Forgotten Histories and Parallel Historiographies

Sarma Jan 2014English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma.

The past few years have seen the rise of different modes of social media and technical fever to capture everything into images. This explosion of hyper-connected, visual communities in an unregulated space, gave the chance to alternative historical narratives to emerge. This writing and rewriting of history in non-traditional mediums and realms, specifically cyberspace with the explosion of social media networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., created parallel virtual societies that resurrected forgotten histories. There is a schism between traditional historical narratives of post-colonial Egypt and what “local” and “national” narratives attempt to portray. The everyday understanding of this history that was a bit elusive to capture and collect, is now much more accessible through these ephemeral and transitory mediums.

It is then a journey worth exploring to navigate this current open space, virtual space, and excavate what it generates in terms of dynamics of identity formation and historicity with regards to such practices as contemporary visual and performing arts and their relation to their historical trajectories.


Post-material representations

What one realizes is that suddenly digital representations of old photographs are all over the place. The materiality of the document or the artefact is of no value now. People circulating those images within cyberspace, do not necessarily own them. Hence the materiality is not there, we are then not dealing with the ownership of a particular object with a particular history or presence. It is stripped of its materiality, and it only becomes a representation of itself. It is no longer what the object is (a photo taken in the 1920s or 1930s by such and such camera), but what it represents. Once the “representation” is perceived, then it becomes a transcendent meaning and transforms. For example: Egypt as a cosmopolitan city, the Egypt that hosted Martha Graham, or Louis Armstrong playing by the Pyramid or Josephine Baker standing on Emad Edin street next to Naguib el Rihani, or the inauguration of the Old Opera by playing the première of Verdi's Aida, etc.

Hence, one can think of this as post-material; we are speaking about the symbolic value that transcends a particular physical materiality. Virtual space democratizes space; once you have access you don't need to “pay” to acquire this symbolic commodity. Which in itself proposes a certain structure/infrastructure: computer, network, etc. Yet this in itself is almost democratic, almost available to every single urban subject. You can have access, and you can “consume” and “reproduce” such symbolic representations ad infinitum. Some of the many artefacts like Armstrong performing at the pyramids in 1961, Egypt’s kings photographed with European royalty and dignitaries, etc., reset the narrative of the Arab Socialist state. Suddenly Egypt is framed as the cosmopolitan country, the real notion of cosmopolitan as hospitality – as philosopher Jacques Derrida would describe it – as a polity that is open, that is forgiving, forgiving to its “guests”, and its guests were many, the British, the French, the Armenians, the Italians, the Greeks, etc. All were forgiven, all were accepted, all were assimilated and not only so, all contributed in a way or another in constructing this cosmopolitaea, in this political atmosphere that favoured the West, and its “white” creations, starting from Italian desserts, to French Beaux Arts, all the way to Opera and performing arts.



Despite these creations, these “white” creations, being a manifest symptom of Colonialism per se, people are now longing to have the same open “hospitable” space. A place that “hosts”, in a way acknowledging one’s self, as well as the “other”, given that the current place has become so hostile, too hostile to host its own history that it has become “inhospitable”.

In tracing this sense of cosmopolitanism, this colonial affectation, this historical trajectory, we come to notice several key ruptures:


I.    One with the colonialist past, with the rise of Arab Nationalism and how it manifested itself, in the post-1952 coup d’état and with the introduction of a Statist-led model of development until this past with all of its elements was suddenly considered as a “bourgeois” defect. It became a disease that has to be eradicated from the “national memory”. Or appropriated, nationalized and created anew as “nationalist project”.

II. The other rupture is when religion was “reintroduced” by the end of the 1970s due to changing demographics and specific economies and all of a sudden Egypt was considered as “has always been Islamic”. Religion became the primary reference point in the national cultural narrative, and an entire two centuries were swept under the rug, denying the existence of a certain specific past.

III. A third rupture: the notion of an open cosmopolitan space, the belle epoch, somewhere between the colonialist legacy, socialist/nationalist legacies (with how the socialists spoke of “art for the people” and it belonging to them) and their ideologies (all too ideological) that produced a sense of ownership and empowerment to the people, and hence produced the notion of what might be termed as a “canon” of what we can now look at as 'National Art": Hassan Soliman, Zeinab Seggeni, and others.



Ownership of history

In trying to situate contemporary artistic practices within those three ruptures we would have to consider the different positions. For example, before the 2011 revolution, there was the discussion of classical Western forms of art as “colonial waste”: “What do Egyptians need Opera for?” Ever since the revolution, there seems to be a keen attempt to authenticate all forms that existed as if they had always been existing. Sentences such as: Egypt had the first Opera house in the region, Egypt always produced art, Egypt produced Halim El-Dabh the first “electronic” music composer, etc. This is a continuation of a given “practice” that was always there, but nobody noticed. This sudden parallel narrative to a forgotten history is specifically tied to the idea of ownership of history. Who owns it and how.

The fact that the ownership of information is intensely politicized would give an idea about this sudden and urgent need to “represent” alternative narratives and stories. A brief survey would show us how this is the reality. The National Archives are the archives that are supposed to be “open” to the public, but the archives are in fact not open to the public at all. The archives are managed by a staunch bureaucracy and a corrupt state security that would never give any clearance or permission to anyone to access those archives or use them. The public libraries of all universities that host all available information, academic and non-academic, for all disciplines and the arts, are not open to outsiders, unless they are university students or alumni. Anyone else is required a permission, which is again subject to the same non-functional bureaucracy and corrupt state security. The TV and Radio archives, which include some of the most rare recordings of visual and oral culture in the Arab world, was either sold to rich Gulf investors or left to decay and waste in the government archives. No one manages this archive or is working on digitizing it or making it available to the public. The archives that literally constitute the consciousness of the Egyptian people for the past 100 years are not available for them. The information they hold is denied for use and an actual presence of this consciousness is denied, creating a myopic view of history and a national narrative filled with loopholes that can easily be manipulated by any political demagogue , setting and resetting our own notions of who we are and what we are.

Such consistent and violent attempts at erasure and politicizing memory to such degree, are still unable to physically obliterate actual subjects involved in all those artistic practices. Subjects who were involved with the practice did exist and operate within the past four decades, and even if it is traceable through a certain trajectory. Again if we continue with the Opera example, the Old Opera House was inaugurated in 1869 and it was burnt down in 1971. The first Opera Company was created in 1961, about 10 years after the independence. The entire conservatory and the art academy were established around the same time. While the company and the performers moved from the old Opera building to another theatre, the new Opera was opened in 1989. Again, this is not a seamless history or narrative, but it is a narrative that continues nonetheless. The performers, teachers, students, and productions that took place from 1961 till now, can not be physically wiped out, as there were an audience and participants who were involved in this history and its practice.


Reclaiming cosmopolitan legacies

The everyday circulation of those “representations” or documents in cyberspace now, doesn't pay attention to the “trope” of this practice. From the people who are trying to reclaim this cosmopolitan legacy, no one examined these matters. And because of the ruptures, silences, omissions, no one is able to link those practices to “contemporary art” or contemporary artistic practices.

Contemporary art in itself is very cosmopolitan, non-bourgeois and neo-colonial in its structures, yet post-colonial in its economy, as in what it dictates in terms of production and consumption. However, contemporary art in Egypt fails to create a hybrid class of bourgeois and indigenous westernized subjects. It is a one-way process, in which the subject receives and doesn't give back. The institution in the central node of the system doesn't receive but it only gives.

The institutions involved in producing and disseminating contemporary artistic practices are not involved in the shadow of the colonial past, they are strictly post-colonial, in their choice of artistic subject matter or historical references. Then, when someone speaks of the tradition Egypt had in Opera, Sculpture, Film, Music, etc., and then questions contemporary artistic production now, there is an incredible rupture of at least four decades – with the last “quasi-cosmopolitan” reference being in 1961, with four decades after that of nothing but slow disintegration or at best recycling existing material.

During these four decades those practices faced the questions: is it Arab, socialist, Islamic, contemporary, etc.? Each question pointing out to the many ruptures and resets that historical narratives underwent. The most pertinent and relevant to contemporary artistic practices, is the rupture faced in the 1980s with the rise of the petrodollar economy of the Gulf states and the scaling back of the state, and the regression of socialist-statist mode of government. In ten years time, it would become clear that those very government structures that dominated artistic practices since the independence, have become ossified skeletal structures that have no flesh, completely hollowed out and crumbling. They have become marginalized and ineffectual and have ceased to produce or contribute in any way to those inclined to break from the ideological grip of post-independence art. The need to break away from the state and its legacy among young bourgeoise contemporary artists made it clear that a “new scene” had to be formulated around different economies and with different histories and aesthetics. At its best this “new scene” became a niche, only accessible and intelligible to the very few. The remaining population had to struggle with the rise of privately owned and produced commercial art, and the now defunct state sponsored art.


What is contemporary?

The questions of: “What is culture? Art? Or entertainment?” became very confusing. And once again this was used as an instrument of domination. The differentiation between what entertainment is and what culture is and what art is, and who produces each and how was overshadowed by patterns of consumption and production. Patterns that ultimately reinforced dependency and conformity. This in itself restricts the possibilities that “people” or citizens can develop any form of critical self-awareness towards their social and political systems. This is what happened even so with the Mubarak years, when even non-state-owned media were either controlled by businessmen in direct alliance with the corrupt ruling elite or censored by state security. In a way there was a semblance of free commercial enterprise, but in reality, the notion of free enterprise itself was delimited to a ruling elite. In most self-aware societies (with reservations on a society being self-aware in its entirety, but ideally speaking), entertainment came to be seen as one form of consuming or producing a certain experience, and art as another, while here in Egypt, since the 1980s there was suddenly no distinction at all. When you ask someone what contemporary art is, they might mention Youssef Chahine's films, even if they are not “contemporary” in the sense of legacy and how anti-institutional or anti-establishment of a societal critique they are/are not. It is funded by states, governments, and it is not (as much as it critiques authorities and intolerance) anti-institutional. Chahine remained state sponsored, produced by many governments not only Egypt's. What was seen at the time as “high-brow art” would still be the “nationalist” art legacy, the specific references that were no longer related to the context any more (Khairat Sr. in music for instance).

There is an awareness now that there is a huge sector of “highly trained” subjects in the “beaux arts” who produce nothing. And we have institutions such as the contemporary arts centres of Downtown, that don’t connect to references in discourses about “contemporary art” on a public/populist spectrum, culminating in contemporary artistic practices being disconnected from what is considered as “contemporary”. Yet, with the political uprising we are witnessing a different connection to what are considered contemporary practices. For example, graffiti would be seen by many as “contemporary practice” with how it “etymologically” is contemporary, and with how it pushes towards negotiating meaning in ways that other practices would not.

The dilemma in the works currently produced, is that before the revolution people were oblivious to this historical trajectory/trope of the artistic practices being produced, and after the revolution they expect an immediate critique of power and institutions without an interest in the work itself. The practitioners themselves are also undergoing a critique of their practice itself, and as a class of people working in the independent art scene and how they are subject to such hegemonic discourses and dynamics of power. These artists have a stake in critiquing their own practice, even if this so-called contemporary art is not representative or visible or meaningful. Even if it is completely foreign, un-Arab, or alien to its context.

For the past 15-20 years, along with the institutions and artists, those practices and productions have existed, whether one would attribute any merit to this work or not, or whether it is considered indigenous enough or local enough; the truth of the matter is that those practices were there and have been produced and their critique of their realities and subjectivities should be seen as a post-revolution critique as much as Graffiti is. In many ways graffiti artists are using iconic representations and imagery, and recreating a cosmopolitan past and critiquing authoritarian regimes of symbolic distribution – a regime of symbolic distribution in the sense of who has the right to distribute affects, and decide what is and is not meaningful, and what is intelligible or not


Critique and citizenship

Critique here is defined as the essential and important task of any citizen. A certain mental civic task of understanding and analyzing super-structures, immaterial aspects of things as vague as culture. Not in the sense of the elitist notion of critique, here it is about the people themselves critiquing. And that becomes evident in the many gestures and performances that were witnessed since the outbreak of the political uprising.

For example, there is the famous sculpture of courgettes in post-2011, Cairo revolutionary streets. A brief contextualisation for the piece is in order. With the many acquittals for the crony businessmen of the Mubarak regime, who managed to get away with murder, literally, there was a deep sense of anger at how corrupt the judiciary has become. Many Egyptians still believed that the judiciary was the last standing institution that would not be swayed in a particular ideological direction, whether with or against the regime. However, the “spectacular” – as in “spectacle” – series of acquittals soon shattered any perception that the judiciary is fair or neutral.

At one protest where people were calling for actual trials for wrongdoers and not just farces, a man held a wooden frame, that had the word “courgette” hung on it, made out of real courgettes. The word “courgette”, in Egyptian Arabic is a metaphor for nepotism and clientelistic relationships with those in power. Some trace its history to the fact that as a vegetable courgettes did not survive the heat very well, so those who sold courgettes had a privileged access to more strategic places in the market, and all they had to do, is shout out the word, “courgettes”, so others make way.

The dramaturgy of this particular “action” is manyfold. First, it is a sculptural piece, which takes into account the historical symbolism of the metaphor, displacing a linguistic metaphor from the semantic register to the physical register, rendering it into a visual percept. Again highlighting the performative potential of such a symbolic encoding. The play on materiality is what makes this a dramatic gesture, in the sense of rendering directly “visible”. The action synchronizes the urgency of this claim (swift and just trials for those convicted and the end of nepotism and clientelistic relationships) with the transience of the courgettes as a living sculpture (the courgettes will wilt the same way, justice does).  

The shift and play in materiality, the acute sense of the temporality of this material, and linking this to their protest, serves to show how well do the protesters understand their position vis-à-vis the system, and the efficacy and substantiality of their protests.

This gesture was not documented or preserved by any contemporary artistic institution or practitioner. In fact, a huge debate sprang on Facebook about how to consider and classify such gesture or action. Despite the fact that this action has a performative score and performative way of thinking, and despite it being a very elaborate attempt at critique, many contemporary artists were in dispute about what the work is and what it means.

Again, it was only preserved on social media networks, creating this parallel history that is accessed in an entirely different way, challenging conventional historiographies, and pre-existing narratives.