Mental imprisonment and OMG I can’t believe this dictatorship
Still from Amanda Biggs' In My Language

Saturday was the closing evening for the Contemporary Image Collective’s Chronic exhibition. The exhibition space on the fourth floor of 22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street displayed various works connected by a relevance to mental illness, and across the landing, the library hosted two film screenings and a reading.

Walking into the exhibition space, you see a huge projection of footage recorded during a 1977 sit-in in Italy against inhumane treatment of patients in mental hospitals (Alberto Grifi’s 27-minute video Il manicomio—Lia).

In the film, which you can watch comfortably from cushions on the floor, an enthusiastic young woman named Lia gives a speech to the camera about the kind of social dynamic she would like to see, a peaceful relationship where people embrace madness and strangeness, release their feelings, interact freely and trust each other.

A few minutes into the video, a sweaty young man interrupts and starts talking about how his political group is trying to negotiate with the government to change conditions in mental hospitals. He gets mocked by many of the protestors, to whom he seems naive or repulsive.

Afterward, some of the young people start revising the situation and discuss the fact that they treated the “different” protester with the same violence that they – and the patients they are trying to rescue – suffer from. The scene, which is entirely spontaneous and real, feels like a symbolic reincarnation of a very specific side of Egyptian activism, which on Saturday I learnt is not exclusively Egyptian.

In another piece by the Abbasiya Outsiders, a room’s walls are covered with large sheets of paper with Egyptian Arabic sentences printed on them in various sizes and fonts. Most of the sentences appear to be anonymous confessions in which people reveal things that make them feel psychologically uncomfortable.

This topic could be universal, but links to the current political situation in Egypt or the state of being Egyptian or growing up in Egypt made it feel like a gathering of people emotionally attached to the 2011 revolution, who currently share a sense of collective depression. I find this rather problematic for reasons I’ll explain later.

The highlight of the exhibition for me was Mohamed Shawky Hassan’s Compos Mentis, a 15-minute work-in-progress. In it, he edits various shots he recorded on a digital camera with soundbites from Kamal al-Sheikh’s 1969 film Bi’r al-Hirman (The Well of Deprivation) about a schizophrenic woman and some radio material, mixed with a reading of a text that seems to have been written by Shawky himself, about a woman who can’t laugh in public in case she loses control. This is a familiar format, but Shawky clearly loves it (his previous film was also structured similarly) and knows how to explore it fruitfully.

The visuals poetically float between nostalgic photographs of old furniture and black-and-white photos, and weird footage of carnivals and celebrations, such as animals being made to perform in a circus, traumatizing baby baptisms and children learning by rote in a religion class.

For the evening program in the library, titled “Insufficient Language,” one of the two films screened is a very strong 8-minute movie from 2007 called In My Language by Amanda Biggs, an activist diagnosed with acute autism. In the movie, she speaks — using speech generated by a computer from her writing, which is edited over videos she shot of herself interacting with the world — of having to learn most people’s communication method (language) to be able to explain to them how limited their ways of understanding the world are.

She says most people find others who are unable to communicate with the world, or with them the way they were taught to communicate, limited, but that she finds having to learn how to speak their language also very limiting. She criticizes the values according to which people decide what’s normal and what’s not, and reminds us how many people we dehumanize, and thus accept violence against, because of differences in the way they understand the world or the views they have about it. She says that peace, justice and human rights will not be possible to achieve if so many people are still fighting over what’s normal and okay.

The context of all of these works helped me think about violence in a new way. Our fear of our own insanity that forces us to wake up early and drink more coffee, moments when we have no idea what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, why our limbs are moving like this, the empty patches in our minds that can’t make sense out of reality around us and its relationship to our behaviors, choices and own logic, the panicky feeling when we suspect that there might not be a point to anything.

It occurred to me that we seem to be collectively designing a reality based on the idea that everything is okay as long as we all agree on that. The problems start when we meet other groups of people who have agreed on a different Okay from ours, and there are so many of them.

The 2011 revolution is a good example. It was considered madness by many people, but accepting the conditions it was trying to change was considered madness by many others. Revolutionaries used terms like “Stockholm Syndrome” to describe those who wanted Hosni Mubarak to remain in power, while infamous lawyer Mortada Mansour made fun of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah’s hair.

One sentence in the Abbasiya Outsiders’ piece made me sigh with boredom: “Sometimes I feel like I deserve to be depressed or sad for personal reasons, reasons that are not necessarily political.” I wonder why there’s an obligation to be depressed for political reasons. Why does what happened in the revolution need to become a cheesy collective emotion that we check on each other about to make sure we’re all experiencing our due share of depression?

Progress benefits from sharing ideas, and mobilization speeds up when emotions are involved. But when political struggle is summed up in one big emotion, a huge progressive act like a revolution against repression turns into a mythological, theatrical tragedy only useful for bonding over masochistic self-torture, and this lays a great infrastructure for further oppression. I’m not sure if it was the connections I sensed within the Abbasiya Outsiders’ piece, the similarities between the movie Lia and local revolutionary discourses, the term “mental imprisonment” (used as the evening program was introduced), or the fact that CIC previously made a exhibition about physical prisons (part of the same series, titled If Not for that Wall) that gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I was being showed these works because there was a revolution where I live and I might be thinking about prisons and madness these days.

I enjoyed watching Grifis, Shawky’s and Biggs’ movies as interesting works with connections to the world irrespective of context and be appreciated by audiences who hadn’t necessarily been through five years of political unrest.

I wish I could watch these works and reflect on them artistically, talk about the connection between the embracing and inflicting of trauma in Shawky’s baptism scenes and the human brain’s inability to accept life’s amorality and how that shapes what we call logic, then move on to collective perceptions of reality and other stuff, but unfortunately I’ve consumed my space explaining why I’m angry that even watching movies can make me feel like a subject of research in which my reactions are strictly linked to where I’m from and the conditions under which I live. I would have liked these works to be presented as art and talked about in terms of how they were formed as artworks, rather than feeling that their content was framed in a slightly didactic way and linked directly to what’s happening in this country. I would have liked to have felt it was more of a choice for me to find any connections with my feelings.

Our history means nothing to anybody in the universe except for the human who can find a narrative and share it with another human, so I suggest we be more creative with our narratives and find a new meaning for our existence in this place at this point in time. A narrative that is slightly more fresh than, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this dictatorship.”


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism