Pop singers are fake, and so is the schmaltzy notion of love that they sell us.
That’s essentially the one-liner driving Marwa El Shazly’s recent solo show at Mashrabia Gallery, Made in Lebanon, now on view at downtown’s Estoril restaurant through January. A glittering assortment of collages of pictures of hot Lebanese pop stars (icons like Nancy Agram, Haifa Whabi, Elissa and others) decorated with sparkles, fake gems and shiny bubble-gum colored fabrics, creates an overall effect of a teenage girl’s decorated locker, blown up to fill an entire room.
The intention is ironic, meant as a commentary on the fetishizing of stardom, the mass media’s commodification of women’s bodies and the kitschy commercialism of love and romance — all manufactured by the pop music machine headquartered in Lebanon, and consumed in the context of the depressing, harsh realities of everyday life in Egypt.
This is the first solo show for Shazly, a Helwan University graduate and two-time winner of the prize for painting at Egypt’s Youth Salon in 2009 and 2010. Made in Lebanon continues in the vein of her recent work, which has focused on tropes of power and economic structures and how they are represented visually in everyday life materials.
In the 2010 Cairo Documenta, Shazly showed a series of collages referring to the recent parliamentary elections, which quickly became notorious for their unprecedented and brutal level of corruption. She pieced together images of known political figures, iconic buildings in Cairo and advertising imagery assembled in fields of bright pop colors. Similarly, in the recent Darb 1718 exhibition Khadra, the she presented lighthearted pop portraits of Mohamed Morsi, Mohamed Badie and Khairat al-Shater, leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, now increasingly vilified and sidelined.
In Made in Lebanon, Shazly veers away from direct political commentary, dialing back on the cartoonish, satirical humor that she’s used to depict government officials, keeping the tone light and sweet, if still slightly mocking. In one piece, a photograph of Agram expressively posed in mid-chanson is collaged on a black background studded with small neon circles; a thin wash of color has turned her skin a sickly yellow, and dabs of paint on her face turn her heavy make-up job into a clownish pastiche of orange blush and sparkly silver, drag queen-like eyeshadow. In another work, the Arabic word for “love,” written in an old-school calligraphic script reminiscent of sign painting, is scrawled against a roughly painted cobalt blue background, surrounded by sloppy, glittery gold stars and framed by a wobbly, uneven golden border.
Shazly’s collages are rough and cobbled together, and the presence of the artist’s hand is obviously intentional: Thin washes of paint drip over the collaged photographs, and thick impasto-like smears of glue hold them in place. They’re tactile, craft-like images; some works are bedecked with fuzzy feathers and large, shiny pendants, others are adorned with sparkly, crystal-encrusted trim. The artist says she used cheap, commonly available materials from popular markets to further emphasize the notion of mass fabrication and commodification, and the handwork itself is presumably a nod to small-scale woman’s work — embroidery, scrapbooking and so on — juxtaposed against the bigger-budget woman’s work of performing certain societal fantasies for the camera.
The exhibition reminds me a little bit of Nadine Hammam’s exhibition last year at Misr Gallery, Tank Girl, which also featured sparkly, sexed-up women’s bodies slapped on canvases just the right size to hang over a living-room sofa. Her exhibition problematically proposed a critique of the commodification of the female form, while still presenting those bodies for sale, failing to critically disrupt the desiring gaze of the consumer. I found Hammam’s work borderline offensive for its hypocritical use of a supposedly feminist discourse. I don’t think “Made in Lebanon” falls into that particular pitfall, but I do feel that it represents a lost opportunity to meaningfully engage with her subject. Though the word lazy isn’t really allowed in the art criticism lexicon anymore, frankly that’s what the exhibition feels like — and not in an intentional way.
This is all the more clear when looking at projects by other local artists who have worked with similar material in more interesting ways. For instance, New York-based photographer Youssef Nabil has been taking highly stylized, precisely posed portraits of stars (both from cinema and the more rarified cultural realm) since the early 2000s, combining a very measured Warholesque approach with the visual language of the classic studio portraiture of Cairo’s golden age of photography (which has had a strong presence in contemporary art circles since the resurgence of interest in the Van Leo studio after a major retrospective was part of PhotoCairo in 2002, and more recently with the Studio Viennoise project launched last year by Paul Geday and Heba Farid).
Berlin-based photographer Ahmed Kamel took a more conceptual approach with his 2009-2010 series Local Star, for which the artist circulated a classified ad inviting anyone who dreams of stardom to come take a portrait in his studio to create a poster. The aspiring stars could choose their pose, a digital background and an outfit; the whole process created a very personal but abstracted lexicon of the signifiers of fame.
Looking at Made in Lebanon alongside these other approaches throws into sharp relief the one-dimensionality of Shazly’s collages. The work doesn’t add anything new to the same old arguments about the nefarious effects of the pop star dream on the average person’s relation to the self, or the problems surrounding the unattainable aspirations pop culture promotes. And formally speaking, the collages are not particularly aesthetically engaging. In fact, in an interview with the state-owned Al-Ahram Weekly, Shazly said that the visuality of her work didn’t really matter so much — it was the “concept” that was more important than the formal delivery. But unfortunately, visually speaking the work is relatively banal, and the “concept” itself falls completely flat.
One the one hand, I admire Mashrabia for its willingness to take risks on young local artists and give them their first solo shows, and think the gallery performs a critical function in the local arts scene with this kind of programming. The fact that Made in Lebanon is now on view through January in downtown’s Estoril restaurant could also open up potentially interesting opportunities for the much-coveted “non-traditional” audiences to encounter contemporary visual arts. On the other hand, these laudable things are ultimately overshadowed by the fact that Shazly fails to deliver on her promised critique. The issue of how the visual tropes of pop culture are taken up by local consumers, inflecting their personal styles and tastes that are themselves performed publically, informing social interactions, is a potentially fascinating one, and is an issue that actually speaks volumes about the knotty connections of culture, class and political affiliations. But Made in Lebanon takes the most straightforward, surface-level approach to its subject, leaving the viewer with a product that’s just as sugary and bubble-gum flavored as the pop star dreams it seeks to deflate.