Egyptian and Tunisian artists present Arab Spring at the Bamako Biennale

Ati Metwaly from Bamako, Mali, Saturday 5 Nov 2011

Bamako Encounters in November in the Malian capital draws special attention to the Arab Spring, screening films compiled by activists and artists: Egyptian Khaled Hafez and Tunisian Faten Gaddes

Bamako Photography Biennial
From left clockwise: Works by Marwa Adel, Nermine Hammam, Khaled Hafez

On 3 November, Bamako Encounters in the Malian capital drew special attention to the Arab Spring, presenting video works by Egyptian Khaled Hafez and Tunisian Faten Gaddes and hosting a number of artists from both countries

The Arab Spring remains one of the hot topics in many artistic gatherings. Likewise, the Bamako Encounters launched a side project that gathered Egyptian and Tunisian artists so they can present their take on the revolutions in their respective countries.  

Michket Krifa, artistic co-director of the Biennale asked Khaled Hafez from Egypt and Faten Gaddes from Tunisia to produce a compilation of time-based works by visual artists on the theme of the 2011 revolutions. The fruit of their work were screened on 3 November, followed by a short discussion about the revolution and what it represents to artists.

“Bamako Encounters were planned several months prior to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Once the uprisings started, we thought it is important to incorporate those events into the Biennale,” Krifa commented presenting works by Hafez and Gaddes. Krifa herself is from Tunisia, but lives and works in Paris.

“The events are not only important on a socio-political level, but they touch the creative minds, as well. Bit by bit, the previously silenced voices were heard and the barrier of fear was removed,” Krifa continued. “In Tunisia, in specific, it was not possible to take pictures on the streets, hence the revolution has opened new doors to photographers and the whole nation. It is interesting to see the role of an image during the Arab Spring and how the usage of new technologies created an international conversation between the artists and between people in general.”

To Krifa, the screening of the two videos is a form of celebration of the Arab Spring, with the accent placed on Egypt’s and Tunisia’s revolutions.

Khaled Hafez presented his short, titled Field Statement. The video is a series of 13 artistic statements prepared by the Egyptian artists: Ramy Essam, Karim El Husseiny, Bassem Yousri, Ahmed Sabry, Hala Abu Shadi, Ibrahim Khattab, Marwa Adel, Nermine Hammam, Mohamed Abdelkarim, Shayma Kamel, Ibrahim Saad, Ahmed El Shaer and Khaled Hafez. Each artist contributed with a few minutes and the whole video theme revolves around the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution.

As the video begins with the first statement, we see Ramy Essam singing on one of the stages that were set up in Tahrir Square. His lyrics “I don’t feel any change, therefore I am at Tahrir” is echoed with voices from the Tahrir audience.

Bassem Yousry captures a section of a downtown street during the consecutive 18 days of revolt there; starting with small group of people running, growing into large demonstrations, and finally meeting with the security forces tear-gassing the protesters.

Marwa Adel’s photography participates in the movie in a form of a slide show. She walks us through the concept of multiplication of people, as each image shows crowds that grow immensely that by 28 January had reached millions.

Another slideshow in the movie is Nermine Hammam’s photographic series called Uppekha, where she reflects on the life and emotions of the soldiers and their role in the revolution. Hammam suggests a positive, touching depiction of the soldiers who found themselves, bewilderingly, in the midst of revolutionary events.

It is apparent that artists’ emotions were fuelled by the first days of Egypt's revolution. Hammam’s photographs, which capture the army in a positive light at the beginning of the revolution, will see a different reaction if the audience sees the photos a few months into the revolution and an even more varied reaction today.

Full-sized photographs are exhibited as part of the Biennale inside the national Museum of Mali and its surrounding garden.

Ahmed El-Shaer adds a short video that presents the same scene from Tahrir Square, repeated over and over again, each time extended by a few seconds. El-Shaer uses repetition as a synonym for a change, which never seems to arrive. He feels the same events are being lived and re-lived all the time, with only with minor modifications or extensions.

The final exhibition, Field Statement, comes from the videographer, Khaled Hafez, where he presents a slide show of pictures taken during the 18-day uprising. Contrary to Marwa Adel’s conceptual photography, where the desired effects are achieved digitally, Hafez’s photographs are direct windows into the Tahrir reality and people who spent 18 days in the square.

The 20-minute-long Field Statement becomes an interesting compilation of voices of artists who played a large, active role in Tahrir’s life.

“All of the artists who contributed to the video have literary guided me to the square,” Hafez asserted in the discussion which followed the screening. “I am not as young as they are; I represent a generation that was programmed to believe that demonstrations do not bring results. I went to Tahrir late, on 4 February, prompted by many artists and by tragic events that unravelled before my eyes.”

Hafez pointed out the loss of Ahmed Bassiouny (a visual artist killed on 28 January) and the tragedy of the 2 February Battle of the Camel (an unforgettable attack on protesters in Tahrir Square by men mounted on camels).

Hafez underscored that it is still too early to draw artistic conclusions and the role of the artists is still rather documentary. “I did not want to create cliché pictures that we see in media. Together with eight video artists and five photographers we managed to compile a creative reflection on 18 historic days in Egypt.”

Field Statement is screened on each day of the Biennale in the Memorial Mobido Keita exhibition hall.

Tunisian artist, Faten Gaddes, chose a longer-range view for her 20-minute film titled "Liberte, quand tu nous tiens" (Freedom, when you hold us). Gaddes looks at the Tunisian revolution through the prism of history: years of Ben Ali’s rule and his fall, repressions, women’s role, religious tolerance, as well as Libyan refugees settling at the Tunisian borders.

Just like Hafez, Gaddes collected works by many Tunisian artists and moved beyond borders of video and photography and incorporated cartoonists who, she says “have contributed greatly into the Tunisian revolution.”

In her video, Gaddes shows footage of the demonstrations, follows the graffiti and stencils on the walls, gives homage to the martyrs and adds a comic element through a number of cartoons, such as a short animated movie depicting Ben Ali on a plane calling various presidents and asking them to accept him in their respective countries, which always gets him a funny response.

There is something very interesting to see the artists not only as the documentarians of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but also as protagonists of their work.

Together, with other protesters, they went onto the streets calling for the removal of regimes that suffocated them. Then, later on, they tried to distance themselves to document the events in a photographic series or video. The result is somewhat introspective, autobiographical and, yet, about a large-scale, populous event.

All of the artists underlined that they were protesters first, while their art skills only allowed them to give an alternative form to the material they collected from the days of massive protests.

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