The end of revolution, the return of nostalgia: Hany Rashed’s Baba Museum
 
 
Screenshot of the “Baba Museum” page
 

As a child, the artist Hany Rashed waited for his father, Salah, to come home so he could sit by him and watch as he unloaded strange objects from bulging pockets. What would he pull out today? Salah Rashed, who worked at Maspero, the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union, mined the streets, shops, and his day-to-day life for things — keys, locks, rosaries, stones — which he kept safe in a closet, declared off limits. When Salah died in 2002, his son inherited this seemingly useless treasure.. He rushed to the closet and hungrily opened the plastic bags that indexed the objects. One bag held stamps, another watches, while multicolored buttons snuggled together in another. There had to be a reason why his father had left this collection behind, Rashed figured. It took him years to find out exactly what that reason was. 

One of Rashed’s most recent art projects is Baba Museum; a Facebook-housed museum dedicated to his father. It features photographs of his collection of objects, some with captions that offer dates or descriptions. In one photo, shot in a Maspero studio on December 12, 1976, Salah Rashed appears with legendary al-Ahly footballer Mahmoud El-Khatib. Another photo shows a thick burgundy necktie with red and white cubes. The page currently has more than 6,700 fans, up about 1,000 followers from just a couple of months ago. 

On “Baba Museum,” a Facebook-housed museum, contemporary Egyptian artist Hany Rashed posts photographs from a collection of objects that his father, Salah Rashed, left behind when he died in 2002. Courtesy: Hany Rashed

Baba Museum emerges at a time when more and more artists whose work had been politically motivated around the January 25 revolution are turning to the past — both historical and personal — for subject matter and inspiration. “Nostalgia has returned, stronger than ever,” Rashed tells me as we sit down for a conversation about the museum at Medrar For Contemporary Art’s space in Garden City. He is dressed, per usual, in a thin baggy t-shirt and jeans, frenzied brown curls framing his animated face. “This is the perfect time for a project like this.”

Hany Rashed is one of Egypt’s most prominent and prolific contemporary visual artists, widely exhibited in Cairo galleries and at art fairs and biennales abroad (his work is part of the Tate Modern collection). He belongs to the generation of Shady El Noshokaty, Amal Kenawy, Hassan Khan and Ahmed Bassiouny, who lost his life during the protests of January 2011. Rashed works in various mediums, most often painting, monoprinting, and collage. Though he is considered to be one of the artists who have engaged most fervently with the revolution, his employment of subversive subject matter was limited before 2011 — and not strictly by choice. 

Early on in his career, just as he turned 30, a state security officer came across a poster announcing an upcoming solo show by Rashed, titled Faces of Egypt, at the Mashrabia gallery. Because the portrait on the poster was of a policeman, the officer promptly invited Rashed over to his office for a cup of coffee. The uniformed man in the painting had his back turned to the viewer: “Are you implying that the policeman is turning his back on society?” the state security officer (or aspiring art critic?) had asked Rashed, without really waiting for an answer. He advised Rashed to opt for painting “belly dancers and pretty ladies,” the artist told me in 2011, and confessed that he had complied, for fear of retaliation.

For years, he worked with photographs and advertisements that he found in beauty magazines, often weaving them into mixed-media works — in the pop art tradition — that engage with ideas of consumerism and capitalism. Like most artists, there have been phases in which Rashed has faced creative blocks; that’s when he scavenged his childhood home for ideas. 

In this 2014 piece, exhibited at the Mashrabia Gallery, Hany Rashed rendered a group of identical Central Security personnel using wood panels and paint. Courtesy: Hany Rashed

 

Though Hany Rashed’s recent work has ventured into sculpture and installation, he spent years creating mixed-media collage. Many of his collages, like this work from 2007, feature almost-identical figures — a meditation on identity in a hyper-globalized world. Courtesy: Hany Rashed

He often walked over to his father’s closet of curiosities, pulling out an object at random — a battered shoe, an ivory rosary, or a pocket watch that could no longer tell time — and stared at it desperately. “Do I draw it?” he would ask himself. “But what value would that add?” After brief breakouts into the world, the materials would return to the closet.

In 2013, a little over a decade after Rashed’s father died, the artist decided to move the objects out of the house and into his studio. “I took them there so they would be closer to me. Maybe then I would engage more meaningfully with them,” he tells me. Again, his first impulse was to draw them. But holding these objects in the comfort of his studio, he recalled how much his father liked to show off his collection to anyone who would come for a visit. It was at these moments, when he pulled out his arbitrary treasures and proudly exhibited them to friends and relatives, that Rashed saw a gallerist in his father, maybe even an artist. Surely he hadn’t left these objects for his son to hoard, out of sight. “I suddenly realized that he had left this all behind so I would build a museum for him,” Rashed says. “I felt that exhibiting his collection for the world to see would make him happy.” 

Baba Museum was born on May 10, 2013, with a photograph of a minuscule baby shoe, painted red, blue and yellow as Rashed’s inaugural upload. Though the shoe was among the father’s collection, it had probably belonged to Rashed — our first clue that the project is, in many ways, self-referential. The shoe, Rashed’s or his father’s, features a black zipper that fastens it completely, in effect rendering the shoe a useless blob. What is the function of a shoe you cannot wear?

From the Baba Museum collection

To his delight, the objects he posted, no matter how mundane or run-down, drew affection (expressed as likes, shares and comments) from the audience.The function of this museum, Rashed decided, would be to stir up unlikely associations between these curious objects and the public’s reactions. “Why would an image of an old screwdriver inspire comments like: May god have mercy on his soul? Isn’t it ridiculous?” he says, an almost crazed smile on his face. “I finally knew what to do. I would just put this stuff out there for people to interact with.” 

Rashed quickly realized, however, that the project he launched in 2013 might have to be put on hold for an indeterminate period of time. “It wasn’t the right time for Baba Museum. Why? There was a revolution going on,” Rashed says. “What did that mean? It meant we wanted to bring down the regime. It meant we wanted to bring down nostalgia. Erase a black past.”

In the fall of 2011, a politically turbulent time by all counts, Rashed exhibited some paintings at the Gezira Art Center in Cairo, coarse black marks splattered over their surface. The works he painted over had been manicured full-body portraits in faded colors — like mementos from a past life. I remember arriving, on opening night, right after he had painted over a final piece in a sort of public performance. The paint was still wet, an open can of black paint lying there like evidence of Rashed’s bold act. He looked pleased, if slightly confused, a bit like someone who had started a fire, confident that he wouldn’t be caught, and equally confident the fire would take on a life of its own. “Through reworking the pieces, I attempt to break the barrier of fear,” Rashed had written in his artist statement, echoing a phrase that had been associated with the protests that broke out earlier that year.

From the Baba Museum collection

But just as fear can be effaced, it can be reinstated — and can redirect the efforts of activists and artists from public to virtual spaces. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in in Rabea Square was brutally dispersed in the summer of 2013, marking the fall of the group from power, Rashed turned his attention from Baba Museum to another Facebook page, this one called Kalam Amwat, or “Conversations of the Dead.” In one of its albums, Rashed collected the final Facebook posts that people killed in the dispersal had written. “I screenshotted their last words; I was like the undertaker of social media,” Rashed says. 

The idea of the archive, and the museum as a form, had intrigued Rashed for years. In December 2013, Rashed put on a show with Ammar Abu Bakr, Ganzeer and Ahmed Hefnawy that was explicitly critical of the military. It was mounted in the crumbling 1890s Viennoise Hotel — an Ismailia Real Estate Company-owned building that acted as an art space for years before its development and conversion, in 2018, into the headquarters of the Tharwa Investment Company. Ganzeer designed an arcade game, satirizing the rampant political conflicts at the time. Abu Bakr spray-painted the walls, evoking his street murals of martyrs and activists. Hefnawy’s installation featured rows of empty tear gas canisters, as white clumps of fabric stretched from ceiling to floor. In Rashed’s work, miniature blocks of cement, redolent of wall fragments, were coated in mini-murals, posters, and stickers. The work at the Viennoise marked a subtle shift in emphasis: It was commenting on the revolution as history, no longer serving as part of an ongoing mass movement.

The show drew a massive audience, hundreds on some days — many of them young people who would not typically be spotted at an art gallery. But they came, probably “because the exhibition touched something real that these youth had lived,” Rashed had told me then. The visitors heard about the exhibition on Facebook or Twitter — much the same way they would have heard about a protest. This show was their last link.

Hany Rashed made these miniature representations of Cairo’s revolution-era graffiti as part of a makeshift Revolution Museum exhibited at Hotel Viennoise in December 2013. Courtesy: Rowan El Shim

That exhibition was the last time Rashed showed work in Egypt that directly opposed the regime. Soon after, Rashed began planning with Abu Bakr and Ganzeer to exhibit a “Revolution Museum” in an American gallery that would document the events of the January 25 revolution. The 2011 euphoria had long collapsed, as repressive new governments filled in for the old. Artists who had been making work revolving directly around the unfolding revolution were losing their public canvases and audiences. The proposed exhibit was a desperate attempt to stay engaged. 

But when the media started going after Ganzeer and Abu Bakr, they decided to put off their plans for the Revolution Museum indefinitely. “We were just scared that they would lock us up when we got back to Egypt,” he had told me at a Zamalek cafe in December 2014, exactly a year after the Viennoise exhibit. “Plus, now, there is nothing called revolution,” he said, his face overcome by utter disappointment. It was a particularly depressing moment for Egypt’s art scene. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government had just issued a set of legal reforms that constricted artists’ and civil society’s freedoms, among them changes to the penal code that threatened citizens or civil actors who accept foreign funding (which independent art institutions considered essential) with life sentences or death penalties.

On December 22, 2014, the same day Rashed and I sat down for that depressing conversation at the cafe, he uploaded another picture to Baba Museum. It was a Menatel calling card that he had found in his father’s pocket when he died. It had LE4.80 in credit. The post marked a brief pause in the page’s two-year-plus hiatus; Rashed only posted a couple of photographs that winter, then went back to his silence. Maybe he was longing for a more gentle past; maybe he was about ready to relinquish the painful present and the imagined future that, at that point, seemed as obsolete and unimaginable as a top-up card. 

It has only been in the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of months, that Rashed has returned to Baba Museum, posting more photographs of his father’s collection to a growing audience. “When the revolution ended, the [Sisi] regime that emerged was so forceful that people started lamenting the previous [Mubarak] regime,” Rashed says. “It was the return of nostalgia.” Surveying the discourse circulating TV channels, magazines, and the internet — where glorification of the past prevailed — Rashed grew sure that his museum project could thrive. “So I started posting again, and more and more people started interacting with the posts,” he says. 

Something about Baba Museum comes across as facetious. The name, for one, sounds like an oxymoron; Baba is a somewhat intimate term that immediately conjures a relationship that cannot be neatly displayed or divulged in a catalogue or audio tour. Meanwhile the word museum denotes a cold, manicured building with high ceilings and impenetrable glass cases. 

From the Baba Museum collection

Most of all, the word museum implies a certain physicality. It doesn’t surprise me that when national TV reporters arrived at Rashed’s studio in Faisal with an intention to cover the museum, they pointed their cameras at the canvases stacked against the walls and the paint cans on the floor. “What are you doing?” Rashed asked them. We’re filming the museum, they said, probably certain that a museum must have some kind of material presence — even if it is a cluttered, uncurated room. When he shows the reporters the box of items he routinely photographs and uploads to Facebook, they are clearly shocked, even underwhelmed. Is this really the museum? “To them, it cannot be a museum, because it exists only online. It’s not as valuable,” he tells me. 

“So when you use the word museum, you actually mean museum? You’re not joking?” I ask Rashed, half-worried he would take offense. “It is a museum,” he tells me definitively. “I want to use the exact language of museums.” 

Rashed photographs the collection against plain white backgrounds, making them look like valuable artefacts. He gives these items descriptions, although they vary in detail, causing them to at times mimic the specificity of a museum label and other times lean much more towards a careless online post. 

Because Rashed is determined to emulate world-class museums, he has been digging into online museum practices for ideas. In addition to a permanent collection, he noticed museums tend to feature gift shops and temporary exhibitions to keep audiences engaged. Inspired by the form of a museum’s public program and informed by his success with ever-evolving Facebook pages (he was behind Contemporary Art, a subversive satirical platform that drew nearly a million followers), Rashed recently launched what he is calling a “parallel museum;” an album dedicated to public submissions of objects — or rather photographs of objects — that belonged to departed parents, relatives and friends.

From the Baba Museum collection

He is convinced that if Baba Museum stays static, visitors will stop coming; the page would dry up once he uploads the entire contents of his dad’s closet. Issuing a call for submissions would ensure a stream of new content—which Rashed believes “establishes a relationship with the public” and stimulates him personally. 

But when he released the open call for submissions of the belongings of mothers and fathers, Rashed ran into a slight problem. “Many people don’t want their mother’s name published online,” he says, with a glimmer of excitement. “It’s the kind of thing that could lead to an offshoot project. Maybe I’ll create a page just for people’s mother’s names. To break that stigma.” To get around it, however, he has extended the call to include grandparents and friends. “Of course, this has opened up a new world — like magic.”

Magic is one element that keeps Rashed so engaged with this project—but he also finds in it an extension of his art practice. “This project is essentially about taking an inanimate object that belonged to someone who has died, and re-contextualizing it to give it value,” he says. He is thrilled every time someone engages with a photograph of shoelaces, or tiny rocks, on the page. “What value do these objects hold?” he asks. “This is contemporary art, what I’m doing.” 

Hany Rashed poses at his studio in October, 2011. Courtesy: Sara Elkamel

It was good to hear Rashed talking about magic, and contemporary art, as he scrolled eagerly through Baba Museum to show me the images of clumped shoelaces, or the Menatel calling card his father has left behind. When he talked about the revolution’s end, it was with less bitterness than the conversations we have had over the past eight years. Less bitterness, and more distance — maybe even disengagement. He seems content digging into his late father’s pockets for material. Maybe this is it; maybe it’s when we extend a hand into a familiar past that the restlessness subsides. Even if just for a moment.

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Sara Elkamel