Note: This article is my first attempt at writing an art review – something I am totally unfamiliar with. It was written after visiting the exhibition “L’un i el multiple” in Barcelona and talking to the artists and curator. Originally these interviews were done for the magazine Africaneando – where the Spanish version of this text will appear. Nevertheless I thought it would be good also to have this review in English, so the artists themselves could more easily access my thoughts on the exhibition.
Often, and like other areas of present day life, the world of contemporary art appears to be in a certain state of turmoil – at least to those, like this writer, who although familiar with it, is not part of it, or knowledgeable of all its details. For all these reasons, it is commendable when one comes out of a show on a reflective mood, but with clearer ideas regarding what is important. This is the case with «L’un i el multiple» («The one and the multiple»), an exhibition on show at La Capella de l’Antic de la Santa Creu (Barcelona) until July 4th, and which is the product of the collaboration between seven different institutions – four of them Egyptian (CIC, Townhouse, Artellewa and Medrar) and three Spanish (Hangar, LABoral and CAN Farrera). On the show we can see the work of eleven Egyptian and Spanish artists, all of whom participated on the programme of exchanges, workshops and residences these institutions organised between 2008 and 2009. Having only this common point between the artists has an important danger, as curator Pedro Soler, director of Hangar notes: that the «exhibition could be a potpourri with each piece having nothing to do with the others». Given this risk, and bearing in mind that there were no other guidelines or requirements issued to the artists other than their selection through a highly exigent process, it is admirable the coherence shown by the show, while, at the same time, being what is showcased far from uniform. In this sense, the title of the exhibition could not be more appropriate: there is “the one” – the field of contemporary in which all artists move – and there is “the multiple” – a variety of artists (and media) seeking to express and communicate their individuality.
How can we best reconcile these apparently contradictory characteristics of unity and plurality, in a way that goes beyond simply noting it is all contemporary art and that can also help us navigate this exhibition? My personal answer to this would be to see take this exhibition as a map or – using a more sophisticated word that appeared in many of the conversations with the curator and the artists – a cartography. A cartography of contemporary art made up of individual points (representing geographical places, individual artists, or pieces) as well as lines joining these points (which can be personal connections, the residences’ programme, collective memories and histories, etc). When looked at carefully however, the unity of the map, begins to blur and disappear, shifting its meanings and dissolving into smaller units. This is, furthermore, a plural cartography: first, it represents for the viewer part of the terrain of the contemporary art world, but also serves as a point of reference for artists to locate themselves on their different contexts. This, Soler says, is possibly a result of the residences and exchanges: the art on display here “is not so much an expression of the interior of artists, but a tool oriented to build a bridge between the interior and exterior… a tool for the analysis and portrayal of the context”.rn“L’un i el multiple” however, makes reference not only to the unity of contemporary art, but also to the unity of the Mediterranean. A unity which in this exhibition, as on the contemporary art world, splinters not along national lines or the East/West distinction. As Soler explains: “in the contemporary art world, national readings do not work…National origin does not allow you to foresee what artist in going to do”. Furthermore, Soler says, it is only now that “we are beginning to get rid of an Orientalism which is greatly frustrating”, as artists are invited for being Egyptian, or Middle Eastern, seeing also how their “professional possibilities are to some extent limited from their condition as an exotic object to the West”. Something that has been successfully avoided on this exhibition, in which both Spanish and Egyptian artists are presented as individuals belonging to the contemporary art world.
Lecture in theory – Shady El Noshokaty
This view is also shared by Shady El Noshokaty, a leading Egyptian artist whose latest work exhibited at La Capella (a performance and a video) is part of his broader project, “Stammer”, which explores “what’s inside and what’s outside, the body and the mind…how they can meet and how, sometimes, they crash – the moment when stammer happens”. For Noshokaty, a visual arts professor at the Faculty of Art Education (Cairo) and at the American University of Cairo, “contemporary art comes from contemporary culture… Thus when you work on contemporary art in Egypt, you are working on global culture, not Egyptian culture”. He sees as a clear gulf between artists moving on a global world, and the majority of the population on Egypt, whose culture is more grounded on local tradition. The “double image of modernity and tradition in Egyptian culture, permeates all levels. Even young people who have access to the latest technology and information still live on a traditional society, where things like religion still have an important bearing”. This is obviously not unique to Egypt but when compared, for example, to Spain, Noshokaty says that while here it is “still difficult for people to walk and appreciate, there is a greater level of acceptance – perhaps a product of lifestyle. Here there is option to have more patience, not the same when you are worried and pressed by your everyday dealings”.
The unity of contemporary culture and art that Noshokaty talks about is seen clearly on this exhibition, on the media chosen by artists. This exhibition features neither paintings nor sculptures; something Solers says, was not intended: there were “no guidelines or requirements”, neither on the themes or the medium to employed. In fact, the media chosen by artists range from the most traditional – embroidery – to the most modern video-art and interactive sound installations – Wensh’s room with sensor that add sounds and effect as people walk in – passing through Tarek Hefny’s photographic “experiment that explores an alternative method of understanding the place around us, relying only on the facades of the buildings”.
A second way in which the Mediterranean unity is explored and emphasised on this exhibition is through the unearthing and exploring of the existing connections between the different countries and peoples. This is more powerfully demonstrated by Magdi Mostapha’s “interactive light-and-sound installation originally created for the Mawlawiya museum in the Hilmia neighbourhood of Cairo” that has now been transported to La Capella in Barcelona, producing “emotional combinations” that leads us to wonder about the connections between both shores of the Mediterranean, about site specificity, and about the potential of sounds in specific spaces. Nevertheless, all of this does not imply that national and political borders have disappeared. In fact, their reality and importance is present on the show through Pablo de Soto’s piece “From Cairo to Gaza”, which documents his experience in Egypt during the weeks of Operation Lead Cast in late 2008. De Soto was in Egypt to work on a cartography of the tunnels that link Gaza to Egypt, when he was surprised by the military operation and became involved with civil society associations trying to break the blockade implemented by Egypt and organizing marches to show solidarity.
Invisible presence – Magdi Mostafa
As well as the geographical dimensions of the Mediterranean sea, its cities and borders, some of the cartographies created by these artists try to join, not physical sites, but historical and social ones. For example Vahida Ramujkic, Aviv Kruglanski Albino and Rania’s project “Weave & Construct”, which has taken them to Cairo, Bristol, Barcelona’s Barri Gotic (with Les Cruilles) and, most recently, Bon Pastor. Through the “technique of real time documentary embroidery” developed on this project, the artists explore the representation of reality, as well as the social histories, meanings and stories created around a slow and careful activity like embroidering. These maps serve thus as a way of knowing the surroundings and of moving into new or under-explored areas. This is the case in Alvaro Sau’s project “Las Afueras” (Outdoors), which took him to a residence in Cairo. Once there however, he soon moved to the surroundings of this city; Sau’s movement thus, is not only to the periphery of Europe but to the periphery of cities (in this case into a monastery) – pausing on these areas to observe the environments where the inhabitants of this world live and work, in a setting that is as far as possible from the artist’s daily experience.
Farid – Alvaro Sau
This exploration of the periphery and of surroundings is particularly interesting, and we are often reminded on this exhibition that it is here that artist live, work and speak from. One of these artists of the periphery is Hamdy Reda, director of Artellewa, the first alternative space in Cairo. Reda speaks of the need for these alternative spaces, given that often the only available spaces for art(ists) in Egypt are “government or private galleries, both located in the centre of the city”. When setting up Artellewa, Reda was not only seeking how to have a space for artists free from government or market impositions, but also he wanted the space to “act as a bridge between different levels: people on the street, Egyptian artists and foreign artists, both young and established …as well as to promote communication…Communication among artists, between the art scenes of different countries, as well as between artists and their audience, the society”
The final point that can be made thus – a point which should perhaps have been the first one – is that when visiting a modern art exhibition, just like when reading a map, it is essential to command its language. This language, Noshokaty believes, is a crucial and difficult aspect: “it is necessary for learning how things get together and create art. This is a language with a grammar. A grammar that changes with media and with ideas”. For this reason, education, and specially art theory, is crucial, for this is what allows us to study “the grammar of artistic languages; languages that vary in the details, but that have been developed over time”. This education is particularly important for artists and those within the art world, but it cannot be limited to them if the art world wants to reach more people, communicate and build the bridges Reda talks about. It is therefore admirable, as mentioned at the beginning of this review that the «L’un i el multiple» can act as an important step towards learning and understanding this grammar. One walks out of the exhibition with the feeling that there are indeed a number of commonalities, a degree of unity within the modern art world – that these artists do indeed speak one language. But the visitor is also left with a few notes on the concepts and rules that make up this language – such as how artists explore their surroundings, the preferred media they use, the important debates around the politics and histories around the Mediterranean… We walk out of La Capella thus, a few words wiser regarding how contemporary artists are building their grammar book and using it to connect both to their surroundings and to their audience.