Alexandrian-born Walid Elsawi makes daily strolls as far away as possible from the beach. He wanders the nooks of the inner city’s side streets and open fields intersecting its constantly shifting borders. These excursions evade the sun, late at night or during the early morning hours. He occasionally parallels the tram tracks, walking in fast, steady steps. Elsawi does not make sketches, jot down notes or talk to people while outside. The strolls seem like a subconscious exercise in observation and meditation, which subtly translates into a practice that engages with visceral questions about identity construction and social relationships.
INTIMACY is one of nine single channel videos, collated from a larger pool of work, to make up Elsawi’s current solo exhibition at Medrar, titled VDU Art Though I Hate the Word Art. It opens with the titular word, written in capitals, in a pale skin tone against a black backdrop. The phantom of a girl from the opposite screen — which is showing a different work — serendipitously reflects on the black background before we see a tight close up shot of a hand resting on a keyboard. As the frame gradually opens up, I see the black shirt cuff of a seated man, before realizing this is a rubber hand, cut off from the wrist and blending with the background due to the raw, low-light aesthetic of this one-minute video. There’s a pause as the laptop screen comes into view, and the logo of the website, Porn Hub, pops up.
Elsawi has been interested in horror stories of human interaction since childhood. At the time, his mother would write down what he narrated in fusha, while he made illustrations in a sketchy style that continues to characterize his work till today. A Story About Adam and Eve (2016), also showing at the exhibition, is a one-minute animated video the artist made about an online encounter between a man and an HIV-positive woman. It is dark, humorous and raw, put together in a way that leaves viewers with puzzled unease toward their own standing and preconceptions.
The minimal details in his drawings and paintings were frowned upon by his professors at the painting department of Alexandria’s School of Fine Arts. It was not until his final graduation project, a series of self-portraits, oil painted by hand and using stencils, that the emotional grip of his canvases came through.
Since he graduated in 2010, Elsawi has produced all his artwork at home, using seemingly mundane household trinkets and flattened images of people who unintentionally resemble him. He creates the latter on his tablet using Microsoft Paint or Adobe Photoshop. He uses his digital camera to shoot various objects, from GI Joe action figures to scrapped and dyed cushion foam, porcelain figurines and plastic flowers — only he weaves them into utterly humorous and reflective narratives which are so entertaining they can often be dismissed as a joke.
INTIMACY is the first work we see in VDU ART Though I Hate the Word Art. Spread across three pitch-dark halls, the walls of which have been painted black since Medrar hosted a major show of Swiss experimental cinema last spring, the visitors’ experience is a quiet, solitary one. Elsawi’s work relies on written English texts rather than audible conversations; there are no distractions except the occasional foley sound of a turning page from one screen or the vibration of a cell phone from another. This might come close to the ideal setup Elsawi imagines for his work: a nightly experience on a computer screen at home, with room for online commentary and sharing among friends. It is how he spends much of his time, discovering people, techniques and visual influences while surfing the internet. It is also why he posts his work in full, on his blog.
VDU ART Though I Hate the Word Art does not, however, merely reproduce the home viewing experience. It allows the ways in which Elsawi cross references his work to show more clearly. The phantom girl reflected on INTIMACY’s screen is the protagonist of the Menna trilogy. A series which Elsawi has worked on since 2016, it applies a standard three-act structure that toys with notions of image and narrative construction. Menna (2016) is 34 seconds long and tells us that Menna loves to eat lipstick, while Three Facts About Menna (2017) is a two-minute video that questions the possibilities of portraiture. In these videos, Elsawi creates a framework, a language, a rhythm that we come to grasp and anticipate, before thwarting our expectations. Menna Never More (2018) breaks with the minimalist Warholian painting style of the first two, stands at four minutes, and is a digital illustration of a moving sky that gives the effect of suspended time.
Exhibited across the three gallery rooms rather than as a single body of work, the Menna trilogy highlights how much of Elsawi’s work questions the act of making art and what a specific form — video, in the case of this exhibition — can offer to a broader audience. Elsawi is aware of how he operates in a city with limited exhibition and discursive opportunities. Over the past six years, he attended MASS Alexandria, a year-long independent study program in critical theory set up by artist Wael Shawky; the graduate Home Workspace Program offered by Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan and the Cinedelta workshop series in creative documentary filmmaking which Fig Leaf Studios started in 2016. His critique of his position as an artist and of international market dynamics influencing contemporary art production was evident in previous works that took the form of auto interviews with his alter-ego in pamphlet, video and installation form. In A Contemporary Artist Vs. A Con Artist, for instance, he mocked how he still lived in his family’s house; how he doesn’t engage with politics or how he continues to write in English, “the mother tongue of conceptual art.”
None of these works made it into VDU ART Though I Hate the Word Art. Instead, he exhibits Two Dummies Faking a Realistic Conversation (2018), a remake of an older video of his under the same title. Its protagonists are two GI-Joe action figures doing an art assignment for the Medrar exhibition. He responds to the conditions and constraints on art production in Alexandria — some of which are self-imposed as he works alone at home to be fully in control — in Do-Mystic Uni-Verse (2012). The video unfolds in nine chapters, each a snapshot of domestic ornaments celestially orbiting one another, while text slides across the screen. A ceramic rooster frantically orbits the floral base of a vase; a porcelain cabinet plate with a peacock turns at dizzying speed. This intimate approach, in which Elsawi’s immediate surroundings are used to point outward, opens up seemingly insular concerns of a contemporary art scene with humor and ingenuity.