'Tank Girl' challenges military rule, patriarchal society

Rowan El Shimi, Friday 9 Mar 2012

Egyptian visual artist Nadine Hammam, using her unique imagery, calls on women to rise up against military rule and Egypt's male-dominated society

Photo: Rowan El Shimi

As hundreds of women took to the streets on Thursday to march on parliament for International Women's Day, visual Artist Nadine Hammam opened her new exhibition that challenges the social perception of women just across the Nile in Zamalek's Gallery Misr.

Hammam's exhibition – which includes several paintings tackling gender politics, relationships between men and women and sexuality in a series of nude paintings using acrylic paint and mixed media – leaves a lot to the imagination, despite having very raw and in-your-face themes.

Her paintings are done over several layers to achieve this flatness, showing her subjects as two-dimensional, yet completely hollow – perhaps to demonstrate the manner in which men tend to see women in Egyptian society.

The piece of work that speaks most to the current status of women under Egypt's military rule is "Tank Girl," the finale of the exhibition, which will be the beginning of a new series of work by the artist tackling women under military rule and Egyptian patriarchal society.

"Tank Girl" was supposed to have been exhibited at Art Dubai earlier, but the organisers decided to skip it. "They thought it was too phallic," Hammam tells Ahram Online. "They did not look at the implications with the army."

The painting, exhibited in a space on its own, features a nude woman riding a military tank, one leg on each side, with the woman depicted in the same featureless flat manner that is Hammam's style, at a disproportional scale to the tank. Out of the tank's turret several rats come out, extending further outside of the painting on to the wall and floor of the gallery. The other three walls in the space are adorned with bold red and pink writing, "GO LOVE YOUSELF."

A supporter and revolution participant since the outset, Hammam herself rode a tank during the 18-day uprising last year. "If I could take it back I would; I was really naïve," she recalls.

Hammam now is completely against military rule, like many activists and revolution supporters. She thinks the military needs to "behave like a military" and go back to their barracks. She believes the military attacked women and constantly tried to stop them from protesting on purpose.

"These tactics, like virginity testing, stripping women and sexual harassment in the square, were used as weapons against women," she explains.

"They're rats" she adds, in reference to her painting.

"Tank Girl" shows the woman in control of the tank, and much bigger in size. "If the women of Egypt took to the streets, things would be quite different," Hammam asserts.

Women in the Egyptian revolution played an important role on all fronts. They supported the men on the frontlines with first aid, participated in sit-ins and demonstrations, and, like men, were subjected to physical violence. Women, however, were also subjected to sexual violence.

In spite of the army's efforts to scare women from participating in the revolution, spirits remain high. "You can beat us, strip us, gas us, arrest us and virginity-test us, but at the end we'll prevail," reads the artist's statement on "Tank Girl."

After the famous incident during the December cabinet clashes when a video circulated showing a group of army officers, beating and stripping a veiled woman, thousands of women took to the streets in the biggest women's march in Egypt's history.

On 8 March, International Women's Day, hundreds of women took to the streets again; this time marching to parliament demanding equal representation in the committee that is to set the new constitution of Egypt.

However, "Tank Girl" is not only about women rising up against military rule – it's also about women rising above the patriarchal society that is the norm in Egypt.

In many households with lower incomes, women are actually the breadwinners. In spite of this, the Egyptian parliament has only 11 women, while the cabinet has very little female representation. Socially, men – whether fathers, husbands, brothers or other distant relatives – have a strong grip over women's lives and freedoms. There are double standards in society about what is socially acceptable for a woman or a man. The list goes on.

"Women should get up and say, 'Enough is enough'," Hammam stated. "We need more."

Many people fear that in the wake of Islamist rule in Egypt, where the parliament is 70 per cent dominated by Islamist forces that are currently in discussions about forming a new government, women's position in society could suffer even more – not to mention fears of tighter censorship laws on different forms of art.

"That won't stop me," Hammam stresses. "You cannot stop art."

In October of last year, a young woman, Aliaa El-Mahdy, posted a photo of herself on her blog completely naked, making the statement that she was free to do so. This outraged many members of the public, with cases filed against her in court by Islamist groups. Many liberals felt that this act also harmed their cause, especially right before parliamentary elections, even though they support complete freedom of expression.

"If she had made it in the context of art, the reaction would have been different," Hammam reflects.

Hammam believes her own nude paintings are not there to shock people. "I deconstruct the figure and remove any form of social attachment [like clothes]," she explains. "At the core, we are all the same; we are all human; and we all have this need to be loved."

The exhibition also features two other series of works by Hammam: "Heartless" and "Got Love."

"Heartless" explores the universal human need to be loved, in a series of multi-layered acrylic paintings using condom wrappings and Savorski crystals. The paintings are laid out to show the complex relationships that exist between men and women, from courtship to heartbreak.

While "Heartless" deals with love with some reference to sex, "Got Love" looks deeper into the sexual relationship between men and women. It particularly dives into the male fantasy of engaging with more than one sexual female partner by laying out the diamond-studded outlines of these female bodies – and leaving the rest to the imagination.


The exhibition will run to 29 March.

Gallery Misr

4A Ibn Zaki Street, from Hassan Sabri Street, Zamalek, Cairo 

Opening hours: Saturday – Thursday, 10am-10pm (Closed Fridays)

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