Marking a highly significant moment in the 21st century history of the Arab world the recent Egyptian ‘people’s revolution,’ successfully resulted in the ousting of ‘president for life’ Hosni Mubarak from his seat and inspired a regional tumult that spurned millions across the region to protest against tyranny and social injustice, known as the Arab Spring.
With the uprisings’ effects still rippling the exhibition From Facebook to Nassbook responds by showcasing 9 cross-generational contemporary Egyptian artists Khaled Hafez, Adel El-Siwi, Mansoora Hassan Ashraf Foda, Thomas Hartwell, Mohamed Gabr, Amena El-Saie, Natalie Ayoub and Amina Elotiefy. Functioning both individually and collectively the artists act as visual cultural critics commenting on the daily practices of Egyptian life and presenting works that reflect on the build up to the revolution, its fervour and post-revolutionary hope. From Facebook to Nassbook borrows its title from the method by which the people’s revolution was communicated via the internet and social media sites such as facebook and twitter, until a governmental intervention disabled the internet, resulting in a people’s revolution that was largely communicated through word of mouth hence (nass) book, nass being the Egyptian Arabic word for people.
The exhibition attempts to capture the spirit of pre and post revolutionary Egypt with a focus on the power of such networks to cut across social classes, set down religious divisions and overcome intergenerational barriers. Art historically, Egypt has had a long and vast trajectory with art and has one of the most developed modern and contemporary art scenes throughout the region. The first institution dedicated to the teaching of modern art in the Arab world was established in Cairo in 1908 by Prince Yusuf Kamal and this was shortly followed by the formation of the Museum of Modern Art in 1931.
Entwined with a rich art historical tradition, social changes and revolution have also played an important role in defining the art scene. A prominent example being the creation of the modern socialist art group Art and Freedom in the 1940s which preceded the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and included pioneering socialist artists such as Ramsis Yunan and Hussein Yusuf Amin. Another important landmark period followed the 1967 sixday war with Israel, which was considered a pan –Arab catastrophe crushing both the military and public morale. Following the war Egyptian artists sought a new artistic vocabulary known widely as the Calligraphic School of Art, which derived from Islamic tropes and borrowed from calligraphy and traditional Islamic design to portray both covert and overt signifiers.
From there on Egyptian artists have strived for excellence contributing to the formation of the 20th/ 21st century Arab art historical cannon both in Egypt and its diaspora contributing to highly conceptual works that speak to a global audience, and in the wake of recent events these artistic voices are more potent than ever and serve as the core of the exhibition From Facebook to Nassbook. From Facebook to Nassbook is a visual response to 21st century changes in lifestyle and technology in Egypt and offers a correlation between pre and post revolutionary symptoms. Highlighting local realities has been essential in the selection of artists living and working in Cairo, which has its own characteristics. Featured artists’ works explore urban existence and focus on Cairo as the central hub of protest responding to themes such as premonition, defiance and fervour, jubilation, remembrance and hope which are deployed via a wide range of mediums like painting, mixed media, installation, photography and social media. Within the context of premonition internationally acclaimed artist Khaled Hafez’s pre revolutionary abstract painting and works on paper capture the immediate period of disenchantment that preceded the actual revolution.
In Tomb Sonata in 3 Military Movements: The Sniper, (2010) a large scale mixed media work on canvas juxtaposes military and civilian figures within a dense and complex composition that is ridden with suspense. Complimentary to this work a series of three unique mixed media drawings on paper from the series First Temple of Flight, (2010) once again feature military figures armed with weapons, both on the ground and air, and in one striking drawing the incongruous figure of a large predatory cat follows the military, alluding to ancient Egyptian mythological depictions of the cat such as the lion headed Sekhmet or Bastet.
Drawing on the psychological realm renowned painter Adel El-Siwi whose works are heavily steeped in modernist tropes showcases a series of brightly hued abstract raw and primitive figurative works on paper and wood from 2010 that deconstruct their sitter’s emotional state of being and are simply titled as Solitude, Smile and Sigh, among others. Also exploring emotional and psychological states of disenchantment pertaining to gender are probed by Pakistani female artist and activist Mansoora Hassan who lived and worked in Egypt for a number of years. Hassan presents The Bound Project: Bound/ Unbound (2006) a large-scale digital banner print that investigates the masculinity of her subjects as they are wrapped and unwrapped in scrolls or Arabic text and refers to the cycle of oppression that results from cultural, religious, and political constraints. Attempting to mark history mid-career artist Ashraf Foda whose practice straddles between creative design, academia and fine arts has created a mixed media installation A Stone From Tahrir Square, (2011) which presents a series of signed stones by the public which are displayed like ancient archaeological relics and act as a reminder of intimidation tactics employed by security forces against protestors in addition to the use of guns, tanks, tear gas and barricades.
Accompanying this work Foda presents Untitled, (2011) stencil on board depicting the outline of security forces and acts as a further reminder of the brutalities enacted against protestors in Tahrir Square. In a similar vein early career artist Natalie Ayoub has produced a mixed media collage piece Eighteen, (2011) an ode to the 18 days of protest and civil unrest. Assembled from media footage from the first two days of the revolution with images and Arabic text Ayoub’s art resembles a cut and paste technique reminiscent of street posters and graffiti from Cairo’s Zamalek district.
Complimenting these works contemporary documentary style photography by leading Cairo based photographers Thomas Hartwell and Mohamed Gabr along with emerging photographer Amina Elotiefy present ‘snap shot’ views of the protests in Tahrir Square the main site of protest, defiance, fervour and jubilation. Rounding out the exhibition emerging artist Amena El-Saie’s Trees of Hope, (2011) a new installation especially created for the exhibition from a previous work Tree of Hope, (2010) features several small trees whose leaves have been painted with gold leaf and various mixed media and have been transplanted to the gallery space to explore double binaries such as roots/ and rootlessness. El-Saie invites viewers to interact with the work by contemplating their dreams and hopes and tie their wishes to the branches of the trees akin to acclaimed Japanese artist and social activist Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, (1981).
El-Saie’s version relates to the hope echoed within the piece’s title in reference to the future generations of Egypt and captures the spirit of From Facebook to Nassbook, which equally invites the public to collectively consider their wishes for civil harmony and social equality, a global and fundamental right.