Shows: I Am Not There
‘I Am Not There’ was an exhibition with no art works. The centrepiece and hub of the inaugural Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) in Cairo, it was a bold exhibition choice for the starting point of an initiative that supposedly aimed to highlight the city’s wealth of artistic activity. To describe the exhibition as empty, however, would not be accurate: on display were elements, fragments or hints of what were once envisioned as complete art works, and for various reasons, never came to be.
Shown at Townhouse Gallery’s Factory space and curated by Mia Jankowicz (a contributor to frieze), the Artistic Director of Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) Cairo, ‘I Am Not There’ displayed transcripts, email exchanges, artists’ statements and narratives of six unrealized or obstructed works with a direct connection to Egypt and the region at large. Ostensibly, the exhibition considered how culture is controlled, obstructed or given free reign by institutions purporting to protect the interests of the artists, the institution itself, or the audience from legal and/or moral ramifications. The documentation relating to each work disclosed and exposed different aspects of censorship – be it religious, governmental or logistical. These presentations collectively revealed not only the climate of artistic production in Egypt, but also the ‘hidden’ role of the curator in negotiating, shaping and realizing the work.
At Townhouse Gallery in 2003, Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi exhibited Remembrance (or The Secret of Repetition), an installation of several shoe moulds garnered from shoemakers and cast in silver, adorned with Sufi texts and positioned in rows in front of a mirror. A highly symbolic work, it was a delicate and poetic meditation on the overlooked craftsmanship of shoemakers and the visually evocative language of Sufi writings. When a new iteration of the work was being prepared for shipment to Bahrain to be shown at Al Riwaq Art Space the following year, it was confiscated by customs. The officials misread the classical Arabic texts as Quranic, which, inscribed onto ‘shoes’ (although only moulds) equated to a serious religious offence, for which the artist was charged, and soon acquitted, of ‘exploitation of the religion of Islam’. To this day, the work remains in a warehouse in Cairo where the artist is assured she’ll never be able to see it again, let alone exhibit it. In ‘I Am Not There’ an Arabic text describing the work’s sequestration was displayed in front of a mirror, emphasizing the absence of the work and endlessly repeating its tale, backwards and forwards, an emulation of this significant act of misreading.
Ayman Ramadan’s Missing Dog (2009) was a response to the strategic and sadistic poisoning of street dogs by the police in the mechanics district of downtown Cairo, where Townhouse Gallery is situated. The artist sculpted a dog from rubbish collected from the same streets and installed it outside the gallery. Under the cover of darkness, police removed and disposed of the sculpture, and in response Ramadan printed a missing dog poster offering a reward, which he plastered around the neighbourhood. In anticipation of ‘I Am Not There’, Ramadan again disseminated the posters, and was deluged with callers claiming to know the whereabouts of this lost rubbish-dog. Recordings of the telephone exchanges have since become a continuation of the work. Shown next to a series of the posters was a wall-sized text that told the story of the work in the artist’s voice.
The most recent work included, which most likely generated the most attention since its censorship, is Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate (2012). Her ejection from the shortlist for the Lacoste Elysée Prize in December 2011, for being ‘too pro-Palestinian’, sparked a public outcry centred on the notion of artistic freedom and corporate agendas disguised behind cultural philanthropy. Exhibited at ‘I Am Not There’ were three un-mounted aluminium plates, standing in for the proposed photographs, adjacent to a chronology of the events and discussions among the artist, institution, funders and press. The correspondence demonstrates the attempted coercion of the artist and ultimate suspension of ties between The Musée de l’Elysée and Lacoste.
In the aftermath of the events of January 2011, absence is a timely metaphor in Egypt. Many artists have spoken about their inability to produce work after the end of the protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak, arguing that the oppressive hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have been just as brutal for artists. Positioned in the centre of the exhibition space was a stage, empty at the time of visiting, which stood as a stark emblem of anticipation, yet was the promised site of daily talks and performances to contemplate issues in conversation with the works. The empty exhibition and the unrealized artist’s project have an established tradition throughout contemporary art history, from Yves Klein’s 1958 ‘The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void’ to the more recent ‘Unbuilt Roads’ in 2009 at e-flux project space (and a book project of the same name from 1997 edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guy Tortosa), to ‘Unrealised Potential’ at Manchester’s Cornerhouse in 2010; all of which take emptiness or incompletion as an allegory for protest, experience, generosity or radicality.
‘I Am Not There’ encouraged more consideration of the particular context within which the artist operates, positioning itself somewhere between an exhibition and an essay. The format for the show alone was especially essayistic ¬– with enlarged texts in English and Arabic filling the walls and little visual allusion to the works they portrayed. Yet with state control still rife in Egypt, it is encouraging that an exhibition and the artists involved emerge from their censorship to defiantly put forth the need for a critically aware and engaged culture to change the tide of control and continue to develop an open and truly independent landscape for the production of art.Daniella Rose King