Nermine Hammam: Cairo in Layers

From the 'Unfolding' installation.

By: Mohamed Mesrati

Published Thursday, August 16, 2012

London - Although Nermine Hammam’s art has never been overtly political, the nature of events unfolding today in her native Egypt may well lead viewers to presume otherwise. Surveying her first solo exhibition held at the Mosaic Rooms in London, in association with Rose Issa Projects, one is immediately reminded of the situation in Egypt under military rule, and developments on the ground in the year following the January 25 uprising.

In Cairo Year One, we discover that Hammam (born in 1967) lives between two worlds: One full of intrigue, adventure, and horror in Egypt; and the other in Japan, which is peaceful, tranquil and romantic.

These images provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the artist’s mind as she attempts to escape from the political state of affairs at home. Her trip takes her to a country which may well be an imagined one.

Nermine appropriates the style of traditional Japanese paintings to create mash-ups of soldiers and military police personnel. Her prints use bright colors, contrasted against the dark of the soldiers’ images. But Hammam’s intention is not to underscore a clash between two civilizations or countries, as much as to create a kind of melodious harmony in the arrangement of her prints, which are made up of composite images combining painting with digital photography.

Hammam’s exhibition features two series, Upekkha and Unfolding. Upekkha showcases images the artist made back in 2011, a few months after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, prior to the bloody clashes between protesters and the military. In these works we are shown the romanticism of the revolution and its aspirations, whereby Hammam has sought to reconcile armed soldiers against a tranquil backdrop – in addition to manipulating the color of their complexions, which appear softer and brighter than in reality.

The second series, entitled Unfolding, underscores a major reversal in the perception of these soldiers, where the bloody layer of the military is marked, in contrast to the romanticism seen in the Upekkha series. Nermine finished working on this second series in the spring of 2012. Unfolding features famous shots of army brutality, which were circulated by the local and international press, as well as of the bloody attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square, Maspero Square and elsewhere.

In Unfolding, the Egyptian artist again uses Japanese prints as the background for violent images, but this time, she does not opt for soft and serene colors like in Upekkha. Instead, she selects old Japanese paintings from the 15th, 17th and 19th centuries, mixing shots from the infamous “Battle of the Camel” with a Japanese painting that has dark colors and depicts tigers and beasts.

Nermine says that the Japanese backgrounds come from postcards she received long ago. In designing her compositions, Hammam used several cinematic techniques, paying close attention to the smallest detail.

For instance, anyone examining the hands of the soldiers in the first series will leave with the impression that they are feminine hands. Furthermore, the artist’s emphasis on facial features in Upekkha, and the marginal details in Unfolding, gave the whole exhibition a unique and contradictory setting that raises questions rather than providing answers. The artist appears to be engaged in the abstraction of the reality of Egyptian politics, rather than its documentation.

Hammam’s exhibition was acclaimed by many visitors to her show in London, although some were uncomfortable with the contrast between images of the armed soldiers and the idyllic backgrounds. Others agreed that the exhibition “provokes a clash in the viewer’s imagination,” with the overwhelming presence of cinematic elements.

Nermine Hammam, who studied cinematography in New York, has worked with many filmmakers, such as Youssef Chahine. She also served as a production assistant on the acclaimed production, Malcolm X. She has since left filmmaking and turned to art, staging private exhibitions in many countries before her first solo exhibition in the UK.

The Mosaic Rooms, an A.M Qattan Foundation project in London, hosted Nermine Hammam’s exhibition “as part of the foundation’s vision to introduce and promote modern art and Arab literature..

Cairo Year One was also held in association with the Rose Issa Projects, which seeks to introduce modern art to the Middle East. Issa, who traces her roots back to Lebanon and Iran, has hosted many modern artists from the Arab world and Iran, including the Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki. Rose Issa is currently trying to promote what has become known as “the art of revolutions,” focusing on works that have a cultural dimension and emulate reality, creating a state of clash with or rebellion against the status quo.

Cairo Year One by Nermine Hammam, runs until August 24 – The Mosaic Rooms (London, Cromwell Road)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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