Exploring the Mixed Practices of Two Middle East Contemporary Artists: Khaled Hafez (Egypt) and Diana El Jaroudi (Syria)
Published in Contemporary Practices, volume 2, pp. 122-128, April 2008
This essay delves into the practices of two artists from the Middle East; a linear comparative approach is used to shed light on the backgrounds, concepts, drivers and motives that lead the artists in question to express in the way they do today.
The artists’ interest in tackling one or more of the principal Middle East taboos (sex, religion and politics) will be examined.
Sacred versus profane
“One day I was looking at a small stone model of Anubis and a Warner Brothers model of Batman of almost the same size, and 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 the past and present have, beside their morphological resemblance, an identical function of protection against evil forces.”
This was the germinating idea for the first and fundamental hybrid art form invented by Khaled Hafez, artist, video-maker and painter who has always been enamoured of hybrids, or at least persuaded that they constitute the condition and secret of life of our era.
“I belong to a generation of artists who spent their childhood, adolescence and adulthood surrounded by stress: military confrontations, unexpected political landmarks, and the subsequent effervescent socioeconomic consequences,” he explains.
Naturally, Hafez is speaking about Egypt, where he was born in 1963, and has always lived, except for a long Parisian parenthesis, the country of his education (and hybrid formation): a country that is rather contaminated from the socio-cultural point of view: Cairo presents itself to the outside observer as a series of stratified elements of diverse origins, superimposed or squashed one against the other, without respect for their nature or origin, and without the least concern for the indispensable necessary time for transition, and hence, without any possibility for a harmonious re-composition. In Hafez’ words: “Egyptian society has been reshaped because of continuous changes since the mid-seventies, losing along the way some of its Oriental character, and acquiring instead other traits, some of which are part of the globalization process, others which are simply deviations of a consumer goods culture.”
It is not surprising that this culmination of diverse factors, apparently always on the point of reaching a critical mass and exploding, has become over the last years a fertile ground for many artists, among whom Khaled Hafez, is one interesting artist: cultured and lucid.
Decisively militant underneath his analytic and theoretical profile, extremely attentive to the processes of transformation alive in his environment, but also sensitive to the “profound currents” of cultural belonging and individual identity which continue to feed in a rather original way his imaginary, the artist has developed, over the years, a strong individual painting style that is both recognizable and personal.
Originally, this was a painter who wanted painting to be the privileged site of unexplained meaning (a meaning that could be deciphered), to be understood not as a unitary and homogenous state, but as a multiple and polyvalent configuration, not privy of contradictions, and subject to continual internal transformations. Before the canvas, the aim is to articulate a contemporary thought, using stratification and simultaneous presence, with partial horizontal lines, hybrid forms and polyvalent complexity, instead of by using apparently efficacious but actually reductive simplifications. To do so, Hafez completely assumes with full awareness the language of pop, transforming it into a sort of Egyptian ethno-pop, based on ancient pharaonic divinities who are accompanied in their journey from one part of the canvas to another by very modern pin-up figures and comic strip heroes.
At first glance, the association is surprising but with a little more profound consideration, one sees that nothing is actually gratuitous or purely aesthetic: the artist has in fact been searching for repetitions of forms for years, that is, for significant icons and their symbolic functions, in the West and the East, from the past and the present, forms which are fundamentally unchanging and hence demonstrate true singular unifying traits. The bas-reliefs of Egyptian tombs, with their rich baggage of narrative content and their tendency towards stereotype and repetition, reveal themselves to be the very ancestors of modern comics, even from the point of view of morphological and structural organization.
This interpretation is, in my opinion, convincing: man, at the end, is always more similar to himself and even though the sacred quality of sacred icons has now given way to the commercial significance of contemporary icons (a passage, moreover, that was fully intuited by Walter Benjamin), the images and their contents are tied to the same symbolic needs, to the same anxieties and to the same aesthetic and existential questions.
Khaled Hafez, as he himself says, wants his work to be more intelligent than pleasurable, and hence explores with curiosity and method the non-coincidental repetitions that reveal themselves as part of the profoundly continuous line of the human imaginary.
“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…. 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.” His glue for his project is pop language, that is the strongest and most influential determination of present visual culture, and perhaps the least original form because so widely shared, willingly or unwillingly, and not only in areas restricted to so-called visual arts. But the surprising aspect lies in the explicit and multiple assumption of codes and, if this is not enough, in the vindication of intelligence, in his work which does not simplify things with a strictly pictorial approach.
As for his painting, Hafez has created over the years a style: recognizable, defined, sometimes peremptory because of the presence and capacity to incorporate non-homogenous and dissimilar fragments and transform them into parts complementary to one whole symbolic and visual construction. The method, predictably, is not at all different from that which the artist uses in his videos: cuts, editing, rhythm, hiatuses, pauses which resume the ready-made and without betraying it or denaturalizing it, makes it something different from what it is.
In his painting, the importance and the meaning, if not the weight of the theoretical propositions and elaborations that Hafez always applies and at least connects to concrete fact, does not get in the way of strong immediately convincing images. In this rare case, the artist is not afraid to lower the word, to make thought descend to one of the most ancient and potentially traditional languages of the world (at least in the West) and to use thought with decision and pregnancy, inventing new icons by transliteration or deformation or metamorphosis (like the woman-bridge, arrogantly stretched out to stitch together the diverse parts of the images). The painting itself does not flinch from becoming a mental abstraction; something that Leonardo Da Vinci always foresaw and hoped for.
In the end, we have all become desperately dependent on visual culture, on images that rescue us from the continual emptiness of our minds, from the fleeting words that nest there, from lapses and high blood pressure, the excess of cholesterol and the latent absence of meaning. We all need images, to think, to sleep, to dream, to get through the day.
Our epoch cannot ask from us too much concentration, too much attention, too much knowledge, as (once again) Benjamin suspected: concentration, attention and knowledge of a certain type: theoretical, doctrinaire, slow. For this reason, Khaled Hafez’s choice, like that of every true artist, is that which is right today, both because of its approach and method of handling that which we call art and thought. It is an art form that is destined to become even more popular and necessary in this iconophilic and voracious society, perhaps even more so than pop music and other mass diversions.
FULLA: Forbidden to Undress
Her name is Fulla; to the children who purchase her she promises: I sing like you, I dress like you, I am like you.
Fulla is a doll; based loosely on the celebrated Barbie doll, but reinterpreted according to the use and consumption practices of the Arab world. Hence Fulla wears a long black veil (hijab) that covers her hair and hides the femininity of her figure.
Moreover, one cannot completely undress her: her intimate apparel is soldered to her plastic body to discourage any daring attempts “to play doctor.”
The idea seems to have come from a Syrian marketing businessman sensitive to the concerns of an increasingly conservative society: “Parents are worried,” he himself says. –
– They want to make sure their little daughter will be as they wanted or as their grandmother has taught them in the past. Thus we developed Fulla. The businessman says.
– What do you mean by ‘conservative’? The interviewer insists.
– It is a tricky, tricky question, headmits.
– I mean, what is ‘conservative’? How do we interpret what correct behaviour means?
The conversation goes endlessly.
What he proposes, in sum, is a presumption of identity that seems to content everyone and doesn’t offend anyone. Except for Diana el Jaroudi, the Syrian director and video-maker, co-founder of Proaction Film, Syria’s sole independent film production company; Jaroudi has worked in production of several of her local and international documentaries, feature films and TV stations in Syria.
Born in Damascus in 1977 and raised in Damascus and Baghdad, the director dedicated two of her most recent works to Barbie: Dolls (a co-production of the BBC and the Danish Film Institute which was granted the Jan Vrijman Fund) and a recent engaging film project, A Women from Damascus, an experimental documentary piece with some fictional aspects, which she is currently in the process of filming.
Diana el Jaroudi is the only female artist of her generation active in Syria that we could trace who has focused principally, albeit not exclusively, on the female condition in her country. Her approach has been rather cold, ironic and polemical from the beginning; we could trace such approach starting from 2005 with the release of her film The Pot “Al Qaroura”, (New Asian Currents official selection in Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival –2005, plus numerous similar festivals).
Her gaze, more implacable than insinuating, works expertly to breech distances: for example, she uses a fixed camera held at chest level, positioned in a way to crop the eyes of the interviewer when appropriate; a regard/look that makes one uneasy and renders visible the unease that already exists.
The position of the doll in her film is worth studying: embarrassed hands are hidden in crossed legs, while lips form a broken discourse made of professional frustrations, familial constrictions, missed opportunities and lost prospective. Included among those interviewed in The Pot are those who think or declare that the destiny of women is the family and that any eventual professional occupation should remain secondary in order to remain “acceptable and accepted”: that is appropriate for a woman.
Jaroudi does not comment, though the title of her work, The Pot, reveals her point: the pot, the container, the earthenware is the perfect object to represent women in that it is an empty piece of china—empty of mind yet full of children, good for the kitchen, the bed and reproduction.
Fulla on the other hand aims to expose the hyperbolic kitsch aspect of the doll-object, to a greater degree, even than the publicity trailers that accompany the film. Framed in the dead center of a flourishing garden full of artificial flowers or in fields of grain, under a lacquered translucid latex sky, fabricated with Photoshop (landscapes that are moreover rather improbable in the environmental context of the Arab world), the doll evokes seductive paradises of which she will be, doubtlessly, the unquestioned little queen. These luminous fresh blooming paradises, all based on hyperbole and superlatives (especially so in this hot region of the world), nevertheless function perfectly to sustain an idea. That idea is simply that of a fantastic dimension in which the girl-doll hides herself and cannot help but continue to hide in order to bear the frustrations of real existence, a reality ever-present in the few but penetrating details of her surroundings: a young woman who washes plates, another (whom we see in the role of protagonist in the director’s follow-up film A Woman from Damascus) who insists on presenting her curriculum to diverse faraway interlocutors, by telephone, while her little children leap about and use her body, her clothes and her legs like a gym or a playground to climb and pursue other domestic adventures.
The overall effect is in a sense nevertheless claustrophobic, and well illustrates the relative state of “depression” and low enterprising spirit that according to Diana el Jaroudi characterizes today’s Syria.
Syrian art is analogous to sleeping beauty: stunned by a kind of long autarchy, swayed by ideological rituals which have an exciting effect (for a little while), under which smolder a religious restlessness and a search for identity and reassurances more regressive than not, the potential creativity of Syrian art (visual arts, in the widest sense) seems slowed down and torpid, rendered impotent by the impossibility of critique, and frustrated by an enduring censorship and by a certain slow-motion affection for the status quo.
Omar Amiralay deplored a similar situation just a little while back, in an interview with myself. As is well known, Amiralay is part of the known independent film school The Arab Institute of Film, with its headquarters in Amman and represented in Syria by el Jaroudi’s own Proaction Film. The aim is to support cinematographic production in the Arab world, in this rich if not flourishing time, by offering twelve chosen youths each year both technical and creative training, in order to “preserve the originality of their gaze” and hence lift the new generations from the “depression of the imaginary” that oppresses them.
This lack of motivation, stimulus and hope is evident in the facts alone: in 2006, the Institute of Amiralay received only 25 applications from the entire Arab world, and the year before, in comparison to 80 films made in Iran, one was struck by the “silence” of the Arab-Mediterranean world, which produced nothing but 9 Egyptian films (a dramatic drop if one thinks of the 1940s, in which the studios of Egypt alone produced more than a third of the films in the world, after the US and India), and just one filmed in Syria.
“We lack a positive concept of our identity,” laments Amiralay. “Syria, a country under embargo, is relatively isolated and in the margins of everything. It is abandoned to itself, and risks closing up in an apathy without contact and with little self-awareness.”
“Who knows if the dolls veiled in black, the unfinished and the un-produced work and the work not to be found plus the nightmares that besiege the nights of the newly born have something to do with it” someone who refused to be mentioned added.
The mixed contemporary art practices of two artists form the Middle East, Khaled Hafez and Diana el Jaroudi was explored for common grounds in concept, inspiration and approach.
Through irony and sarcasm, both artists’ productions tackle the three Middle East taboos, namely sex, religion and politics, though intelligently to avoid censorship issues.
Perhaps the common socio-political and historical background, especially in the fifties and sixties, extending influence today and shaping the behaviours of the Egyptian and Syrian societies, may have led both artists to explore their shifting and metamorphosing societies.
- Jessica Winegar, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
- Jessica Winegar, Cultural Sovereignty in a Global Art Economy: Egyptian Cultural Policy and the New Western Interest in Art from the Middle East. Cultural Anthropology 21(2):173-204, 2006.
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, Duke University Press (December 1999), ISBN-10: 0822323915 – ISBN-13: 978-0822323914
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press (August 1986), ISBN-10: 0816614008 – ISBN-13: 978-0816614004