More than a decade ago, Malak Helmy walked into the same Arab Society class I was taking at the American University in Cairo. It’s one of those “core electives” that every student has to take in order to complete the liberal arts education program. Through the class, you learn about “social and cultural characteristics and problems of contemporary Arab society.” The intention is to tap into the particular forces that shape this society today, be they historical, political, economic or ideological. Throughout the semester, Helmy managed to keep an unassigned seat for herself next to the door of the classroom.
A decade later, after much traveling and art-making, Helmy walked into my office at Egypt Independent, my former employer, with a series of Arabic handwritten “adeya” (prayers) to be sporadically laid out in our last weekly print edition. They are calls to oust black magic, the curses hidden in tombs that lead to financial and job losses, among other disasters. The semi-spiritual, semi-fantastical texts subtly superimposed on the margins, headers and footers were a site-specific intervention in a publication mourning its own demise and that of independent media in Egypt.
The prayers were but a small detail of Helmy’s journey of unlearning things we were taught in university. In this journey, she has developed a sensibility toward invisible forces that function as social power in the face of our mediated understanding of the world by institutions such as the state or the university. Superstition, speculation, forgotten archives and histories are faces of these invisible forces.
This year, she goes back to AUC, now relocated from downtown Cairo to the desert on the city’s eastern outskirts, with reformulations of her works of the past decade. Going in with those years of practice outside the university, she addresses multiple changes that could perhaps prompt the rewriting of that Arab Society curriculum we were taught.
But curricula aside, at AUC’s Sharjah Art Gallery, Helmy has created an environment that will stay with its temporary visitors, an environment that shifts between the hauntingly pervasive and the nimbly subtle.
On the first floor of the show, you walk around short stacks of faint A4 newsprint sheets, the unbound pages of a publication, spread on the octagon-shaped floor. The stacks are held down by white stones, the color of snow, as the cold wind of air-conditioning fans rhythmically shakes them. The publication, titled Some Parks that Rhyme and Don’t, sets out in Doha, Qatar, where the artist spent her early years of life. She writes of a walk from the compound where she lives to a nearby park. In one of several “environments within environments,” the sentences on the paper refer to a compound in the desert with five gardens, to the humming of air-conditioning units on her silent walk, to the hexagonal structure of the park, to being old and young at the same time.
In the following pages, the artist moves on with her search for parks in other cities she has a relation with at different times. In Cairo, the city of her education and practice, she writes about the Department of Special Gardens, where the state dedicates funding to maintain 23 gardens where sitting on the grass, bringing food or peddling goods are prohibited. In Alexandria, the city where she was born, she speaks of the “bringing back” of a Garden of Waterfalls where waterfalls had long ago ceased to exist. She moves back to Cairo in 2009, where she attends a talk by an urban planner. He explains that real estate companies build golf courses around which they pursue their developments, in order to abide by a law that stipulates that 76 percent of plots in Cairo should be left un-built to protect agriculture. She jumps back to the Cairo of 1997, when now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated a golf course and called it the “green lung for the Cairene people.”
The more you zoom into the publication, the more you curiously travel both away from and toward the hosting desert campus where the show is set. The unbound publication faintly rustling under the wind speaks to the process of learning and unlearning that going to a university and leaving it entails. It is as though the unbound publication is in conversation with the university.
Elsewhere, on the walls of the exhibition’s ground floor, Helmy places framed texts on light-sensitive photo paper. The texts, titled Statements from the Compound, are hardly readable in daylight; the type is yellow, the color of dust, close to the color of the paper, and of the whole campus in which the frames are placed. They incur a temporary unsettling annoyance for text-driven gallery visitors, who are eager to decipher the phrases but are persistently blocked by their illegibility. Determined to unearth the founding contexts of the fleeting words, I managed to decipher “amnesia,” “marble,” “shiny,” “slippery,” “nostalgia,” “memory,” before asking the artist for the full text.
As it turns out, Statements from the Compound is another environment within an environment. It is a story of a compound of twinkling, well-printed details and slippery marble floors, in which memory is fictionalized into a fleetingly present organism that quickly slides off into the margins. There, a disease spreads and kills, as people die of a nostalgia evoked by fleeting memory. So the compound cancels out the word “nostalgia” and banishes those between the ages of 18 and 30. An underage man is exceptionally let in, as he has become nostalgic for amnesia, “the wonderful amnesia of the compound,” having seen people outside madly drawn to the past. Through him, the compound projects into a future in which the people see themselves as happy, for the compound is the foundation of their comfort and happiness.
Not much of this story is revealed on the walls of the exhibition, which evokes metaphors of the impossibility of some knowledge, an unspoken feature of the academy. While the academy is committed to breaking everything open, not all knowledge is available, especially that which situates the institution in time and space. This is when knowledge comes from elsewhere, from an experience that involves looking in the dark spaces of history and taking risks.
In Keyword Searches for Dust (2009), one of three videos presented, Helmy unleashes another of her fictional texts to bind together footage recycled from the internet. Through superimposing text, yet again, onto a different form, Helmy casts more edges onto the realm of words. With this video and the text she rhythmically narrates, she points to particles of dust as a visible index of individual and collective decay, like the old site of an exhibition that never happened and a mannequin whose shed cells crumble her edges. The backdrop consists of low-resolution digital images of a city on fire and people frantically running, where little can be read clearly or made sense of, but everything happens through unearthed connections, transferability and inter-mirroring. This work is one of the most opaque in the whole collection, as the blurred visuals interplay with Helmy’s voice, leaving us disoriented yet somehow pervaded. Departing from the curious act of searching, it shows the unexpected returns of unreservedly seeking knowledge, and aptly uses its form to enable us to inhabit this condition.
Helmy’s show — which also has sculptures, slide projections, vinyl wall texts and sound — adds a new beam to the inquisitiveness that surrounded AUC’s move to the desert from Tahrir Square six years ago. Back then, work done to interrogate this historic moment, compounded with academic sentiments that contributed to class ghettoization and urban disparities, kept to the logic of academia. Helmy’s show transcends the rigidity of this logic by resorting to other sites of her own knowledge generation: unspoken memory, unfound archives, speculation and fictionalization.
With a new language built in many different forms throughout the exhibition — images, sounds, objects — we enter into layer upon layer of the “compound,” re-assembled particles that produce new meanings.
Malak Helmy’s Lost Referents of Some Attraction, curated by Beirut, is open until April 26 at the Sharjah Art Gallery at AUC’s new campus, from 9:30 am till 6 pm. On April 23, a performative public program will take place with short responses by Antonia Alampi, Brian Conley, Jens Maier-Rothe, Nile Sunset Annex, Sarah Rifky and others.