In conversation: On Mohamed Allam’s The Contents of the Grocery Bag
Talking about Mohamed Allam's recent show of video art at the Contemporary Image Collective
Courtesy: Mohamed Allam/CIC

Mohamed Allam’s first solo show since 2013, The contents of the grocery bag, ran from September 21 to October 22 at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), and was curated by Andrea Thal. Comprised of untitled video works created in collaboration with contemporary dancers over the past two years, the pieces were displayed on a variety of screen formats and explored improvisation, repetition and “the possibility of disruption.” Here, Lara El Gibaly and Yomna Osman offer their reactions to the show.

Lara El Gibaly: What did you think of the press release?

Yomna Osman: The text was simple enough, it explained the project quite well, but I think it was overambitious. It made me feel like there would be many locations, a lot more texts. It was potentially not written about what the project is, but what it was hoping to become.

LG: I agree that it was simple and direct. I think the point you’re making is that the text said the exhibition would explore “spaces where the movement of bodies is organized by seemingly unwritten choreography,” but most videos in the show were filmed in printing presses and a metal workshop, and there was only one piece at the end of the exhibition that was in a public space. I think we expected to see more pieces to do with urban planning and our movement within urban space as a grand choreography. That’s something Mohamed Allam only touched upon in the last video, which takes place on a pedestrian crossing.

In all the other videos it was a more industrial space. The movement of the dancers within these spaces didn’t necessarily feel that repetitive or confined, they were moving very freely it seemed, whereas other characters who actually inhabit and work within these spaces were the ones confined by the rhythmic process of the printing press or metal workshop. As for the choreographed movement of our bodies in a public space, I feel it wasn’t explored in depth enough, because it was only one piece.

YO: I totally agree — and even this piece, the most interesting thing about it was the ambient music, not the movement itself. This piece felt incomplete and I felt if they had excluded it entirely it might even have worked better. Having this video as the last piece made me feel like there should have been more pieces exploring this theme.

LG: Curatorially it made sense for it to be the last piece. Because as you’re going through the exhibition, the videos all take place in confined spaces and then you emerge onto the street, and so I feel maybe it makes a hint or promise of where these concepts could be further developed, without actually developing them. What else did you think about the curation?

YO: I think the curation added a lot. The way one particular video, in which Mona Gamil danced, was displayed on a screen on the floor made you look down with added depth, and made the exhibition interactive in a way without it actually being interactive.

LG: Yes, and a lot of that video is filmed from the perspective of a camera on the ceiling, so you already have an aerial view, and forcing you to physically mimic that position with your body, to look down, gives you the sense that you are the camera, spying into the scene.

YO: Also the noises — as soon as you walk in you feel that you’re in an industrial space. Although this also took away from some of the pieces, you couldn’t really hear the lower music in some videos. One small video with Mona Gamil, I had to stick my ear onto the device to hear.

LG: With the smaller one you’re referring to, that was on a little phone screen, it didn’t bother me that much because like you said there was already a soundscape and an atmosphere created by the other pieces, and you already have that feel of the rhythmic beat of the industrial environment. It’s also playful, forcing you to come really close to the screen.

YO: What did you think about the fact that none of the pieces were named? I think it was necessary.

LG: I agree, because a lot of the pieces are filmed in the same locations and feature the same dancers. They build on one another or form a non-linear narrative of some kind. So it feels that they’re part of a larger piece — the contents of the grocery bag. The name of the exhibition implies a lot of things mixed up together, a random collection you picked up at the supermarket.

YO: Yes, and that’s what added that sense of randomness. Usually it bothers me when you don’t have names because I can’t refer to a specific piece. I also like the haphazard organization of it, which ties to the title. I can see these pieces being exhibited in the order they were, or in any other order. I think it does matter, but you could play around with it.


Courtesy: Mohamed Allam/CIC

LG: I do remember one piece where the woman in the red shirt — yes, I see what you mean, we even have to describe what the dancers were wearing because of the lack of titles — so the woman in the red shirt, Mako Kubeck, she was only in two videos, one large and one small. Her movements were decidedly different than Mona Gamil’s and the third dancer’s, Kae Kubo. The press release mentioned that a lot of the movement was left up to the improvisation of the dancers, but I felt Mona’s and Kae’s movements were expressing something hesitant and tentative, they’re out of place and look a bit disturbed by it. But I didn’t feel that with Mako. Her movements were a lot more self-assured, and if I’m going to divide it into a simplistic binary, I feel like Mona and Kae’s movements were “feminine” and Mako’s were more “masculine.”

And her videos were actually the only ones in the metal workshop, and something about the environment and the bluish-purplish lights, and the equipment emitting all those sparks, made the context feel more harsh and abrasive. Combined with her movements, the video felt more frontal than the others. Then the smaller video right next to it showed her in the same location, except she was knitting something small and red, such a stereotypically “feminine” activity. So the two pieces displayed together in that way gave rise to that masculine/feminine binary for me.

I wondered why Allam chose to work exclusively with female dancers, placing females in clearly male-dominated environments in both the printing press and the metal workshop. The situations are so abstract and we have such little context, that the dancers are reduced from characters to symbols and representations of “women.” That’s what brought to mind the whole feminine-masculine dichotomy, which normally wouldn’t necessarily be a factor in my analysis of a work. I feel it was very evident, especially as all of his performers, with the exception of Hussam Jaduo, who was reading out the texts by writer Hassan al-Halwagy, were female. And Jaduo was there more as a narrator than a character, reading a newspaper and adopting the tone of a news announcer.

YO: I liked how Mona Gamil interpreted Halwagy’s texts in her dancing. It was logical how Allam only had her work with the text, because none of the other dancers speak Arabic, or at least I don’t think they do. I liked her presence in the video. It was really strong, even when she wasn’t moving.

LG: I really liked the texts. For me they gave the entire exhibition some kind of structure. They’re derived from short stories by Hassan al-Halwagy, according to the exhibition text, and we wondered whether these texts were specifically written for the show or used by Allam as a basis or inspiration and then integrated into the work.

The show’s name is taken from one of the texts, the one that comes last actually. It tells the story of an ordinary man who found no pages left in his diary, so he decided to go through it and cross out all of the repeated activities he’d done throughout his lifetime, leaving only one of each. He goes through a list of mundane activities, remembering all the metro tickets he bought, the jars of jam his mother used to make, his silly social interactions at work, and the contents of the grocery bag. So the text is about reinvention, and breaking out of these rhythmic patterns we’ve been seeing throughout the whole exhibition.

And hearing that text as the final note makes you reflect on how these are patterns and routines we set for ourselves, we go through our lives in this mechanized way, and then this guy in the short story at the very end of the exhibition decides that he’s going to break out of that and reinvent himself. He crosses everything out but leaves one line at the end where he humorously says he’s going to write his new name after crossing out its repeating letters. So there’s this sense of discarding everything that doesn’t serve you and a certain lightness, and for me that was a hopeful note on which to leave the exhibition, you know?

YO: I think also the placement of the text in the show was great. It would have been expected to have one of the text pieces first, but that would’ve been too explanatory.

When you first enter the exhibition you see the video with Mona Gamil walking into an unknown place filmed from high angles. Then you go through the first room not having any idea what’s happening, and I think it was by the fifth video with Jaduo reading the text and Mona dancing that the exhibition started making sense. Just as you’re leaving it.

LG: You had mentioned that you had an issue with Jaduo’s delivery…

YO: Yes, you mentioned that his delivery was newsreader-like. To me that took away from the experience. It didn’t seem intentionally mundane to me, his voice wasn’t clear, he didn’t enunciate very well, and if he was going to assume this textbook reading, his voice could’ve been stronger. His presence was a little weak, not as a character, just as a narrator.

LG: I liked his mechanical delivery, I thought it was suitable for what it is that they’re trying to say. Also, in one video, he’s reading from a newspaper, so it’s obvious that that’s meant to be his tone. The characters that he talks about in the stories are downtrodden underdogs, people who must go through life and bear its petty humiliations, and his firm tone contrasted with that.

YO: What also caught my eye were the little money sandwiches Kae was making in one of the other videos. She was stuffing coins into what looked like round candies. I was intrigued to know what they were. They were used as props in one video and in the other video it shows her making them.

LG: The fact that there are objects carried through from one piece to another is what gives the pieces that sense of continuity, like they’re all part of some larger piece. That specific dancer takes these objects with her in every video, and they aren’t arranged in chronological order.

YO: Right.


Courtesy: Mohamed Allam/CIC

LG: Allam works a lot with video. He’s one of the founders of Medrar, and one of the people involved in the Cairo Video Festival. Of his recent projects I’ve only seen the “My Nineties” performance about three years ago, which was a massive research project into our collective memories through 1990s television programming. Hassan al-Halwagy also worked with him as a researcher on that and he wrote a great little book that came out to accompany the exhibition. Some of Allam’s other recent videos also use this same narration style of classical Arabic texts in a news-announcer tone, like his 2014 piece, Two Windows.

YO: I think the curatorial aspect of the exhibition gave the work depth. It could’ve been a boring exhibition if it were badly curated. The order of the works and how they were exhibited told a story that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

LG: I agree, but I feel like the exhibition kind of fell somewhere in the middle. It was neither strongly emotive nor strongly discursive. The pieces do prompt you to reflect on the urbanized mechanized way in which we live our lives, but there was nothing revelatory in that for me. The parts that were emotive in the sense that they tickled a part of my brain that feeds on images were, surprisingly, the texts. They were very well-written and imaginative.

In the press release it says the exhibition was influenced by Allam’s interest in “unscripted and experimental interactions between different disciplines” that don’t take place in the same space at the same time. I think overall it was a successful experiment to bring together dance, video and literary text in a loose narrative structure.

Lara El Gibaly 
Yomna Osman 

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