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A rolling Tank Girl roils Cairo

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A rolling Tank Girl roils Cairo

مُساهمة من طرف Admin في السبت مارس 31, 2012 6:55 am

26 March 2012. By Samuel Albert. Nadine Hammam knows something about tank girls. She was one of the iconic young women who scrambled onto a tank in Tahrir Square in January 2011, during the 18-day revolt that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The protesters welcomed the soldiers. They thought the army was coming to their defence against Mubarak's murderous police and his civilian thugs hurling cinderblocks and rocks down on the square from the safety of surrounding rooftops and a motorway overpass. With hopes born of equal parts of illusion and desperation, many demonstrators chanted, "The army and the people are one hand." Yet the military failed to stop the rooftop assaults by surrounding and searching the buildings and overpass, or arresting the killers standing in plain sight. Instead soldiers stood by and watched.

Since Mubarak's resignation, the army has taken over the job of killing, torturing and imprisoning Egyptian youth and others who defy the ruling power in the streets. Those who risked and sacrificed so much for what they hoped would be a revolution have seen, instead, the spectre of an unholy, if uneasy and unpredictable, alignment between the US, the Muslim Brotherhood, remnants of the old regime and the military junta.

Hammam, an Egyptian artist born in 1974, says she'd like to take back her gesture of a year ago. "We were naïve to think the army was there to protect us." But in revisiting that moment in her current solo show at the Gallery Misr in Zamalek, across the Nile from Tahrir Square, she is not just looking back at lost illusions. The image of a young woman riding a tank that is the show's centrepiece reflects more than the bitter frustration of a revolt that got rid of a hated head of state but not the state structure he sat on and the economic and political relationships it represents. Her work also announces a determination to continue rebelling against much that is unacceptable in Egyptian society and the world. At a time when some people are saying that the Tahrir youth went too far and brought on themselves the backlash they now face, this piece is unrepentant.

Tank Girl, a large painting installation, has a room to itself in this show. The pink outlined figure of a pony-tailed young woman, done in smooth acrylic paint and shiny foil that suggests the muscles and blood vessels under her skin, sits astride the turret of a pink tank. The only detail in this silhouette portrait is her bright red bra. All Egyptians would understand this is a reference to – and joyous transformation of – the so-called "girl in the blue bra", the young woman stripped of her abaya and headscarf by military police who beat her with long batons and stomped on her chest in a Tahrir square protest against military rule last December.

This tank girl is not a humiliated victim. She has not lost her "honour" – her nakedness proclaims it. She and the stencilled tank are the same size; she not only rides it but has conquered it. From its cannon between her legs spurts a stream of rats, running down the side of the painting and the wall beneath, and fleeing across the gallery floor.

Hamman has offered different explanations of the significance of the rats, once saying that the military are rats and another time that the rats represent the country's panicked billionaires whom Mubarak and now the military serve and protect.

The artist wrote a statement on this piece: "You can beat us, strip us, gas us and virginity-test us, but in the end we will prevail."

The show also includes a series of paintings called Heartless, five silhouettes of women made of silver foil that speak to the way the reduction of women to their body parts impedes the human relationships they long for. These pieces are pretty in form, in a customary "feminine" style (in the choice of colours and the jewel trimmings highlighting the women's desirability and value), and violent in their content.

While Egyptian art has long included nude paintings of women by men, the situation has changed lately. Religiously-sanctioned "temporary" and secret "second" wives have been added to the possibilities offered rich men alongside Western-style mistresses. Females covered from head to toe are for sale on Cairo's streets. While women are still supposed to be sexual playthings (and breeders) in private, in public – and now often in the arts – they must cover the hair that assaults men with sinful thoughts. The bodies for which they are prized are considered dangerous to public order.

There is a growing, widely-felt danger that whatever some people consider Islamic standards are going to be enforced on all, by law, intimidation or simply the silent acceptance of custom and tradition. A photographer documenting a traditional neighbourhood's history found that he could not make portraits of women for public display – his show includes pictures of local women in decades past but not today. Adel Imam, one of Arab cinema's most famous actors, has been convicted in absentia and sentenced to three months hard labour for “offending Islam” in his film and stage roles. The late Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mafouz is reviled as simply a purveyor of pornography.

In part this is because the morality associated with the West and Mubarak's regime has become so utterly exposed and hated, but what's being offered, supposedly in opposition, is also reactionary. It's not a minor fact that Persepolis, an autobiographical animated film recounting the violent collision between a rebellious Iranian girl from a secular family and the Islamic Republic, can no longer be shown in Egypt or Tunisia, banned not by law or decree, or even, ostensibly, because of its political content, as in Iran, but by social pressure because it is considered "blasphemous". Under the cover of not "offending" religious sensibilities, many people who seek social change confuse people's right to practice their religion with religion's demand for the "right" to define society.

On occasion this has provoked women artists and other women in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries to portray themselves naked as a scream of protest. When the blogger and political activist Alias El-Mahdy posted a photo of her naked self online last October, she was denounced as if she had committed the worst crime imaginable, an evil much of the country could unite against, as if a woman taking off her own clothes was far more dangerous to the prevailing society than what soldiers have been doing to women in public and private. Women in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel, posted group portraits of themselves naked and holding banners in solidarity with her.

It tells us something about the current cowardice among some Egyptian intellectuals that Hammam's show has been attacked for dealing with sex and nudity, not just from the predictable religious authorities but also from some cynical critics identified with global art culture and Western publications. They accuse her of choosing her topics because "sex sells" and her work is selling very well right now, along with setting off a big ruckus in the media.

But as the other work in this exhibition underlines, this is more than topical art, and the opposite of porn, soft-core or otherwise. The flatness and anonymity of her female figures – ironically achieved only by many layers of paint – references the way that women are flattened by the dominant role played by the men in their lives from birth to death, and robbed of their identity as they are turned into fungible commodities. Even in her more "sexual" two previous gallery shows in Cairo, Aikl Aish (Making a Living, 2008) and I'm for Sale (2010), her portrayals of women as they have been rendered by the male gaze are more disquieting than erotic. They challenge the prevailing relations between men and women by revealing the power relations and commodity exchange that shape them.

Hammam's work is closely linked to its context. Her exhibition is taking place in a city where the tanks and armoured cars have now become a common sight downtown. It opened on 8 March, International Women's Day, as hundreds of women marched on parliament. Their official demands were confined to admitting more women to the committee writing a new constitution (in which a main debate is preserving the unbearable status quo for women or instituting Sharia law) and a parliament that has been little but a fig leaf for the military and its increasing subservience to the US. But video footage of the marchers, covered and uncovered alike, and interviews, seem to reveal a deeper and potentially explosive dissatisfaction.

Shortly after, on 11 March, an army court acquitted a military doctor accused of performing "virginity tests" on seven women arrested when the army broke up a Tahrir sit-in a year ago. Few people expected any other outcome from a trial of the military by the military (lawyers for the civilian plaintiffs were not allowed to take part). The military has concluded that a civilian court ruling that the army must cease these deliberately degrading practices cannot be applied because now it has been "proven" that they never happened in the first place!

A military spokesman reaffirmed that the army will continue to regard women taking part in political activity as suspected prostitutes and "who knows, even spies". To hide its obsequiousness to the US, the military often labels its critics Israeli agents. This is especially convincing to people who consider that the essence of the Palestinian question is Israel versus Islam, so that anyone considered anti-Islamic must be pro-Israel.

Yet at the same time Hammam's work is not narrowly topical at all. It can have universal meaning, long after today's events. In part, this is because it strains against a fatally false dichotomy that has become all too widely accepted: either you are a "real Egyptian" (and therefore worship all the backward institutions and traditions that weigh down on the people, and in fact have often been bolstered by the country's occupiers and oppressors, including the US today), or you are subservient to the fashions and values prevailing in the West and don't care for the Egyptian masses.

One of the striking features of Hammam's work, as textured intellectually as it is technically, is that she links the particular situation of women in Egypt with women's universal status as lesser beings. If anything, in addition to deliberately riling up backward forces in her own country, her work is especially critical of Western culture, where women's worth is even more clearly determined by their value as commodities, often even in their own eyes.

Artists and the art public may be a very small segment of Egyptian society (as some critics take malign pleasure in pointing out), but the issues Hammam addresses touch all women and are basic to the question of what kind of society Egypt will be. What has been identified as an upsurge among Egyptian artists a year after Mubarak's downfall may be happening now because they were too busy in the streets to work in their studios until today's relative lull. It is also, very likely, an explosion of expression in the field of art of sentiments that have been deeply frustrated and, right now, are having difficulty finding a political outlet.

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