Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo

By: Evan Smith

Grossman Gallery, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston • Boston, MA • www.smfa.edu/exhibitions • Through March 17, 2012

Ahmed Basiony, 30 Days of Running in the Place (still), 2011. Three-channel video installation.

Histories of Now is a timely video show, which opened on the one-year anniversary of the events in Tahrir Square. This volatile, complex year in the Arab world, underserved in the American media, deserves the nuanced examination provided here.

The show has variety—video is approached as a tool for performance, social documentary, traditional filmmaking, and visual essay. At times, Histories of Now feels a little unbalanced, if only because the more modest inclusions have difficulty shining next to some very powerful and complex works. Foremost among these is Shady El Noshokaty’s Stammer, easily the most ambitious, thoughtful, and challenging project in the show.

Approaching video, performance, and installation holistically, Noshokaty has created a loose constellation of works that explore the relationship between the body and mind, the limits of language, and the constant push-pull between the personal and social selves. A project conceived in seven parts, Stammer is shown here as two videos projections. In one, a classroom of predominantly female students recites in unison a series of cryptic statements—fragments of memories—each prefaced with the phrase “My mind is . . .” In another, the artist stands at a blackboard, conducting a performative lecture reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s famous actions, using drawing and spoken texts as means to convey (or fail to convey) the artist’s intentions, desires, memories, and sense of self and other. The work is the sum of its parts that act with and against each other to create a kind of tip-of-the-tongue disorientation that is both rewarding and frustrating. This is not an easily digestible work, and I find myself coming back to it again and again.

Noshokaty also helped finish 30 Days of Running in the Place, a three-channel video installation of footage shot by Ahmed Basiony, a close friend who was killed by snipers while filming the action in Tahrir Square. Basiony’s footage from the 2011 demonstrations is combined with documentation of a 2010 performance, in which the artist ran in place for an hour every day. The original performance takes on new meaning when juxtaposed with the artist’s on-the-ground footage of the square at night, with thousands of faces and bodies moving and speaking together, illuminated in the pale green of night vision surveillance. The sound of the piece is overwhelming, carrying into the other galleries, resonating with each work.
—Evan Smith

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