Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 12 July 2020

Mahmoud Khaled exhibition tackles the 'burden of nostalgia'

The artist says the pieces at his new show in Cairo add up to one work of art in itself

The Egyptian artist’s new exhibition, where he re-enacts formal and conceptual aspects of memorials Mahmoud Khaled and Gypsum Gallery
The Egyptian artist’s new exhibition, where he re-enacts formal and conceptual aspects of memorials Mahmoud Khaled and Gypsum Gallery

Walking into A New Commission for an Old State, in Gypsum Gallery’s Garden City space, in Cairo, visitors are first introduced to a set of still life images.

Against a blue background sits two pomegranates, an iPad playing a Yousef Shaheen film, two marble vases and a teapot. On others, the same objects are arranged, but differently. The blue background is the same colour used in filmmaking to remove or replace a background.

In his new solo exhibition, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled attempts to reenact formal and conceptual aspects of memorials. Nostalgia, or a critique of it; a real and created archive; the use of marble, real and simulated; and the interrogation of space and its uses, both in Egypt and in the art world, are all tools a repeat visitor to Khaled’s shows would have taken notice.

Khaled says that when he first started researching this project, he had assembled such a large archive that he had trouble arranging it into an exhibition. Still life gave him “the key,” he says, allowing him to freeze an object and manipulate it based on context.

Farther into the gallery, Khaled keeps using this same manipulation. His photographs of Maamoura, a gated summer resort in Alexandria built by the state shortly after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, are set against an article written by judge Hassan Jalal. In it, Jalal chronicles the testimonies of those tortured on the land the resort was built on. The text serves as a reference to the political layers of the exhibition, bridging different epochs in the history of modern Egypt.

Egypt is a place with a lot of history. And in recent memory, it has been reinvented several times. Since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011, the government has tried different rebranding schemes. In one, the slogan “Egypt is close” showcases its appeal to Arabs. In another, the country’s beautiful landscapes and history are shown and the viewer is told, “This is Egypt.” Public and private investment has given a face-lift to certain historic districts, while tearing down others.

In the process of manipulating this collective narrative or memory, the history of buildings is often forgotten. Khaled dealt with what he called the lack of an architectural archive by delving into his own research, like the Maamoura building.

Khaled, an Alexandrian, who also lives and works in Norway, has probably been asked many questions, and asked himself, about the city of yesteryear. The city can never seem to escape the “burden of nostalgia,” which is the subject the exhibition takes up, through a variety of materials – photos, texts, screenshots, murals, and found-footage videos. They are all presented together in a memorial-like installation.

Which past, and consequently what future, the reinvention of space evokes is of prime concern to the artist. Much of this he expresses through material, namely his calling-card use of marble. Maamoura is a concrete modernist building: built out of a material intended to be forward looking, rather than back to the Greco-Roman history of the city.

His photos of the resort show pillars of blue-glazed mosaic ceramic tile. Perhaps Maamoura’s Nasserist interior architects tried to keep a bit of Greco-Roman luxury in a more social-democratic style-a nod to the past, but more affordable.

The photos are set above marble wallpaper and little is done to hide the seams. If you look closer, you see the wallpaper was printed in a low resolution. It is common for similar imitations of wealth and grandeur to make their way into Egyptian homes, not unlike this marble. Beyond the rooms showing the images of Maamoura is a hall with trompe-l’oeils imitating marble, painted directly into the space’s architecture.

Khaled’s work often focuses on space. His previous work “Painter on a Study Trip” focused on the neglected Antoniadis Garden in Alexandria and the contentious relationship with public space between Egyptians and the authorities.

But Khaled wants to also do something else with space other than simply critique it. He wants to use the exhibition as an art form in itself, curator Aleya Hamza says. The two decided to paint the normally white gallery grey, to ensure that viewers saw the works of art as parts of a single space rather than pieces to be seen alone.

“I prefer solo shows, not from any selfish point of view,” Khaled says. “But because it is one artwork and it makes it more experiential.”

The Gypsum Gallery’s show differs in a few ways from the show’s previous iteration in Oldenburg, Germany.

The still lifes were murals, while the photos of Maamoura were smaller.

But most notable is a blue ceramic tile monument, not unlike the pillars in Maamoura. On it, a small slab of Carrara marble is set, with lines etched into it like an empty epitaph in one corner, and in the other is a set of flowers.

A New Commission for an Old State is on display at the Gypsum Gallery, in Cairo, Egypt until April 18


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