Inauguration of the AUC Tahrir Cultural Center

Manifesting the unseen

New work by Huda Lufti and Sherin Guirguis explores the poetics of revolution and repression at a pair of exhibitions marking the inauguration of the Tahrir Cultural Center at the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo. By Mahmoud Saber and Jacob Wirtschafter

As President Sisi moves to further consolidate his power with constitutional amendments allowing him to extend his term in office until 2034, the opening of these new galleries adjacent to Tahrir Square – ostensibly to commemorate the American University of Cairoʹs centenary – also raises questions about activism and marginalisation in Egyptian public and artistic life.

"My art has become a way of both articulating the unsayable and manifesting the unseen," Lufti said. Huda Lufti’s exhibition – "When Dreams Call for Silence" – documents in painting, mixed and multimedia pieces the shifting relationship between public and private concerns as a curtain is drawn over what the 71-year-old artist calls ʹthe euphoric historical momentʹ of the January 2011 uprising that unfolded eight years ago just a stoneʹs throw from the gallery.

"I have been grappling with the silence; trying to make work that explores that space in our lives," said Lufti. Her recourse to almost empty interior landscapes reflects the enforced withdrawal of artists from Egypt’s public arena.

"I consider this work a very political – even if the subjects are interior, my inspiration is the interwar surrealist movement in Europe which was in response to the horror of war," adds Lutfi, who back in 2011 embraced the public creativity of subversive graffiti, rhyming slogans and spontaneous installations constructed in Tahrir Square. "It’s not about denial, but about protecting oneself," says the artist, as she points to a mixed media painting called "Resting".

Between materiality and meditation

In lavender, grey, and black tones, "Resting" like the bulk of the other pieces in the exhibit, alternates between materiality and meditation, in a room that is simultaneously "local" and "everywhere" with the focal subjects – a high backed boudoir chair and a frilly, yet spartan single bulb chandelier immediately recognisable to Egyptian viewers as standard Cairene furnishings.

"Resting" by Huda Lutfi (photo: Tahrir Culture Center)
"I consider this work a very political – even if the subjects are interior, my inspiration is the interwar surrealist movement in Europe which was in response to the horror of war," adds Lutfi, who back in 2011 embraced the public creativity of subversive graffiti, rhyming slogans and spontaneous installations constructed in Tahrir Square. "It’s not about denial, but about protecting oneself," says the artist

A paper cut out of a woman’s face lies on the cushion with the artist asking us to consider the absence or presence of the resting woman in her dreamlike domestic setting.

By contrast, "Crows" is one of the few paintings in Luftiʹs current exhibition clearly set outdoors – in this case an Islamic cemetery – where two sets of army boots and three black birds sit in the foreground of a memorial marker. The piece poses questions about presence and power against the backdrop of the finality of death.

Itʹs a softer, subtler riff on Lufti’s "Bidayaat" (soldiersʹ boots), her first video art piece made in 2012.

That piece of digital animation which shows troops marching in unison set to a techno track alluded to contrasting compassion for the poor, often peasant, late teens conscripted into Egypt’s armed forces and concern about what this mass of military might can do to civil society.

Lufti’s academic background is in cultural studies, which she taught at AUC for twenty-five years: indeed, an awareness of the procession of history imbues her work both literally and figuratively.

Like "Bidayaat", Lufti’s new animation showing at the Tahrir gallery which shares the title piece of the show "When Dreams Call for Silence" portrays a procession. In this case we see barefoot robed men marching to the music of Vivaldi’s Filiae maestae Jerusalem (ʹmourning girls of Jerusalemʹ), but in contrast, there’s a touch of optimism in a vision of men waking with a peaceful mindful purpose.

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