Momentum: A revolution in flashback at the Safarkhan gallery

Sara Elkamel, Monday 7 Nov 2011

Artist Marwa Adel looks back at the days and colours of the Tahrir Square uprising long after the revolutionary fire has cooled


Egypt’s art scene has always reflected the momentum of the country’s dynamics. While freedom of expression and political opposition was stifled, art suffered close scrutiny and the imposition of several red lines. And with the surge of freedom at the onset of 2011, art bloomed, parading through Cairo’s art galleries and city streets together.

But some artists today find it hard to draw inspiration, for the surge of freedom soon plummeted again to a demoralising low, reminiscent of the pre-revolution days. A series of human rights violations and crackdowns on free expression in the press, online, and on city walls reflect a very dreary momentum. This November, however, Marwa Adel’s collection interrupts the ramped frustration by taking you back to the “good old days.”

This latest collection provides a break from Adel’s usual subject matter: women. We are used to the artist’s sensual, expressive artwork that plays out personal female emotion. Moreover, Adel typically showcases photographs of nude females, their bodies expressive, and their quintessence radiant. Born in Cairo in 1984, Adel is stirred by women’s rights and troubled by modern-day society’s restrictions on female freedom in the Middle East. Adel’s art depicts the woman’s body, soul, and dreams.

But this time, Adel tackles the collective emotion of a people; hundreds if not thousands are sometimes stacked into her pieces. Safarkhan houses a revolution in flashback.

Dabbling in patriotic art is not unique to Adel; many Egyptian artists steered into revolution-related work after 25 January. Constantly drawing inspiration from the world around them, local artists have been consumed with the overwhelming event that is the revolution, finding it hard to seek inspiration elsewhere.

Working with photography and computer graphics and infusing her own recognisable style, Adel provides a refreshing break from the point-blank revolution photography that has recently dominated the city’s art galleries. Photos of fervent demonstrators and civilian-police collisions have become rather overused and repetitive. Much recent art has served to simply document events, rather than reflect original artistic expression.

But Adel’s collection does not merely represent. Her use of colour and composition take matters a step further; her collection becomes a promenade through the past, recreating emotion and changing perspective, not simply regurgitating facts.

One photograph shows a huge crowd of people with multi-coloured shirts. A strand of the crowd, right across the centre of the composition, appears to be overexposed, as if the sun were shining only on them. The image brings to mind a day in the park, with green, red and blue shirts everywhere against a greenish-brown backdrop. The piece is celebratory in a way – you wouldn’t think it was a snapshot of an uprising if you weren’t familiar with the country’s recent history.

At times, Adel’s photos appear as scenes from a movie, as when a man appears as a silhouette against a blazing, red-hot fire, while at times the vintage sepia look of her pieces reconstruct a battle scene from a history book.

The artist uses black and white in a wide landscape of celebratory protests in Tahrir Square, with heads and banners barely visible among the blur of the crowd, as a collective pulse runs through the photograph. The flashback feels appropriate, for Tahrir Square today does not experience this unity.

Using layers of colour, Adel achieves a sense of time through her photographs. One piece looks like it has been dipped in tea, as specks of white, red and black (the colours of the flag) emerge out of nowhere and everywhere.

Adel’s photography and computer design manage to capture the fleeting passion of a people, months after the revolutionary euphoria has subsided. Her photos depict men and women who pursued a momentum for the sake of change, her layered compositions showing them in motion, albeit in flashback.

Adel's works on display at Safarkhan are also included in Khaled Hafez's video, “Field Statement.” The video, which documents 18 days of the Revolution, is a series of 13 artistic statements prepared by Egyptian artists and directed by Hafez. Adel's screen shots of her photography on Tahrir Square represent one of these statements. The video is currently being shown at Mali’s Bamako Encounters, one of Africa’s most important photography Biennials.

The exhibition featuring Adel's work will run until 30 November. It will be open to the public from Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 1:30pm and from 5pm to 9pm.

The Safarkhan Art Gallery

6 Brazil St., Zamalek, Cairo

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