Mahmoud Khaled: “Painter on a Study Trip”

Clare Davies

Mahmoud Khaled’s latest solo exhibition, “Painter on a Study Trip” Gypsum Gallery in Cairo (April 1-May 6, 2014), (re)introduces visitors to the faded grandeur of the Antoniadis Garden. The sprawling park, originally attached to a private, mid-19th century residence in Egypt’s port city of Alexandria, has served as a destination for generations of art students seeking natural vistas worthy of a landscape study or figurative statues in lieu of the nude models banned at state schools since 1981. Today, the neglected park also shelters amorous couples and others searching for cover amidst the semi-abandoned pavilions and overgrown bushes.

“Painter on a Study Trip” rightly situates the history of art in Egypt along the coordinates of a longstanding struggle to lay claim to the public sphere through the production of images and three-dimensional sculptural and architectural forms. Many of the themes informing Khaled’s earlier practice surface again, themes such as the performative nature of (gender, or more to the point here, cultural) identity and the reclamation of public space for illicit purposes. At the same time, a newfound sense of both professional vulnerability and self-possession translate into the artist’s most nuanced work to date. Taking the park as its stage, the exhibition plumbs the relationship between artistic form, public space, and subjecthood in Egypt.

Egyptian modernism (if we may call it that, the topic of another, longer conversation) has consistently subscribed to the idea that state officials, policy-makers, intellectuals, and artists can organize the general populace into national subjects. Indeed, one of the central aims of the state-sponsored project for the arts – initiated in the early 20th century – has been to organize the populace into various prototypes: the peasant, the Arab, the Egyptian, the citizen. Ostensibly, this serves as a means of empowering “the people,” but (more often than not) has been used to control the public sphere and enforce the terms dictated by repressive and exclusionary governing regimes. Historically, the creation of discrete art objects – such as oil paintings displayed in homes, or figurative sculptures installed in major thoroughfares – was central to these aims, as was the design of urban space: the widening and straightening of streets, the erection of gates, and the organization of parks would ostensibly serve to mold the crowds passing through them into a desired shape. Forms and images, it was claimed, could imprint themselves on the population to produce ideal subjects.

Due to its deep engagement with these themes, those familiar with Egypt’s history (and, in particular its history of art, architecture, and urban design) would appear best positioned to appreciate the exhibition. At the same time, I would argue, the central stakes of the project, remain as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. The construction of satellite cities (indeed of a new “capital city”) that appear as one-dimensional as the images they were sourced from; the barricading of squares, the erection of walls, and the redirection of traffic; the literal whitewashing of downtown Cairo’s mouldering apartment buildings: these trends continue to enforce the connection between form, site and subjecthood. It is in the model subject--a creature of historical, aesthetic, and political imaginings and praxis--that officially sanctioned objects of art and the formal language of sites such as Antoniadis Gardens converge, and it is from this point of convergence that Khaled’s exhibition departs. Failure manifests here in two, contradictory senses: as an inability to escape from this hall of mirrors, on the one hand, and the failure of this state system of image- and subject-making to fully close the circle on human experience.

Failure: A way out or a way in?

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An undated oil painting by Italian artist Antonio Scognamiglio lends the exhibition its name. The work features the scene of an artist making his way up a mountain path astride a mule. A hired hand in “native” dress and carrying an easel trails him on foot. Both figures are viewed from behind. Like many artists in Egypt, Khaled recounts, he hesitated in the wake of the events sparked in January 2011, unwilling or unable to produce works that could not account for the complexity of the situation and the new pressures it seemed to impose on their practices. His encounter with Scognamiglio’s painting at the newly reopened Alexandria Museum of Fine Arts served as a revelation, Khaled claims; he recognized in the work an artist who “had turned his back on questions about art,” and headed into the natural world, seeking therein a way out. The painting offered a solution to various questions he had been struggling with regarding the role of art and the artist, or his own self-doubt and sense of professional disorientation: a condition exacerbated in the context of a country convulsed by (what he refers to as) a “power struggle.”

In another corner of the gallery, an engraved crystal plaque commemorates a “failed” studio visit paid to the artist by the Italian philosopher Franco (Bifo) Berardi in 2013. The two-part work titled A Memorial to Failure (2013) also includes a video projected on a nearby screen, which offers a stylized document of the event. According to his own telling, the artist had nothing to show his visitor, and so turned the tables, presenting the philosopher with a series of questions designed to help move him beyond his creative block. Audio recordings of the resulting discussion are juxtaposed with footage shot from téléphérique cabins gliding effortlessly over the cityscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Beirut: two sites visited by Khaled on artist residencies in the same period. As a result, the conversation around failure seems to take place high in the air, and the looped journey identifies the question of the artist’s role with a smooth-rolling and picturesque (but also slightly unnerving) condition of liminality traversed without thought of destination. “Being hung in the air is how I understand art in general,” Khaled remarked at one point in a public walkthrough of the exhibition. Suspension manifests here as both the default condition of art-making and the state that defines the terms of its impossibility.

In a sense, the artist’s admission and interrogation of artistic failure appears to offer a contingent map through the exhibition. Thus, Scognamiglio’s painting is offered up as a promising solution to the problem of failure encountered in the studio, prompting Khaled to abandon the studio and head out defiantly in search of “nature.” In this instant, various figures of the artist overlap: Khaled himself, the artist in the painting, and an art student enrolled at the University of Alexandria who is credited as the author of a number of works in the exhibition.

Two works produced by the “art student”--Detail and Source (both 2014)--are made up of a series of C-prints featuring shots of the semi-abandoned benches, cultural centers, stages, stairs, and colonnades populating the park. These images are printed in grids on single, white sheets, which adhere to the standard dimensions of school-mandated Canson paper, and are arranged as though for a class presentation. Index numbers and notes printed alongside the photographs suggest that each image has been inventoried, becoming part of a personal research archive. The works are presented as research notes and preparatory exercises conducted in the Antoniadis Gardens for presentation in the classroom, and the figure of the art student is clearly modeled on Khaled’s own formative experiences at the University of Alexandria. At the same time, Detail and Source function as documentation of the various latter-day architectural ruins scattered across the park. This taxonomy of architecture and ornament echoes the paranoid gaze of a police state engaged in restless documentation of public space and its occupants and the unabashed neglect of public institutions: annexing both as concerns of the artist.

A similar reclamation of the surveillance powers of the state can be found in a number of Khaled’s earlier works. Likewise, this occurs at the hands of a quasi-fictional self-portrait of the artist situated in the “informal” recesses of social space and dialogue offered by social media and the public space. An earlier work, Do You Have to Work Tomorrow? (2013), consists of 32 photographs of an iPhone screen recording a scripted text-message exchange conducted on social media platform Grindr, which allows nearby users to locate each other physically, often for the purpose of arranging sexual liaisons. The conversation unfolds between two members of local youth committees established during Egypt’s “eighteen days” to patrol and guard local neighborhoods. The men complain and joke and flirt, their imperfect chat-English poignantly communicating a desire to find themselves in relation to others, while also remaining invisible. The messages appear at first like searchlights, carving an elusive space out of the dim street corners they sit on until they locate one another. With each installment in the text conversation, these strangers redefine the contours of a three-dimensional urban space, as well as an imaginary common space of desire and camaraderie: as elusive and fleeting as it is real.

Works included in “Painter on a Study Trip” are less optimistic. While Khaled never seems entirely to foreclose the promise of escape associated with sexual and emotional intimacy, an appeal to “nature” proves elusive in this regard. While Scognamiglio’s painting of an artist heading out to paint the landscape points to nature as a way out of the confines of the art studio and of the larger condition of failure, it becomes evident soon enough that the visitor to the exhibition is being guided around in circles: each exit becomes an entrance in an M.C. Escher-like game of stairs. As a result, nature--represented in this case by Antoniadis Garden-- provides not an alternative to art, but a new vista of images and terrain of image-making.

The artist’s study trip itself is doomed to fail: effectively sending the artist round and round in search of image after image and turning the promise of escape into a sick joke. Likewise, visitors to the exhibition are confined to the institutional circuit of art school and public park, which represent the exterior to the “failed” studio presented by A Memorial to Failure. Indeed, gallery walls are painted from the floor up in a wide band of olive (or public sector) green, approximating the look of an art school interior--or, indeed, the interior of any one of Egypt’s many moldering bureaucracies, as well as the evoking the promise of natural “greenery,” and making escape seem futile. Framed as a key to the exhibition, Scognamiglio’s painting encourages us to identify Khaled and the hypothetical art student with a tragicomic figure whose resemblance to Sancho Panza (with resonances perhaps in Goha, Egyptian folklore’s donkey-riding trickster/fool) comes into focus as one begins to recognize the traces of dark humor animating many of the works.

In Exercise (2014), an engraved plaque describes a trompe l’oeil painting of a neo- Classical nude sculpture located in the Antoniadis Gardens on a nearby wall as a: “Mural of a marble statue that a certain Alexandrian art student found difficult to draw.” Khaled blames the art student’s difficulties, in part, on the ambiguous sexual identity of the original model. The verisimilitude one expects to find in Exercise is imperfect, almost laughable. In contrast, a second trompe l’oeil piece (Material, 2014), a digital print of computer-generated image of a stretched canvas, offers a work without any model or original, yet far exceeds Exercise in its ability to deceive the human eye.

This insistence on the absence of an original and the reliance of images upon other images is most obvious, perhaps, in Khaled’s treatment of Scognamiglio’s painting: Process (2014) is a series of images arranged one within the other like Russian nesting dolls. A framed photograph of a hand holding an iPhone gives way, upon closer inspection, to a photograph of Scognamiglio’s framed painting on the phone screen. The frames of the painting and the photograph appear identical. Again and again, these works reference image-making as a play of reflections. “A glossy surface is a plane that constantly produces images by its mere presence in space,” observed Khaled in reference to an earlier solo exhibition “When Meanings Face Glossy Surfaces” (Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo, 2011). Ultimately, “Painting of an Artist on a Study Trip” presents the artist’s studio, the art school, and the park as glossy surfaces across which play a series carefully crafted images.

Fictions and failure

What is at stake in this circular trajectory of failure traversed by the artist is the possibility of a subjecthood that escapes the terms provided by officially sanctioned form and enforced by the gaze of the state. Composition (or Takwin in Arabic) (2014) introduces one of the most ubiquitous forms populating Antoniadis Garden into the space of the gallery. An enclave is sealed off and the floor and lower walls tiled to evoke the dried-up fountains languishing in so many of Egypt’s parks and traffic medians. Above, a window is shielded from view by a red velvet curtain that summons the figure of the wealthy private collector: patron saint and tastemaker of art school graduates for whom no viable alternative market exists. The title recalls an era (perhaps only recently lapsed) associated with a “plastic arts” model of art-making in Egypt, as well as the rise of a particular idiom of abstract painting that gained favor following the ascendency of Farouk Hosny to the position of Minister of Culture in 1987.

The term plastic arts (al-funun al-tashkiliyya), propagated in the wake of the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 through networks of state-run art institutions, seems to have signaled a move away from the earlier fine arts (al-funun al-jamila) model and declared the democratization of the field. In the work of prominent artists such as Mounir Canaan (1919-1999) and Abdel Rahman Nashar (1932-1999), Khaled notes, the term takwin commonly appeared as a place holder for the title of a work (in a manner similar to the application of “untitled”), while also signaling the significance of formal concerns or a conceptual frame of reference over an engagement with an index of themes and symbols (peasant women carrying water, for example, or the various “types” populating an urban picturesque) associated with an Egyptian fine arts practice.

Composition declares and subsequently inverts a painterly, positivist engagement with form implicated in broader processes of political and cultural reform. Formlessness rushes in to fill the void, ushering in an alternate ecosystem and a distinct emotional register. The empty fountain is physically menacing: a hole in the ground inviting injury. At the same time, the pool invites transgression and occupation, and visitors at the opening of the exhibition gleefully climbed into the space. In doing so, they seemed instinctively to re-stage the fate of so many similar sites: the forgotten fountains sought out and temporarily squatted by late-night kissers and whisperers, the drug users and beer drinkers seeking cover. Similarly, the artist’s choice to sell Composition (and other works) as a set of instructions insists on moving beyond content and form to a consideration of process, and the creative “work” of producing human behavior and subjecthood.

The reclamation of the Antoniadis Gardens by a contemporary public reflects a special knack for sidestepping a never-ending stream of official pronouncements regarding the identity of the “Egyptian people” and the protocols of appropriate civic behavior instilled via institutional training and the circumnavigation of public space. As is the case in many arenas of public life in Egypt, the government’s lack of investment in the park provides opportunities for the fulfillment of private desires. The insecurities of the political situation in Egypt today, the many and painful losses to a national artistic “patrimony,” and the radical transformations in the urban fabric lend themselves to a growing sense of nostalgia for a more stable, prosperous, and carefree era: an impulse, which resonates across political, intellectual, and artistic discourses. In Khaled’s work, however, it is more often, the individual’s reclamation (or re-imaginging) of these systems and sites towards illicit (and often socially or legally censured) ends that prevails quietly.

Transforming individuals into specific kinds of subjects through the design of urban sites and the production of works of art has always been about the assertion of control over a general populace. Public spaces in Egypt today are contrived with the aims of hemming people in, barring access, and instilling a sense of powerlessness. At the same time, the appearance of chaos often reflects attempts by the public to reclaim a map of the city that was not created for them, or to annex to their own ends the spaces, forms, and images intended to undermine individual agency and standardize subjectivity. This is a “failure” worth mulling over.

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Clare Davies joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in Fall 2015, as Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. She received a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in 2014 for a dissertation titled Modern Egyptian Art: Site, Commodity, Archive, 1891–1948. She is the recipient of the inaugural Irmgard Coninx Prize in Trans- regional Studies 2014/2015, Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin.