At first I thought an art show based off of a birthmark was characteristic of the annoying solipsism of a lot of artists. But about five minutes in, each piece of art began triggering thoughts about my own moles.
In college I had seven large moles removed. They were the only resemblance I got from my American grandpa that my mother or me can think of. They were the brown fleshy semicircular kind, and one in particular occupied a lot of my thoughts. Most were on my back, but there was one on my left wrist that I would stare at a lot and pluck hairs from because they were a bit darker than the rest and, I thought, brought others’ attention to what I felt was unsightly and ugly.
If you are uncomfortable with this, I’m kind of sorry. But it’s not inappropriate considering that when you go see Shady Elnoshokaty’s solo exhibition Colony-Latitude at Gypsum Gallery, a bit of it makes you feel uncomfortable too. One of the first drawings you see when you come in is of a pile of rats, and a space-agey haunted house soundtrack plays.
Masses of rats, cells, ants, and bees are all forms of colonies, says the press release. And so it seems is the birthmark on the back of his hand that was the inspiration for the show.
There’s a continual suggestion throughout the exhibition that colonialism is impossible to achieve with any permanence because it is always skin-deep and fleeting. Take for example the topographic drawing of the birthmark near the entrance. Placed next to a photograph of Elnoshokaty’s left hand, it looks like a kind of reverse iceberg, with roots that are less substantial than the visible structure. This is a nice revolutionary sentiment for a body of work the artist started producing in 2012. I imagine, with a fair amount of certainty, that the artist saw colonialism’s hand in the revolution as an institution to be criticized. But it is also a sentiment that seems tenuous, given that this body of work is still being produced now.
This is one of more than 60 framed drawings that make up the bulk of the show. I found I liked some better than others, and it was usually along a simple test: those that looked like Elnoshokaty’s birthmark versus those that didn’t. Inside the latter, which tend to look like the covers of local electronic music albums, with neon colored clouds and lines that look like circuitboards or nonsense structures, there are some esoteric notes. “Its not the story of the Egyptian revolution.” “Artistic – Object – Context.” “Ideological Structures.”
Inside this main room with the drawings though is a 3D version of Elnoshokaty’s birthmark. It’s about a meter and a half wide, concrete, heavy and looks as if it could have be a segment that’s fallen out of a crumbling piece of Cairo’s brutal infrastructure and then placed onto the gallery floor.
Now that I have left the gallery I regret not standing over said concrete rendering of the nevus instead of looking at the mostly abstract drawings on the wall and struggling to see their connection. There is something to be said for different iterations of the same idea. I tend to enjoy these kinds of shows, where the artist guides you with a simple, thought-provoking idea that does not dictate the works.
When I saw the first drawing of the birthmark, the reverse iceberg, I thought of that same mole of mine. And I thought of how I watched the dermatologist bore a hole around it, before pinching it to snip away at the bottom of its roots.
He wanted to send it off to the lab to check for tests and suspended it in a little vial of fluid, where you could see how deep the colony’s roots were. I wonder whether the political colonies Elnoshokaty sees in Egypt have deep roots, or shallow ones.
Paper and concrete are the two most palpable media that Elnoshokaty uses to make us think about his message.
But in a back room sits a glassy, foamy pink object, rising out of a hole in a white plastic platform cut in the shape of the birthmark. On the wall is a projection showing a series of topographic images that are similar to some of the drawings, each with a list of attributes of the town it depicts, and how much, it matches up with Elnoshokaty’s birthmark, percentage-wise. For such an exact, quantified approach, a lot of the information is missing. The omissions seem deliberate, although why escapes me: they leave something to be desired. The whole thing has the feel of an alien control room, maybe orbiting the earth. It’s cold, dark, and weird noises are playing – the scene of the minutes before we get tractor-beamed up, our farms razed, and our mines exploited.
The pink birthmark is really intriguing and looks like some sort of clear plastic. It was when I walked around it I noticed a tube coming from the wall into the platform that holds it. Then it hit me – it’s ice. I touched it, which is probably not supposed to happen, but I had to confirm it was ice. I thought of the remaining mole on my back that I often touch to see if its still there in a weird tick. The touch is only for the brief moment to ensure that my mole is actually what I think it is.
This colony is melting – there is pinkish water moving away on the platform’s surface that seems out of place. Maybe that’s from when somebody else touched the ice more zealously, and it dropped from their hand. If this liquid is purposeful, it’s genius, because it makes me feel like I’m not the only grab-happy art gawker that’s come through here, even though as I walk in the gallery alone I am only sure I am the only one who has actually passed through.
Colony – Latitude is on show at Gypsum through November 25. 5 Ibrahim Naguib Street, Ground Floor, Apt. 2, Garden City, Cairo. Open daily from 12-8pm, Friday 4-8pm, Sunday off. All photos courtesy Shady Elnoshokaty and Gypsum Gallery.