In case you’ve already forgotten, in 2010 a revolutionary wave developed in Tunisia that gathered strength through social media and public art, thereby hitting Egypt and other Arab countries and resulting in a tsunami of demonstrations, revolts, and revolutions. I’m not going deeper into the political issues leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011 but want to focus on the crucial impact that art and artists had on the movement and the role they played in social change. As a curator I strongly believe in the empowering potential of artistic practices (sometimes even emphatically squeezing it from an art work) and am naively proud when stating: “It only needs one appreciative mind for a show to be successful.”
The enormous driving force of artists practicing and fighting on the streets of Egypt is nothing compared to my humble measure of success, though. They risked being jailed, injured, or being registered by state officials, nevertheless, their civil courage and moral convictions led to mass empowerment and the awareness for change. Even though the Egyptians are facing a backlash – as censorship, surveillance, and detentions are reinstated more forcefully and with harsher consequences – artists are still dealing critically with the current social and political situation in their homecountry. The ways of expression and production have altered accordingly but not their convictions, as Bassem Yousri told me.
I visited Bassem in his studio during his three months residency at Kulturkontakt in Vienna but initially got to know his works during research on Egyptian artists for a show called IMPACTing (co-curated with Katia Hermann). The group exhibition emphasized the social and political influences artists had on the revolution and especially focused on the power of symbols that they deployed. With little knowledge about the current situation in Egypt, I was fortunate to meet Bassem in Vienna and discuss his works and the sociopolitical changes since our last communication in 2013.
I’ve been photographing the decay of official governmental buildings since 2013, images that I don’t show publicly but which function as background for the installation The Official Institution (which Bassem also installed at the art fair Parallel in Vienna). I’m focusing on governmentally run institutions in Cairo, like post offices, hospitals, the ministry of culture, etc., and am influenced by the sight of state commissioned public art and public signs that are not well maintained. Even though they are newly installed in the city, they are sloppy, rusty, shabby, and poorly executed. I’m drawn to the relationship between authority and its visual representation, which I call ‘the institutional aesthetic’. In 2013, I was invited by a governmentally run art space in Cairo to do a solo show, where I installed The Official Institution. Inspired by the ‘institutional aesthetic’ I documented, I created a big mess in the gallery space. I really wanted to criticize the signs of decay, negligence, incompetence in the governmentally run spaces, so this show had to happen in a governmentally run art space.
The version of The Official Institution at the fair made total sense to me even before I heard Bassem’s explanation. A man, who I would easily identify as the typical image of a “Beamter” (civil servant) is dreaming of sleeping while asleep. The image seemed absurd but transmitted a clear message: I’m investigating how such aesthetic reflects politics as well as have reflections on daily social interactions and I find its traces everywhere. For me, it reflects incompetence and it shows how things got much worse over the years (under successive corrupt governments). And does it also affect how we perform as a society? Of course! For instance, most workers might do a terrible job and think its ok. I think poor work ethics are also a reflection of the ‘institutional aesthetic’. Things are not this bad everywhere, though. What I am focusing on here is governmental spaces. The private sector does not reflect the same decay and this proves that good management can fix things.
I also believe that a government, i.e. a president, should act as a role model, an ideology that I can (still) advocate while living in Austria (even though its fainting with the current right wing administration). In the US, we saw how one president can become a positive role model for many and how another can be the negative or anti role model – a template of ‘how not to be’. For the Egyptian people, Bassem justifiably hopes for positive role models in their politicians. He has been observing the ‘institutional aesthetic’ for some time and knows that life in the public sphere hasn’t been easy before and after the revolution. The sloppiness and decay in public institutions didn’t happen overnight. My parents would always tell stories of a clean Egypt; culture and education conditions were much better before the 70s. But the last 60 years have seen a lot of corruption and failure that have led to today’s decay. So, I’m criticizing a situation that goes way back – things worsened after the revolution politically – but ‘institutional aesthetic’ has been ongoing for ages, decades. And as revolutionary people we had a lot of room for criticism. At the moment, though, I wouldn’t be able to show the The Official Institution in Egypt. There’s a major setback regarding freedom of expression.
IMPACTing was mainly concerned with the images and symbols that transmitted very strong symbolic meanings and thus their usage in public art and graffiti pushed forward the revolution in some ways. I’m thinking, for instance, about the depiction of a blue bra that became significant for the painful treatment of demonstrators in general and especially women during the upheavals. Bassem also used it in the installation titled The Parliament of the Revolution and I was wondering if he still uses these symbols nowadays? My work changed over the past few years since the revolution. At that time, we were really sucked into what was happening. I was using symbols that related to the events but now my work has become less and less directly related to specific events. I was, like many other people, very emotionally involved in what was happening. Now, I’m still involved, of course, but I think I have a more objective, a more distant point of view. I also track what I call ‘the institutional aesthetic’ in Egypt’s state-commissioned public art. The execution of these sculptures is really terrible and reflects incompetence. There’s no sense for aesthetic pleasure, no maintenance, no craft. In my opinion, it’s all part of a bigger picture.
That’s why Bassem likes to do works in public space. For the Sharjah Art Foundation he implemented two big works that allowed an interaction with the public. Outside the foundation, I installed a huge billboard that says: I’m serious. I’m investigating the relationship between visual representation and authority. It was interesting to observe how the audience would interact with such a message. I also created another piece facing the Sharjah Art Museum. It is an architectural structure with a whole in it and a sign saying: Do not look inside. A staircase, executed à la institutional aesthetic, leads the audience to the whole. What the audience finds inside the whole leads to an endless loop of absurdity and frustration. In my opinion, it’s a fitting metaphor for the unstable and often absurdist politics citizens are exposed to in Egypt and beyond.
I like the subtle way Bassem intertwines the everyday life with the negligence of official institutions in Egypt, which goes beyond merely criticizing the situation. Instead of giving up, it seems like he is fruitfully surrendering to the rules. My work is not something outside of my world; it’s always affected by what’s happening around me; the bigger picture that is made up of seemingly unrelated instances. So, I always draw inspiration from the space where I’m working at and use what is already there. I get visually inspired by the surroundings and interact with the space.
Another work in which Bassem is critical about the status quo of his country – but can again be easily adopted to many others – is All the important issues, which was presented along The Official Institution at Parallel in Vienna. It is an experimental short film that consists of a series of absurd lectures, in which an exaggerating, self-assured character is addressing his audience with seemingly important messages. In the course of the video it becomes clear that his words are empty, the sentences meaningless, his gestures powerless, and the whole situation pitiful – it all turns into an absurd, dadaesque scenario that captures inability and stagnation. I’m aware that bureaucracy and corruption exists worldwide. At Parallel I wanted to open up a conversation and for people in Vienna be able to relate to it. I talk about surrendering to the status quo in general. I’m always aware of the context where I show my work, so it’s a work that is critical in the more general sense of the relationship between world citizens and the system. What happens here has reflections elsewhere.
What I could sense at the time of doing research for IMPACTing was a strong community among the artists and creative empowerment during the revolution. The sense of community is different now. The government is not closing down cultural institutions but they don’t allow to display critical work either. They are scared of people gathering. Street art is not allowed and we have no access to public space anymore. One might get arrested for doing graffiti – critical or not – or for doing any kind of intervention in public spaces. There is no freedom of expression. The censorship has never been this brutal, so you have to be smart. You can still do critical art, the fight just takes new forms. I choose a discourse that is appropriate in the light of the political reality at a given time. There’s always a borderline. I’m not saying we shouldn’t cross it but I try to push it as much as I can without getting caught. I think my work has become less direct, while remaining politically critical. I try to initiate a conversation with the audience without controlling their thoughts on what they see.
My take from our conversation is that we cannot take things, and with things I especially mean a stable political environment and freedom of speech, for granted anymore. Everything is in flux and can instantly change to the better or the worse. Hence, we need courageous artists, like Bassem, who not only conserve our histories but moreover push us to think and act critically. Above all, we should not forget that their art is a deed – a deed that can cost them their freedom.