Systems of subtleties: Reflections on MASS Alexandria’s latest exhibition
 
 

For three days in December, in a windowless basement off a small street with nothing other than a discreet sign to designate it, Alexandria’s arts crowd — and many visitors who came especially from Cairo — had a chance to experience an ambitious exhibition of works by some of the most interesting contemporary young artists in Egypt. 

MASS Alexandria is a study/studio program for emerging artists with a range of different ages and experiences to spend over one year developing their practices and rethinking what an artistic practice can entail, culminating in an exhibition in which their final projects are displayed. The program, directed for the second year by curator and researcher Berit Schuck, takes place in the same obscure building (which is actually the family home of the program’s founder, artist Wael Shawky), where each of the participants is given studio space, and the garage has been transformed into the exhibition area. Along with studio experimentation, this year MASS provided guidance from three long-term mentors — Bassam El Baroni (curator), Malak Helmy (artist), and Noura Khasawneh (curator) — and over 15 invited practitioners who offered short-term workshops, one-on-one interactions, and public presentations at different stages of the program.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what MASS Alexandria actually is, whether it’s a school, a mentorship residency, or just a group committed to experimentation and critical reflection. But in all cases it’s safe to say that it is a platform for developing new ways of working, at least for the participating artists. Though less about the inculcation of skills, it seems intended that an artist’s practice is different at the end from what it was at the beginning, at least on certain levels. A lot of how MASS operates as a program begs the question of what “study” even means, potentially de-institutionalizing, or otherly-institutionalizing what that word can imply. Focusing primarily on the final exhibition — where this year’s 19 participants displayed their work on December 13–15  — one can see how the concept of study, while potentially ironic or uncoincidental in a “study” program, is particularly present throughout the works.

 One of the more poignant manifestations of “study” as an aesthetic mode of operating, was found in Omnia Sabry’s ongoing study of where the function of light in film meets that of light in photosynthesis. “Chlorophyllic Memory: To Blossom Images – Part 2: In Search of the Lost Pearly Lands” is the artifact of an in-depth investigation into the material potentiality of images (Part 1 was displayed in Amman’s MMAG Foundation during a residency that Sabry did while taking part in MASS). The installation consists of chlorophyll prints with leaves placed onto a lightbox, the glass of which is covered in hand-written marker from a text that she composed, fleshing out the intimate narratives that drive her curiosities. The leaves’ images gradually disappeared throughout her time in the program, which “contrary to the nature of photographic practice, does not aim to create a document that stays for the longest time possible,” as Sabry stated. 

Omnia Sabry’s “Chlorophyllic Memory: To Blossom Images – Part 2: In Search of the Lost Pearly Lands” - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

This installation is accompanied by a super-8 video that gives the impression of a personal archive, performing the study of the camera and its filmic materiality. Sabry’s aesthetics of study entail both the literal development of a technique, one that involves trial and error to test the possibility of a hypothesized effect (the chlorophyll prints), and a personal rumination on sites of memory. In doing so, her work provides an intimacy with light, as something tangible, something that lives and dies, and hosts potential for nurturing and healing.

Meanwhile, the notion of “study” was performed specifically as a staged act within Mohamed Adel Dessouki’s work “Naoum’s Cache.” With two videos on opposite walls and a vitrine table in the center that encases archival materials and notebook pages, this installation reinterprets the legacy of the late Egyptian architect Naoum Chebib (1915–1985), who designed the Cairo Tower. The act of studying this architect becomes both a performed fictional act and an actual mode of research, mixing autobiography with a fictional biography of Naoum’s “notebook” — “looking at the role of archives in shaping historical knowledge,” the artist said — and examines problems of accessibility and scarcity of materials.

The work seems to establish “truth” as a potentially institutionalized aesthetic: In one video, the artist plays a public figure talking about the notebook, emphasizing the theatrical authority of the role with red curtains in the background; while in the other video he plays a medical professional in protective gear, handling the notebook as though it were hazardous material. Although the aesthetics of medical-meets-archival have become a common trend of representation in contemporary art, and with the almost redundant context of decades of “archival-fever,” the particularities of Dessouki’s engagements aim for something more precise than the awareness of such popular contexts might connote.

Mohamed Adel Dessouki’s “Naoum’s Cache” - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Rather than talking about the archive, or studying its materiality, other works in the exhibition questioned an archive’s experiencibility, such as in the collaborative work of Sarah Maher and Engy Mohsen. “Curating the Archive: A Narration of What Happened Before” (2019-20) is a silver-curtained, room-sized performative game for five players (listener, speaker, writer, performer, director). Culminating from an ongoing series of live interactive events they hosted throughout the program, in different types of rooms (built or otherwise), the “archive” of the events having happened are present in the work, through the form of prompts, references, and instructions, situating the archive somewhere between the performative and the indexical. As such, there is a relieving ephemeral element in that the notion of the archive is not reliant on imagery. 

With a ladder for viewing from above, a monitor for live-display of what is performatively written, a large banner with a diagram, and pins for adorning each of the roles, the well-designed and crafted installation consolidated a strong affective dynamic. Though unclear exactly to what end, this dynamic’s open-ended potentiality forefronts the flow of relations from one role, or station, to another. While the work serves as both an installation and an event, more than anything it seems to serve as a system, as a score of operations that unravels itself through the people within it.

Sarah Maher and Engy Mohsen’s “Curating the Archive: A Narration of What Happened Before” – Courtesy of the artists

The use of creating a system as an aesthetic strategy was also manifest, yet in a much subtler way, within the work by Tasneem Gad titled “The Anticipation of Sight.” Although it also included a room-sized installation, and with interactive instructions, this was a much quieter work. Primarily using photography and text, the work embodies a well-composed mix between the insinuation of a room (through lined wall demarcations that match the perimeters of the carpeted floor), and the presentation of a cartographic collage, between a display of individual images and the architecture created through their arrangement together.  

The work tells the story of 180 days of distance between two beings, mirrored in the displayed texts themselves and the distance between words as they are scattered across the images and the walls. On the shelf are cards that instruct the audience to write what they would want to say to someone in their lives who is far away, or no longer present. As one of the most subtle, most poetic works in the show, there was something substantive about how 180 days of the artist asking questions could result in something so carefully selected and resolvedly displayed. 

Tasneem Gad’s “The Anticipation of Sight” – Courtesy of the artist

 

Tasneem Gad’s “The Anticipation of Sight”

 

The function of subtlety and gesture, the accomplishment of questioning the relation of the word “accomplishment” to magnitude or complexity, was particularly poignant in the work of Mohamed El Bakeri. His performance-based video titled “Between Men” depicts two men enacting a subtle, smooth, and intimately synchronized choreography of gestures and slight bodily actions, based on the touch of one another (including hugs, taps, pats and long embraces). It is one of the works in the show that best hold onto the precarious balance of subtlety and strength, and this aesthetic impulse to make something so small become so profound (it took 33 takes and seven hours to film) says so much about how gendered bodies “can” — or desire to — interact with one another, speaking to the power that simple gestures of touch have. Within the tireless “accomplishment” of synchronicity, it not only taps into what mutuality can mean with intimate touch but also seeing subtle movements of the body as effort, as strength, as a masterful feat that almost goes unnoticed. 

Mohamed Bakeri’s “Between Men” – Courtesy of the artist

In this exhibition, there was a particularly satisfying balance between the introspective and the social, perhaps best exemplified in Tareque Sharquawy’s short film “Psychoticles.” The fact that I hardly knew what it was about or what I was even supposed to think I was watching, is somehow a sort of relief. The film is an abstract, slow, and somewhat ambient view primarily out the front window of a car, as it moves throughout Alexandrian streets at night, with highly edited overlays and audio. Sharquawy uses the drive as an allegory for the “black-hole” of rumination, as the seemingly endless loop of a car mirrors his own internal process. 

Works like this often run the risk of being too unparticular to accomplish shared communicability on the part of the audience, but I think here it was saved by his particular style of editing, and mixing with other footage and text. Being familiar with previous works of his, such as “The Holy Lands” (2018), exhibited at Cairo Video Festival and Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective, allowed me an understanding of the somewhat meditative and ruminating impulse that “drives” a lot of Sharquawy’s work. It is often from the perspective of a car in motion, where the gaze of a public landscape somehow evokes an inward psychological landscape.

 

Tareque Sharquawy’s “Psychoticles” – Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition also featured some quite materially ambitious projects, such as Nada ElKalaawy’s salon-style series of massive paintings of old family photos, and Dalia Sabet’’s large-scale installation of a flowing mound of rotating disks used for grinding/polishing tools. Sara Hesham’s ominous installation, emotive almost to the point of dramatism, is a room under the stairs covered in large sheets of glass and a bathtub in the centre with a sculptural body protruding from within. The most effective use of scale was in Rania Atef’s large red sculpture of the metal rails of a roller coaster, installed next to a four-channel video-performance of an attempt to balance toys on a hanging disk. As a mother herself, Atef introduces what she describes as an “alternative narrative about mothers rebelling away from society’s stereotypes,” and the performativity of daily responsibilities.

Installation by Dalia Sabet - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

 

Installation by Sarah Hesham - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

The deconstruction of what constitutes a stereotype was also a prevalent force within Soukaina Joual’s work. As the only non-Egyptian participant (who moved from Morocco just to be a part of the MASS program), much of what constitutes her exhibited project is characteristic of this displacement. She taps into stereotypes of being a Moroccan woman in Egypt, particularly in relation to black-magic, witch-craft, and the art of herbalism. The installation consists of a shelving unit of empty jars with different hand-written labels on them, and a video monitor playing a gestural performance of a hand removing hand-writing from bills of money using nail-polish-remover. 

Installation by Soukaina Joual – Courtesy of the artist - Courtesy: Ash Monia


Even though it is one of the most important studio programs in the country (though my opinion is biased having previously been a participant), MASS remains as flawed as the word “study” itself might be. MASS started off as an annual program in 2010, took a two-year hiatus in 2014, came back for a new round in 2016, then paused again until this latest edition and it is uncertain when the next one will be. But regardless of the ailments that could be excused by the lack of funds or the lack of full-time staff, the greatest flaws seem to stem from the difficulty in accounting for the singularity of each artist’s practice and figuring out what works for everyone. Some of the participants said that they found interactions with most of the mentors and invited guests to be a complete waste of time, and a distraction from the ability to actually spend time on their own work, while others said that they learned a lot from each one of them. There often feels to be somewhat of a disjuncture between the overall function of the program and the exhibition that takes place in the end; one being about learning, unlearning, dismantling, untangling, re-tangling, etc. and the other about presenting a pretty polished and more or less traditional art exhibition in a white-walled, awkwardly-shaped bunker. 

The result is an attempt to fit one year of rigorous, intellectually taxing work into a digestible frame, within a limited space and amount of time. Because of the magnitude of the program that the exhibition concluded, and the fact that almost every individual installation merits an essay on its own, the three-day exhibition was an overwhelming task to take in. Yet this on its own was seemingly honest to the nature of what had collectively manifested in the 14 months leading up to it. This exhibition reflects the attributes shared through the program, as many works are in-depth, complex, and demand a lot of attention. How does one tame complexity? Each work seems to have different answers to this, yet there is seemingly a common impulse to do so; potentially a necessity born of the exhaustion of having undergone such a rich and challenging program.

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