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In early January 2011, Boston-based artist Ahmed Abdulla was in Cairo, sitting at a coffee shop not far from the Nile River. He was glad to be visiting his native Egypt. He was glad to have the company of his fellow artists and friends. They talked. They laughed. The drank more coffee.
Suddenly, at 2:30 a.m., one of his friends, contemporary artist Ahmed Basiony, felt a rush of inspiration and ran to his studio to work.
"That was the last time I saw him," Abdulla says. "Twenty-seven days later he was killed."
Basiony died on Jan. 28, 2011, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, just four days after the start of the Egyptian revolution.
"He was killed in Tahrir Square," Abdulla says. "His camera was taken from him. He was shot by some police member. He was killed while he was documenting the revolution. In a way he was killed while he was doing his artwork."
Now, two of Basiony's video installations are part of a gripping exhibition at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. "Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo" doesn't feature the mummies or hieroglyphs featured next door at the Museum of Fine Arts itself. It's a collection of modern video-based installations that are rarely seen beyond the Arab world or Europe.
"We wanted the work to be as contemporary as possible," says Joanna Soltan, head curator at the museum school. "We are always looking for art that students would not normally be exposed to. Egypt was a natural because the art scene is so dynamic, so interesting. But so little is known about the area. It was natural to bring these artists here."
And what they bring is the story of modern Egypt as told by Egyptians. Take the Basiony installation. He was just 32 when he died in the chaos of Tahrir Square.
As Soltan says, "He was born when [former President Hosni] Mubarak came to power. And he died just a few days before Mubarak was deposed."
Standing before the installation, one can feel the force of an entire life spent bound by the strictures of an unyielding regime. Basiony's artwork trembles and strains with the chaotic energy of pent-up creativity. Two huge screens, 6-feet by 12-feet, broadcast Basiony's images. One displays the video he shot from the center of Tahrir Square. It is grainy, jumpy, bathed in night-vision green. The images cut from scenes of burning cars, to protest, to prayer. People scatter, running for their lives.
On an equally giant screen next to the frenzied Tahrir images, there is video of Basiony himself, also running. But here, Ahmed Basiony is alone, standing in a glass box. This video is called "30 Days of Running in Place," and Basiony does just that. With a glass helmet on and wires connected to his body, he runs forward, but gets nowhere.
"This performance was created before the revolution," Abdulla says. "There is a sense of isolation for Basiony. And he is running, but not moving forward. So this is also a metaphor for the whole society. It is running, but not moving forward."
“Histories of Now” is consciously of the now. Curators sought out video artists, deliberately ignoring Egypt's large and well-established community of painters and sculptors, because technology amplified the impact of the nation's revolution. Video and audio are also not often taught as primary media in Egyptian art schools.
Basiony’s raw, arresting installation is only the first in the series of six pieces. A meditative video piece about Egyptian street life follows. Then, a documentary of a rural struggle to defend village land against developers, a reimagining of a classic Egyptian film, and a surreal installation featuring a classroom of mostly women reciting poetry about the parts of the brain.
"When I look at the works, I get a sense of longing," Soltan says. "And that longing can then become part of pushing for a transformation."
That yearning is perhaps most palpable in the exhibition's last piece, Moataz Nasr's three-screen video installation of Sufi whirling dervishes.
Soltan says the piece is designed to be an unnerving bookend to Basiony's images from Tahrir Square. "Tt is the only piece that was done in 2011, after the revolution. This is a very spiritual piece, a kind of longing for meditation, transformation and unity."
The video is hypnotic. The camera gazes down on the dervishes from above. They are dressed in bright blue, red and green. As they spin and spin and spin, arms out stretched, heads tilted back, the dervishes seem to float among the three screens. For an outsider, the effect is captivating, even calming. But Abdulla seems something else entirely.
"As a viewer, as an audience, he's put us above them," Abdulla says. "We are judgmental. It's suspicious. You're waiting for something to happen."
Perhaps it's no surprise that as an Egyptian, this is what Abdulla sees. Prior to the revolution — being watched and waiting for something to happen — that was the experience of every day Egyptian life. And in many ways, it still is. "I have felt, experienced and witnessed this. Politically, socially, I experienced it. I witnessed it," Abdulla says.
The exhibition draws its power from the fact that it is history in the first person. "All of these artists are speaking to Egyptians," Abdulla says. "Yet, because of their sincerity, they're speaking to the whole world."
The point is most elegantly made by the words of Abdulla's friend, the video artist Basiony who was killed in Tahrir Square. In the first days of the uprising, he wrote to his family:
"You know this is our last chance for our dignity. To change that regime that has lusted the past thirty years... Go down to the streets and revolt. Bring you food, bring your clothes, your water, masks. If they want war, we want peace. We want salaam. And I will practice proper restraint until the end, to regain my nation's dignity."
- Joanna Soltan, curator at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts
- Ahmed Abdulla, co-curator of "Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo" and SMFA alum
This segment aired on March 7, 2012.
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