It would not be outrageous to say that the most charismatic of Egypt’s presidents to date was Gamal Abdel Nasser. His photos still dwell on Taxi dashboards, living room walls, and on newspaper pages. He emerges in conversations about Egypt’s past and its future. But like many iconic figures profusely portrayed in the media, Nasser has not been uniformly represented. He is at times the hero, and at others the ant-hero.
In her first solo exhibition in Cairo, which runs at Gypsum Gallery until 10 June, the Amman-based visual artist Ala Younis revisits representations of Nasser, exhibiting a selection of publications, photographs, drawings and objects that capture the various, often conflicting, narratives that developed around the former president.
This is the third in a series of works in which Ala Younis explores Arab nationalism and its political, cultural and economic manifestations. As in the previous two projects, Nefertiti and Needles to Rockets (2008), and Six Days (2009), Younis sets out to use objects of the past to gain insight on collective memory.
In this exhibition, Younis uses found objects, magazines, photographs, maps, news articles, and films to try to investigate the dynamics that have built an icon out of the former Egyptian president and his representation as a hero and anti-hero, sometimes interchangeably.
"Through my research, I felt most touched by the way that people drew, depicted and wrote about Nasser," Younis told Ahram Online at Gypsum Gallery.
Younis found one of the most striking points in the United Arab Republic (UAR) lifespan, which lasted from 1958 to 1971, to be the funeral of its leader. Many of the images she chose to exhibit capture the devastating effect Nasser’s death had on the street, where millions mourned him. One particularly poignant piece shows, on a black piece of carbon paper, the outline of a boy stretched out across electrical wires. You have to squint to see him.
The gallery becomes a vessel of muted memories, drawn ever so gently by Younis through carbon transfer on paper throughout the show. Compared to the rest of the drawings in the show, which show the carbon transferred images on white paper, this piece retains the image in transition.
Younis found this image to be more touching and interesting than on paper, particularly since the form and texture of this thin black carbon page lends itself to the state of misery experienced by many in reaction to the death of the president.
In one piece in particular, Younis exhibits an understated flair with composition. A black strip of paper carries on its top drawings of Nasser and Sadat, with a map of the Arab world on the former's side and a map of Egypt on the latter's. This piece correlates to a story Younis heard about Egyptian classrooms in the wake of Nasser's death: the endurance of Nasser’s photos in schools for many years after Sadat had taken his leadership position.
One wing of the exhibition focuses on Nasser as a strong leader. This collection includes a magazine with cover art that depicts Nasser with two children, as a father figure, with the issue detailing his achievements narrated as a story. She also includes the cover of Post magazine that draws similarities between Nasser and Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, who shared the eagle crest. As part of her multi-channel research, Younis surveyed how the Egyptian president was portrayed in films such as Yousef Chahine's 1963 film Al-Nasser Salah Ad-Din.
One of the most iconic pieces on the walls is a black and white image from Life magazine's archive, in which Nasser's head is surrounded by a thick halo-like white outline. "The photo was never printed this way, but when Life disclosed their archives online, this photo emerged," Younis explains. "This white outline around the head changed its meaning, as if there was a certain glorification of the figure, since he appears as saints are usually depicted."
Younis selects a few issues of publications and places them on a large wooden table, including a book on Nasser and an issue of Al-Ahram with coverage of his funeral. On this table and at the centre of the show is a device that captures the exhibition's raison d'être: an attempt at presenting different angles of the representation of a controversial figure in order to arrive at a fuller image of him. This device is a stereoscope, which is used to view two slightly different images as a single three-dimensional scene.
"It becomes an enhanced image somehow, or an image that has a little bit more information," she says. She created four images that could be looked at using the stereoscope and seen as if in 3D, including a particularly stirring one in which people are flung across Nasser’s car in utter fascination.
The effect created in this image reflects the multi-dimensional nature of Younis’s research. She navigated the criticisms and the praise that appeared in the coverage and portrayals of Nasser, and as she delved into different and contrasting accounts she oscillated between thinking he was a hero, then an anti-hero, hero again, no, anti-hero.
"I do not have a final verdict. I will not say he was good or he was not. The idea is not to dig through the past and find an answer,” she says.
Younis's research also featured looking into posthumous exhibitions about various leaders, including Yugoslavia President Marshal Tito, US President John F Kennedy, among others, and how their images and projects were represented. It was important for her to understand the global context in which Nasser existed and the global map of representations on which Nasser often appeared as a hero and at other times as an anti-hero.
Younis was not out to find absolute truth. "What's important about this project is to capture how people represented him," the artist says.
While she was working with carbon paper, a technique in which you print the outlines of an original image on a blank page by proxy of the ink-coated side of a carbon page, and you usually do not see the image itself until it's printed on paper, she became aware of how every depiction she copied produced a different looking Nasser.
"This was also interesting … realising how he was a man-made image," she says.
The artist resorted to the technique of carbon transfer primarily because she found it expensive to purchase all the images she needed from archival material. The cost of acquiring the images she needed spurred reflections on the copyrghting of images that involved stories about the public: should the copyright go to the photographer or the subject of the photograph?
"I decided to find a way to defy this format, and find a way to use these photos that we appear in but to which we have no right. That's where the carbon paper came in," she explains.
Using carbon paper allowed her to re-contextualise the images. "When you work with carbon, you lose a lot of the details, and I'm only left with what I really want to keep."
Younis spent years immersed in archival material and research preparing for this exhibition. Through her experience in the first stage of this trilogy dealing with Arab nationalism, in which she produced a film about Nefertiti, a sewing machine produced and sold in Egypt after the 1952 revolution as part of the government’s plan to nationalise the country’s industrial production, she learned to spend time pursuing all the dimensions of a story.
She confesses that in the film she created about Nefertiti she was somehow lamenting the industrial project. A while after, she met someone in Jordan who told her how the machine compromised the local market.
"I realised how much I was immersed in the industrial project, because I heard positive accounts of people's relationship with the objects. Then, after I talked to that person, I realised how it may not have been as romantic as I thought," she says.
"I realised then how if we research enough, we can rediscover reality," Younis says.
She decided to not create an exhibition where Nasser was a strong leader, but would wait until she had enough material, and she met enough people, and encountered material that was varied, in date and source, so that she would be able to create a more accurate reading, rather than being swayed by one image or another.
In the past six months, Ala Younis attempted to surf through the large piles of material she had collected over the past six years and to try to create a selection that would present a multifarious narrative. The result is a meditative collection that pulls visitors into the past without imposing a particular storyline.
Exhibition runs until 10 June.
5a Bahgat Ali Street, Zamalek, Cairo