." Hammam rejects the concept of hunting pictures and as such she insists that the subject photographed is "giving a picture" to her rather than her "taking them."

Accordingly, in Metanoia, patients at the hospital gave her many pictures describing their feelings, thoughts, conditions and the personal relationships they developed with Hammam. As she continued her artistic mission, the management realised that her pictures were much more than beautified depictions — they revealed a painful reality. "I wanted to stay for a year and a half but after three months I was kicked out from the hospital. By the time, I was also devastated by the reality I saw, while the relationship with many patients was already built, hence the whole journey became very personal."

Anachrony that came after Metanoia is a continuation of a stream thought, a depiction of a reality that is never definite. Anachrony is utopia, "a mirror of a placeless place," as Michel Foucault puts it in his text "Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias" (1967), a work that has spoken to Hammam allowing her to translate her thoughts into photographic realisations.

Anachrony is Hammam's decision to take a rest in Fayoum with her daughter and cousin, dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour. The series was born from elements that we usually do not see in normal circumstances: stars, the sound of wind, or even the sound of silence. As such, the Fayoum experience represents purification and spiritual recovery though is chained in yet another reality. "Those photographs represent a sound and what I saw, what was happening in my head and that needed to be appeased," Hammam explains.

"With almost no space between them and the fabric there is agonised movement inside a tightly confined space. It is a paradox: claustrophobia in a heavenly space. Beyond this veil of fabric there is the truth, but for now the fabric is suffocating and blinding," the artist explains in notes on the exhibition.

The figures we see in the hand painted photographes are trapped, unable to exercise their own will. Like ghostly figures, they cannot benefit from open space and nature. "It was also a very bonding experience, with my daughter and Karima; everyone was expressing freely and explored reality."

Anachrony carries a surrealistic element with nature being one of the important protagonists, allowing the photographer to reach a sense of artistic abandon joined with relative control. "It was the wind that created all those shapes, I didn't create them. The 'I' did not matter. It was not really me who played a role in those photographs," Hammam comments.

This co-existence of several incompatible spaces was called by Foucault heterotopology. "There are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis … But these heterotopias of crisis are disappearing today and are being replaced, I believe, by what we might call heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed," writes Foucault in "Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias."

It is one of the heterotopias that is found in painfully direct faces looking at us from Abbasiya Hospital (Metanoia) and later on veiled and trapped figures unable to free themselves in open surroundings (Anachrony). As Hammam floats between the surreal and dreams, allegoric perceptions allow her to embrace the total irrelevance of reality, purified of gender, political or social nomenclatures, as if able to escape what we persistently try to name and frame.

While Hammam has moved forward, Safarkhan's Anachrony reminds us of a certain journey and a specific research on reality that the artist went through. Though Hammam is "no longer there," for the viewer the exhibition provokes a reflection and invites us to reexamine many of our fundamental human and spiritual values.


Anachrony will open Tuesday, 27 March, and will run until 18 April

Safar Khan Gallery
6 Brazil Street, Zamalek, Cairo
Monday-Saturday, 10:00am-1.30pm, 5:00-9:00pm
Closed Sundays

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