x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Diva inspiration

Huda Lutfi's striking art works take their cues from the most enduring icon of Egyptian music.

Works such as this year's <i>Umm ad-Dunya</I> typify an aesthetic, that according to Lutfi 'draws people in, then makes them ask questions'.
Works such as this year's Umm ad-Dunya typify an aesthetic, that according to Lutfi 'draws people in, then makes them ask questions'.

Everywhere you turn, there's Oum Khalthoum. That heavy, impassive face - now in sunglasses, now with eyes whited out in a pantomime of horror - seeming to stare out of every frame. Very often she appears as the Statue of Liberty, or borne aloft on angels' wings. Indeed, in one piece, titled The Teacher, a tower of Khalthoums actually sit in the lotus position. A cage of chicken wire surrounds them - opening, perhaps significantly, towards the viewer. Does it mean to suggest that through the discipline of self-presentation one can achieve a sort of release? Or perhaps only that the viewer forms the fourth wall of the container.

Despite her death in 1975, Khalthoum, or Suma, as she is also known, is still recognised as Egypt's greatest diva. Her voice spanned five octaves and she could destroy microphones with her fiery melismas. Her songs - whirling, semi-improvised epics that lasted for hours apiece - paint love as a prison, a torture chamber. "Give me my freedom," she sang. "You took everything." The same words reappear throughout Huda Lutfi's exhibition; a good fit for a show which explores the traditional precincts of women. The exhibition's title, Zan'it al-Sittat, literally means "the place where women are squeezed together". The gallery brochure says that it's also the name of a marketplace in Alexandria, though the former reading is more obviously pertinent.

Cut-out photos of wifely figures are rolled and stuffed inside row upon row of perfume bottles. More of them plaster the sides of a doll-sized staircase and the window of a wall clock. These are faces from celebrity magazines, from fashion plates and catalogues. Most of the images seem to be quite old: paragons of a rather nostalgic ideal in feminine grooming, all pearly smiles and immovable hair. And again and again, there's Suma.

Strangely, Lutfi often refers to the singer simply as "Al-Sitt". There's a whole "Al-Sitt series", in which she stars; Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses, reads another title. It's a generic term: it means "woman". Somehow, the most singular of performers has become an emblem for her entire sex. What's going on? It may shed some light to mention that, before she became an artist, Huda Lutfi was an academic - a manipulator of concepts rather than forms. She's still one, and it shows a bit. Referring to her artistic practice she calls herself a "bricoleur" - a word which, while certainly fitting her scrapbook method of composition, also smacks more than a little of 1960s post-structuralism. Think of Derrida's famous line in Writing and Difference: "Every discourse is a bricoleur." It's the quintessential name-dropper's word.

Born in Cairo, Lutfi studied Islamic culture and history, receiving a doctorate in the subject from McGill University in Montreal. At the moment she teaches Arabic culture at the American University in Cairo. She only started making art in earnest during a spell as a visiting professor at Harvard. "There the professors are very spoilt," she says. "They only teach two graduate courses and they have the rest of the week. I was teaching one day, and the rest of the week I had free. No social life, nothing. So I started doing collages." After a few years she had made so many that friends urged her to exhibit them. And before long, Khalthoum started showing up in her work.

"She's my muse," Lutfi says with a quick laugh. "As a young girl, I grew up with her image. She had a very, very strong presence. She was not simply an artist, a talented singer - a fantastic singer. She was also a nationalist, a patriot, you know? She loved Egypt and she became Egypt's beloved. Not just Egypt, but I think the Arab world's beloved." The artist, however, has larger ambitions for her muse. "I want to create her as a universal feminine icon," she says, "to cross the boundaries of the Arab, or the Egyptian, and construct her as a universal icon. Because I think her trajectory in life is very inspiring for women, for me.

"She comes from a very harsh social background and she became one of the most important divas in contemporary history." For all her adoration of Khalthoum, Lutfi herself could hardly seem less of a diva. She's spry and angular with a light-footed, birdlike bearing - not an operatic presence at all. Her hair is short; her clothes chic, in a vaguely art deco way. She looks much younger than her 60 years. It's hard to imagine her identifying with Khalthoum's tough upbringing: she seems too carefully preserved, too much the product of a comfortable, health-conscious life.

But perhaps there are hints of youthful disappointment. I ask her why she went into academia. "My mother here is very important," she says, "because she always wanted to get education for herself. But her generation didn't get that opportunity of getting into university, getting a profession and so on, which she really wanted to do. So her child, her daughter - she wanted to push that daughter to get a higher education. I got my BA and MA and then my doctorate and became a professor, and that was her achievement. Her daughter got the highest education. But then, I think, a few years later, I just felt that what really interests me is working with my hands."

Such wistful reflections may cast an intriguing light on Lutfi's concern with the freedom of women. Certainly it's the only concrete anecdote about railroading that crops up in our conversation. Lutfi's stated opinion is that gender roles are external impositions, per se. Oddly though, the work itself seems to suggest more ambivalence on the question. The faces, bodies and clothes from which she assembles her collages are certainly lovely. But the collages are lovely, too, even when they set out to subvert those faces, bodies and clothes. In one of the Suma Mother of Liberty images, for instance, a row of Khalthoums fan out into a wide, shallow chevron: the singer appears as the Statue of Liberty, and each duplicate Suma possesses just one, vertiginously high-heeled leg. This refers, Lutfi explains, to "the idea that our liberty is lame, restricted".

"The one leg is really about balance," she says. "It's a lame kind of liberty." Yet the work itself is perfectly balanced - symmetrical, in fact - and, in the admirable sense, restrained. In its spacious composition, its muted silver and peach palette, it seems less an expression of anger than of stylish melancholy - a sort of exquisite weltschmerz. This may be deliberate. Lutfi explains: "I like to be very subtle, so I hide my provocative aspect behind an aesthetic that attracts people. Then when they come near the image they start to ask questions."

This said, the provocative aspects of the work are often very near the surface. There's a fair amount of chopped-up Barbie-doll business, for instance. One of the pieces in the exhibition is a pile of rubbery looking resin masks, lit from within to bring out the ghastly distortions in the moulding. Then there are moments of clanging agitprop: in Democracy is Coming! Khalthoum stands against a slate-grey sky as fighter jets swarm past behind her. "Very subtle" isn't quite how I'd describe it.

Indeed, what's most remarkable about the show is how harmonious it all is, seemingly in spite of Lutfi's efforts. The jagged elements from which the work is built up finally serve the aesthetic rather than the other way around. A pervasive elegance subsumes the confrontational elements. How did this happen? Lutfi takes up the story. "In retrospect I was always using the right side of my brain rather than my left," she says. "I was always interested in art but I never knew how to go about it, so I was always doing things with my hands."

One begins to suspect that her hands know something that she doesn't. On my way out I stop to look at another of the Sumas; her head sprouts from a tangle of tower blocks. She walks on six stilettoed feet. Eight graceful arms, like those of an Indian temple-dancer, protrude from her shoulders; another is popping out of her head. And yet, the most enigmatic thing is Khalthoum's half smile, her raised eyebrow, just visible above the Dame Edna sunglasses. Now she definitely knows something.

Zan'it al-Sittat, The Third Line Gallery, Al Quoz 3, Dubai (04 341 1376). Until Dec 4. @email:www.thethirdline.com

elake@thenational.ae