The post-Eid wedding season is upon us, one wedding after the next. And yet recently in the Egyptian marriage-obsessed society, the concept of a gawwaz el-salonat (arranged marriages) has been drawing increasing criticism and resentment. Do you really know the person you vow to spend your life with? What does marriage mean and by which criteria do people choose to get married in Egypt today?
The Sawy Culture Center s “Bride & Groom caricature exhibition, featuring the works of artists Moustafa Salem and Makhlouf, seems to be asking the viewer these questions, while offering a loaded portrayal of marriage in Egyptian society.
Salem and Makhlouf s images attempt to poke fun at the institution through drawings of obviously mismatched pairings, captions about the underlying motives for marriage, and images of frustrated sexuality. Looking through the works, I found myself simultaneously amused and horrified.
The exhibit is organized in a rather simple, unimaginative display. Makhlouf s 12 color prints are half-heartedly stapled to one wall, while 24 photocopies of Salem s black and white cartoons are stapled to the other. No descriptive placards line the walls nor are there translations of Salem s ameyya (colloquial Arabic) captions under his work.
Makhlouf s color pieces are entertaining; bright colors and absurdly unmatched partners stand next to one another on their wedding day. Inverting notions of gender and culture, in one work the woman wears the tuxedo and the man wears the dress; in another, a bleach-blonde woman wears a burka.
His figures are often grotesquely unattractive, expressions of wanton lust mark their faces, forcing the viewer to think about how much one really knows the person they are about to marry and to examine which factors influence decisions to enter into the union. Makhlouf s use of color, outlandish costumes, and facial expressions is intriguing and comical.
Salem s cartoons are not nearly as engaging. Excessively vulgar, almost verging on pornography, he too asks the audience to think about marriage, sometimes relying on the puns in the captions to accomplish his goals, sometimes pointing directly towards the absurdity of certain facets of marriage.
In one frame, a woman tells another “What? He s a good guy! He rents an apartment! Although the captions might make you chuckle, the works themselves, in general, are not that appealing. The mostly trite observations on marriage are not redeemed by interesting drawings. In fact, the overly voluptuous figures of women made me wonder if the thematic captions were just an excuse to spend time drawing certain elements of the female anatomy.
The goal of caricature has always been to ludicrously exaggerate, but with a purpose. Salem s figures look too similar, down to their very over-the-top form.
The curation of the exhibit does not help alleviate the amateurish nature of the work featured. Stapling the photocopied cartoons on the wall makes them appear more primitive and less affecting. The empty space in the middle of the room is not utilized, making the exhibit appear as if it were an after-thought, reinforcing the crudeness of the display.
The Egyptian marriage crisis is a frequent topic of conversation, and in a society obsessed with marriage, both caricaturists have chosen a very timely and rich topic to tackle. In a mildly entertaining way, both Salem and Makhlouf do succeed in channeling the subject. However, mainly since their work is poorly exhibited, the exhibition does not seem to take itself seriously and it’s somehow difficult to regard the work as a significant social commentary or value any artistry it could contain. Was I walking through some kind of inverted-pornographic funhouse or an art exhibit? I wasn t sure.
“Bride & Groom is showing at the Sawy Culture Center, Word Hall. Tel: (02) 2736 8881. Open daily from 6-9 pm.