Khaled Hafez: All Time Idlers

In an interior dominated by deep reddish lights, two men with Arabic or Middle Eastern facial features stand facing each other, though each pointedly ignores the other. The camera captures them from below, insisting on the effect achieved by aiming against the light, which scatters reflections and spreads shadows on their faces. One of them, a cigarette gripped between his lips, has the air of a man with a very clear idea of what he is doing, as he handles a big Colt.

The other, thin, shaven-headed and bare from the waist up, cradles a bottle of whisky in his arms. Hanging on the wall behind them are not the usual pictures, but a collection of firearms. As the going gets tough, the tension gets palpable. Jenny Holzer’s well-known statement, protect me from I want, is written on the wall in the background. Oh, so these are not international terrorists, but artists: in fact, this is a sequence from Idlers’ Logic, the video by Khaled Hafez that won an award at last year’s Dakar Biennale.

Khaled Hafez: among contemporary artists, one of those most generously supplied with irony, a quality now lamentably rare in a contemporary art system dominated by nebulous exploits and catch-phrases chosen for their media impact, but bereft of any real meaning, as well as by traumas, tautologies and unpleasant experiences (also aesthetically and technically speaking: by which I mean downright badly made).

Khaled Hafez focuses mainly on staging their frustration and passiveness, in the sense of their inevitable conformity to the western idea of “as you want me” – although the sign is always negative.

They are always smoking – Virginia tobacco – and they shoot, drink whisky and coffee, don’t work, produce nothing, waste time beating out a rhythm on jars and tambourines; they strike a pose, also as potential objects of extremely ambiguous desire; they chant long Oriental dirges (at least that is what they always risk sounding like to our western ears). And they watch television, or maybe they don’t watch it directly, but the artist is unbearably attracted to a collage of all kinds, traditional and hi tech, so he sticks one image on after another; scenes of kisses, in particular: long, fifties-style kisses, with the only variant of a comment – which in this case is not romantic, but sounds like something out of a football commentary.

Maybe it’s worthwhile: we have already seen this film, comments Khaled Hafez, it’s an old one, its comic-book plot is a cliché (someone always ends up saying “I love you, woman” at some stage) and the kiss is ultimately all that really interests us; all the more so now that Puritanism is making such an effervescent comeback (there, in the Arabian countries).

The game of combinations used by the artist to generate a fair proportion of his sometimes irresistible comedy is blatant: the face is always the face of President Bush, but the voice that is supposed to be coming from his mouth is feminine and is describing (in Arabic) all the many and varied wonders of a cucumber-based face mask; altogether, the soundtrack is distinctly Oriental, but “our heroes” (or “theirs”: it depends on whose side we decide to be on) dream about the West, although they probably do so in conflicting terms. As a matter of fact, they tend to identify with action film stars, with movie gangsters, police or secret agents, especially with Al Pacino in Taxi Driver.

In the first video he made, which was produced in 2001 with the title Visions of a Cheeseburger Memory (a work that I believe deserves more limelight than it has had to date), the game of combinations was even more blatant and, to a certain extent, autobiographical: framed in a horizontal stripe set between two red bands (like a cheeseburger), the squashed, compressed image combines rapidly alternating fragments of different films, from Clockwork Orange, which acts as a sort of link, to fights between Chinese mafia gangs in New York and frames taken from the artist’s own films, showing him shooting at something or someone, rather clumsily and above all slowly compared to his heroes, but still quite convincingly.

Apart from any ideological or descriptive value or claim to value, the sheer pleasure of the collage functions for its own sake. An implacable activist in the cutting room, where he is more intense and remorseless than on any other occasion, Khaled Hafez generates meaning by layering, by targeted zapping, the speed of his movements, the peremptoriness of his cuts.

That is the cheeseburger: all-inclusive cultural consumerism, narrative conditioning; it is a way of thinking, of seeing, even of creating, our way. A sandwich, practically any sandwich: a mass-produced, industrial sandwich. A Macdonald’s sandwich;

Hafez is hopelessly in love with the movies: in Idlers’ Logic, where a fiction ambition predominates over the collage and the ready-made, his alert directing hints at unexpected links between the environment surrounding the Middle-Eastern ne’er-do-wells and the room where the action takes place between the stars of Last tango in Paris: for example in the light that is always cast from behind the actors, so that the camera sees them as covered with shadows, reflections and signs.

Above all, Khaled Hafez is in love with cross-fertilizations, or perhaps it would be better to say he is convinced that they constitute the condition – and the secret – of our everyday life and our age. In and out of the cinema, “I belong to a generation of artists who spent their childhood, adolescence and adulthood surrounded by stress”, he explained years ago: “military confrontations, unexpected political landmarks and the subsequent effervescent socio-economic consequences”.

Of course, Hafez is talking about Egypt, the country where he was born, grew up and still lives today, with the exception of a long period spent in Paris, for training (and cross-fertilization). His is a country that is socio-culturally quite contaminated: to the untrained eye, Cairo, now a megalopolis with about sixteen million inhabitants, looks like a series of layered elements from different origins, piled up or squashed one on top of another with no regard for their nature or origins, no care for the indispensable times of transition, so with no possibility to be recomposed harmoniously. “Egyptian society has been reshaped by continuous changes since the mid-seventies, losing some of its Oriental character on the way and acquiring other traits instead, some of which are part of the globalisation process” (which affects Egypt too, of course), “others simply deviations towards the consumer goods culture.”

It is no coincidence that this accumulation of different situations, apparently always on the point of reaching critical mass and exploding, has been transformed in recent years into a fertile humus for a great many artists, who nearly all work more or less consciously on dimensions and through languages that are markedly and programmatically hybrid, no less than those used by those of their compatriots who moved to Europe or the USA some time ago.

Of all of these, Khaled Hafez is one of the more interesting, cultured and lucid: decidedly battle-hardened in analytical and theoretical terms, extremely alert to the processes of transformation taking place in his environment, but also conscious of the “deep currents” of cultural belonging and individual identity that continue to nourish his imagery in such original ways, the artist who, is a brilliant film-maker, has also learned over the years how to develop a strongly distinctive painterly style, recognisable and personal. He actually started out as a painter – a painter who sees painting as an excellent, favoured place for unfurling meaning (a decipherable meaning), which should also be taken to mean not a unitary, homogenous factor, but a multiple, polyvalent configuration, not without contradictions and subject to continuous internal transformations.

Khaled Hafez is no artist – and no man – to resort to subterfuge, to the excessively easy short cuts that are so endemic these days (Gillo Dorfles was already talking several years ago about “easily copied fashions”, a definition that is still up to date for apparently different objects all the time) in the artistic institutions and in so many curators’ à la page compilations.

I refer, for example, to all those little war games that are infesting exhibitions, biennials and museums with increasingly scholastic, predictable and hurried productions, with no ambitions whatsoever except for the all-too-obvious one of being something more than a mere tautology and to win their five minutes of media glory, as Warhol used to say.

No: such pseudo-aggressive exercises, nearly always no more than rhetorical (with due exceptions, of course), have never really seduced Khaled Hafez, who thinks like a contemporary man when he is in front of a canvas, too. In other words, he thinks in layers, in simultaneous presences, in partial horizons, in cross-fertilizations and in terms of polyvalent complexities instead of in apparently effective but in reality derogatory simplifications. And to do so he helps himself with both hands and complete awareness to the language of Pop, transforming it into a sort of Egyptian ethno-Pop, based on ancient Pharaonic gods accompanied in their wanderings on both sides of the canvas by ultra-modern pin-ups and cartoon heroes.

At first glance, the association is surprising, but even the most cursory second look reveals that it is anything but gratuitous or purely aesthetically inclined: this artist has actually spent years in a quest for recurrences, in other words for forms or icons and symbolic functions that reverberate from east to west and from past to present, fundamentally unchanged or in any case in such terms as to constitute veritable traits d’union: “One day, I was looking at a small stone model of Anubis and a Warner Brothers model of Batman of almost the same size: I discovered that both figures are identical from the front view and from the back view; the only difference is from the profile view. It is a bit astounding that both super-heroes of past and of present have, beside their morphological resemblance, an identical function of protection against evil forces”.

So the reliefs on ancient Egyptian tombs, with all the bulky baggage of narrative content and their tendency to stereotyping and repetition, turn out to be the real ancestors of modern comics, also from the standpoint of morphological and structural organisation.

I find this interpretation convincing: ultimately, man is always rather similar to himself and, although the sacred quality of the ancient icons has been replaced by the commercial connotation of their contemporary counterparts (a situation already clearly intuited by Walter Benjamin), images and their contents are bound to the same symbolic requirements, the same anxieties and the same existential and aesthetic questions.

As he says himself, Khaled Hafez wants his work to be intelligent rather than just pleasant, so he invests curiosity and method in exploring the non-random recurrences that offer themselves up as lines of the profound continuity of our human imagery: “Today, here or there, universal icons follow us, even at home: top-models (there) or theology monopolists of science-and-faith (here), filthy-rich tycoons and unqualified politicians (here and there).

From universal icons I weave my legend”. His adhesive is the language of Pop: maybe the strongest, most influential determinant of today’s visual culture, though if you like the least original, because the most commonly shared, whether we like it or not – and not only within the confined terrain of the visual arts as such. But it is surprising that in his blatant, multiple assumption of codes and – as though that were not enough – in his claim to imbue intelligence into his work that does nothing to simplify things from a strictly painterly viewpoint (he once wrote: “My initial worry before starting a project is trying to create an intelligent work, not an aesthetic one. Visual illusions provide an interesting outcome many times”); Khaled Hafez has achieved a Style with a capital S over the years: personal, recognisable, defined, sometimes peremptory for the presence of heterogeneous, dissimilar fragments and the capacity to transform them into parts complementary to one and the same symbolic and visual construction.

The method is ultimately no different from the one applied by the artist to his video work: cutting, editing, rhythm, interruptions and pauses summarise his ready-made and, without betraying it or changing its nature, make it something different from what it was. In painting, the importance and significance, not to say the weight, of the theoretical propositions and of the elaboration that Khaled Hafez always puts before or at least connects to concrete facts do not block the creation of powerful, instantly convincing images. In this rare case, words and thought are not afraid of descending into one of the world’s (at least of the western world’s) most ancient and powerfully traditional languages and using it with decisiveness and pregnancy, inventing new icons by transliteration, deformation or metamorphosis (such as the bridge woman, overbearingly stretched to stitch different parts of the image together); while painting, for its part, is not afraid of becoming something mental, as Leonardo Da Vinci already foresaw and aspired to.

To tell the truth, we have all become desperately dependent on visual culture, on the images that aid us overcome our continuous mental voids, the floods of words that overpower us, in our moments of forgetfulness and our hypertensions, in our excesses of cholesterol and our latent shortcomings of meaning. We need images to help us think, sleep, dream and pass the day.

That is why Khaled Hafez, like every true artist, makes the right choice for today; with regard both to the dosage and to the method of application of this substance called art and called thought. A substance that is destined to become increasingly popular and necessary in this greedy, icon-obsessed society, maybe more than pop music and other mass amusements. Luckily, also in future there will be no shortage of generous, well-intentioned idlers, ready to provide us with what we need.

Martina Corgnati