A spectator at the end of 1970 would be forgiven for thinking the Communist government was as strong as ever. Except for sporadic demonstrations, and the detaining of individuals deemed troublesome, there were few indications that the Soviet Bloc would collapse twenty years later. Further decades later, similarly seemingly stable regimes found themselves facing millions of their own people in open revolt. Revolution struck Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the Yemen, while uprisings and protests destabilized governments across other Middle Eastern countries.
Recording Against Regimes is a multi-disciplinary project hosted by Darb 1718, the Contemporary Art and Culture Centre, between 6 and 23 March. The exhibition is directed by the Polish Egypt-based conservation architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska and curated by Polish France-based Klio Krajewska.
According to the booklet accompanying the exhibition "the project has been initiated by ARCHiNOS Architecture (lead by Dobrowolska) in cooperation with WRO Art Centre, Wroclaw, Poland. The project is co-funded by the European Union as part of its annual Cultural Cooperation Programme in Egypt." Additional support has been provided by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Cairo and the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Cairo.
Excerpts from video art works are screened above the main entrance to Darb 1718 exhibition halls (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Each video in the exhibition is unique by virtue of its location and technological surroundings of their creators. Although Recording Against Regimes does not generate any tangible educational material or lead the viewers to conclusive statements it is more than just an aesthetic commentary of the past.
Although some works are a historical document of the Tahrir Square uprising, the exhibition also inspires questions on how revolutions occur and what the fate of the Egyptian Arab Spring will be.
Two floors of Darb 1718 host Recording Against Regimes video art exhibition (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The wave of anti-communist uproar in Poland began in the 1980s with the formation of Solidarność (Solidarity), the Soviet Bloc’s first independent, non-governmental Trade Union. Lead by Lech Wałęsa, the 1983 Nobel Prize for Peace laureate and president of Poland (1990 - 1995), the union grew to represent millions of Poles.
Though Solidarity was declared illegal on 13 December 1981, along with introduction of Martial Law, the union continued its underground work, gathering swathes of Poles, organizing nationwide strikes and infiltrating social and political structures. After a decade of struggles, negotiations with the government, intensifying political skirmishes and a lot of bloodshed, the fight against the weakening Communist regime reached a pinnacle. The elections in June 1989 saw the Communist party obliterated with the opposition winning 160 of 161 seats in the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament) and 92 of 100 seats in the Senate (the parliament's upper house). In December 1990, Lech Wałęsa became the new president of Poland.
Still Jozef Robakowski's "Cinema is Power" (Poland, 1985) mocking the symbols and slogans used in communist mass media: The party is the brain of the people / The land belongs to people / Yes times 3 / Workers of the world unite... (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
"In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks; perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days..." prophesied Václav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, to Timothy Garton Ash during an interview on 23 November 1989.
The anti-communist movement spread to the rest of the Soviet bloc: Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, consecutively. October 1989 was marked by the largest demonstrations in the history of the German Democratic Republic. On 7 November the German government resigned while the demonstrators continued to rally in the streets of many major cities of the country. At 9pm of 9 November 1989, spontaneous destruction of the Berlin Wall began in several places spelling the end of the Communist regime.
Still from Harmut Jahn's "A Double German Fantasy" (Germany, 1988) examining the relationship between East and West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s with identical twin girls leading the viewer through a collage of images depicting the two German states. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
"History repeats itself" is the natural thought as one crosses the rooms of Darb 1718. In the exhibition, different views on the regimes, their collapse as well as the aftermath of the changes beg questions such as: What triggers a regime’s collapse? What comes after? How long does it take for the country to finalize its transition to a new political structure? What are the urban structures representing regimes and how do they evolve? Moreover, when will artists look at the past with objectivity, taking a distance from distinct political events but still provide reflection, analysis and possibly even humour?
Answers to these questions and more are provided in the artwork provided by Poland and Germany on their respective countries. The artistic contemplations are nurtured by the complete cycle from Communism to revolution to democracy and all the vagaries in between. The work by Egyptian artists reflects on history in the making, not history in the past and so still lacks a depth proffered by their European colleagues.
Still from Jacek Niegoda's "The Dissenter" (Poland, 1995-2005) showing an event on escalator where order is imposed and regulated, despite one dissenter's trials to go against the crowd. In the booklet accompanying the project, the artist comments: "It was supposed to be a physical action; the intention was to show the mechanics and relativity of motion. But it turned out to be a political action..." (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The video art exhibition includes four pieces by Polish artists depicting or laughing at the regime, three by German artists contemplating the fall of the Berlin Wall and three works by the Egyptian filmmakers look into events close to the January 2011 Revolution.
Set to the visuals of abandoned buildings symbolising corrupt dictatorship, in My Love for You Egypt, Increases by the Day, Heba Amin collects messages unregistered on Speak2Tweet, a platform that allowed Egyptians to communicate messages during the internet blackout during the revolution. Bassem Yousry documents life of Talaat Harb Street which witnessed many heated events during the first 18 days of the revolution. The People Demand the Fall of the Regime is a piece by Omar Robert Hamilton, based on a collected material from Mosireen's archives.
Still from Heba Amin's "My love for you, Egypt, Increases by the Day" (Egypt, 2012) - (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The exhibition is open until 23 March. Other elements of Recording Against Regimes include a panel discussion scheduled on 9 March and a series of feature and documentary film screenings, pointing to the realities of people living under the regimes and the transitions of the three countries going through a transition.
Check the complete programme here...
One of the texts displayed on the outside wall of Darb 1718. The texts are excerpts from lyrics of the songs that accompany the slideshow screened above the entrance to Darb 1718. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)