Creative caravan journeys through the Western DesertBy Joseph Badtke-Berkow
The stone faces in the limestone cliffs that rise from the sands of the Western Desert like giant decorated facades of an unfinished temple, have surely never seen the likes of the modern tech-wizardry about to confront them.
Egyptian artist Wael Shawky built a screen atop a mountain of sand on which he projected an animation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem spiraling like a carousel.
American Joy Episalla transformed a wall of stone into a massive wall of ivy filled with chirping birds in her video instillation For the Birds.
Lara Baladi recreated a bubble bath in Eden amidst a sea of sand dunes, complete with Eve wrapped in cling wrap and pink cape.
This is just a sampling of dozens of works presented by a group of 17 artists that arrived in Egypt at the beginning of December for a weeklong journey through a vast, tiny, corner of Egypt s share of the Sahara.
Fenenin El-Rahhal , or Nomadic Artists , was initiated by Cairo-based Lebanese-Egyptian-French artist Lara Baladi and conceived as the first of a series of similar meetings at locations across the African continent bringing creators working in, connected to or simply interested in the region, together.
The concept is to bring such artists – and their art – to unique and often overlooked settings, to give lectures, present existing work, engage in debate and embark on new projects, artworks and friendships.
For Baladi, the beautiful and stark landscapes of the Western Desert south of Bahariya Oasis offered a compelling space that is both African and Middle Eastern, in and out, labeled but too often misunderstood.
In short, it is a microcosm of the entire region.
The desert has a rich but largely forgotten history as the crossroads of intellectual and cultural exchange between the Middle East and Africa, she says.
It is on one hand a no man s land, neither here nor there but in between. And then again, in that sense it seems to me everyone s land.
The Fenenin El-Rahhal project is in its early stages. Baladi and the participants insist on a focus, rare in an art world obsessed with product and value, that puts a greater importance on process than results. This may lend the whole endeavor a somewhat unfinished feel apparent at a presentation of the early results of the journey at theTownhouse Gallery on Thursday, but one essential idea underlying Fenenin El-Rahhal is its open-endedness.
Numerous locations are being considered for the next journey through a different landscape somewhere on the continent, a journey that will offer those who took the first trip and newcomers an opportunity to join together again and pick up where they left off.
One can only hope that one result of the first Fenenin El-Rahhal will be its continuance, and that perhaps it will manage to play some small part in an effort to produce greater awareness of the beauty, complexity and promise of a region rife with maladies and commonly misunderstood.
But then perhaps that is in itself another essential idea behind Fenenin El-Rahhal. As one member of the group said during the Thursday presentation, I don t understand it, but I like it.
If only more of us could leave it at that.
Joseph Badtke-Berkow is a writer and journalist based in Tokyo, Japan and a participating member of Fenenin El-Rahhal. For more information visit www.nomadicartists.com.