CAIRO // If all art is indeed immortal, as Oscar Wilde said, then the "Shoes" exhibition at Cairo's Ebdaa Gallery may be the best means of preserving the one-time dissidence of Muntadhar al Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who tossed his shoes at George W Bush, the former US president, in December. When Mr al Zeidi gave flight to his Size 10s, some artists said his actions transcended mere protest to glimpse, however briefly, art.
"Obviously, the shoes have a lot of meaning" for Mr al Zeidi, said Amr Khadr, one of the artists who had several photographs in the exhibition and who likened Mr al Zeidi's work to "poetic terrorism". "They have a lot of meaning for the culture of this area. So this was his main idea that when he was doing this he was using an object that was rich in symbolism. And then the timing, the context - it makes for me a very powerful work."
The exhibition ran officially from Jan 12 to Feb 2, but much of the display, which is not for sale, remains on exhibit in Nabil Aboul Hassan's gallery in Cairo's Mohandiseen neighbourhood. Most of the pieces are likely to be gone, however, by the time Mr al Zeidi re-emerges into the public eye on Feb 19 in his first courtroom appearance. Despite the incident having occurred in late 2008, Mr Hassan has already dubbed 2009 "the year of the shoe", a title he said has less to do with Mr al Zeidi's actions and more to do with his symbolic choice of projectile. With continuing wars and the tailspin global economy, 2009 may be the first year in a new era characterised by human defeat and humiliation - the very qualities that many in this part of the world attach to the shoe.
"Shoes are very important in our lives, and some of these artists had already done things with shoes," Mr Hassan said. "Art reflects the reality of what is going on. Art is always related to what is going on in society and most artists portray what is going on around them." Mr Hassan said his motivation for inviting artists to display their shoe-related pieces was more to offer a topical theme for artistic expression than as a homage to the shoe-tosser himself.
Residents of Tikrit in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's hometown, had been inspired, however, and unveiled late last month a sofa-sized, copper-coated, fibreglass shoe. The authorities in the town, however, removed the shoe from its home in the courtyard of a government-owned orphanage. The pieces in the Ebdaa Gallery, which bear the names of more than a dozen Arab artists, depict everything from stilletos to sandals in media that range from oil on canvas to video multimedia, but they offer few obvious tributes or even references to Mr al Zeidi. In fact, most of the displayed pieces were made years or even decades before Mr al Zeidi's own "performance".
"I guess instead of imposing on people, saying 'do the exhibition with this incident in mind', it was really very much appealing to the symbolism of the shoes," Mr Khadr said. "But it was a very specific interpretation of the shoes which is perhaps Oriental." Mr Khadr had three photo pieces on display. One was a photograph of an abandoned flip-flop mired among other pieces of rubbish in a muddy agricultural reservoir somewhere in Egypt's hinterland. The empty sandal, Mr Khadr said, projects a humanity that the other objects of trash - despite being obviously man-made - do not convey. While taking a literal interpretation of the figurative concept of the human "footprint" on nature is not new, Mr Khadr said, he was drawn to the scene by the strange beauty of what would otherwise be a vision of waste.
Another artist, Ayman al Semary, offered a repeating video presentation that depicted a pair of sneakered feet stomping on words such as "hegemon", "globalisation" and "ballistic missiles" that had been printed in metal and embedded in a wooden floor. Like many of the pieces, Mr Semary had conceived of his long before Mr Bush dodged shoes late last year. Nevertheless, he said, the themes in his art resonate with al Zeidi's particular expression.
"It's when you use something that is not in the right place, in a different place" Mr al Semary said. "For example, the shoes you should use for walking. But what Muntadhar al Zeidi did, when he used this in this famous action with George W Bush, it's more than any guns in the world if he shot him with a gun, it would be normal and he would be a bad guy." Although Mr al Semary and Mr Khadr said the symbolic shoe-throwing was an act of performance art for its use of symbolism, Mr Hassan, the gallery owner, disagreed. Mr Al Zeidi is a journalist and a political dissident, Mr Hassan said, but he is no artist.
"He had an opinion and he expressed himself," he said. "The incident just brought the concept to the surface, but the idea was already there." For the real artist, Mr Hassan said to look no further than Mr Bush. The former president, who managed to dodge Mr al Zeidi's shoe attack not once, but twice, displayed the deft athleticism of a professional dancer. "It was artistic the way Bush avoided the shoes. It was like he was used to it," he said. "It was like his wife is always throwing pillows at him."