By Marie-Jeanne Berger
“I see long streams, which are heavy, strong, dark and constant … I find them abstract, and rather incomprehensible, flowing recklessly most of the times. I call them ‘currents.’ And I see finer streams. They are shorter in length and momentary in nature, but they come in greater numbers and they carry music, warmth and color.
“I find myself collecting evidence of their existence.
“Through the patterns of paths and paces, both tangible and ethereal, the light streams interrupt the heavy currents, diverting them, forcing them into alternative courses or a change of pace; or they simply mark locations that offer pause and a comfort zone.”
This is the artist’s statement of Rana ElNemr, whose exhibition “Giza Threads” is currently showing at Townhouse Gallery.
ElNemr’s new show might cause a bit of confusion. Certainly, most art connoisseurs did not expect to be confronting this kind of philosophical word dance. And, most probably, the idea of ‘streams’ and ‘currents’ will not click with readers of this statement, remaining amorphous metaphors in the personal lexicon of the artist; an eternal, kooky mystery.
But ElNemr’s work is stronger than this. The series of anti-art photographs — compositions that fail to adhere to traditional rules about space, focus and subject matter — are rooted in a serious attempt to follow some unusual rules that the artist sets for herself.
Talking to Daily News Egypt, ElNemr visualized the photographic process.
“I am in Giza, I feel that I’m pushed by flows that are strong, and I’m stopped by interruptions. They are like interventions of these flows that have happened. The pictures are attempts at interrupting. I don’t know what causes them.”
These interruptions lead to images that are both as lovely and as bare as real life. The photographs that are the results of such interventions, or as she calls them, “shadows of the feeling [of the intervention], or something else, something more than the shadow,” are clearly a candid, frank record of her traversings of Giza, recorded in the most unaffected way.
But this kind of image-making involves a very particular process, affecting both the subject matter of the photographs and their manifestation on paper. The results of this process are rooted in two elements: in ElNemr’s emotional appreciation of the world around her, and in the performance-based Fluxus movement of the 60s, where artists like Cage and Kaprow decided to re-conceptualize art and aesthetics as reflections of moments and happenings (Like Cage’s 4’33,” 3 movements of silence).
Walking around the gallery, the images can appear a bit disjointed. One shows a glass pyramid up close, another, an unmarked wall that has had the graffiti white-washed off of it in distinct place. Another, two men are watched from above as they greet each other, it looks as though they may have been kissing. The similarity between these images is the clear methodology that ElNemr adopts in taking the images, a conflusion of her own personal foibles and an ideological framework to hang them on.
She says: “There are certain factors for me while I take pictures.” Two, specifically. “The first is the amount of feeling intervention has caused for me, the second is how highly the intervention relates to me and the amount of possibility of the moment depicted in the intervention.”
ElNemr attempts to quantify and qualify her emotional responses to stimuli with rules that guide her artistic practice, something reminiscent of the Fluxus movement.
The influence of Fluxus is further evidenced by the style of the pictures themselves, where the medium of photography regresses to its earliest origins. Most of the bells and whistles of modern photographs are consciously stripped from the image-making process. It takes a few seconds to register what the focus of the photograph is — what the singular detail was that captivated ElNemr.
Images are not zoomed into, or all that composed. By the lack of manicuring, ElNemr emphasizes that the importance of the images are not actually themselves, but the moment, or glimpse of a feeling, that she tries to record. What the viewer is left with is subtlety that seems to illustrate in a whisper, rather than a shout, the singularly beautiful moments so often missed by the inattentive observer.
One image shows an average scene in Cairo: brown, worn out concrete high-density apartment blocks in twilight. The light is an opaque periwinkle, smudging away the details of the neighborhood into shades of brown. The dusty street stands empty save for a few abandoned tuk-tuks and their drivers; figures in the distance, standing separate and apart from each other.
Imminent darkness dominates the scene, yet the eye is drawn to one building in particular. In the building across from the viewer, a series of glowing lights catch your attention. These bald, rainbow-colored light bulbs on each of the balconies altogether light up the building like a grim Christmas tree. With the second building standing perpendicular to this, we see two of these glowing grids of color. Nevertheless, the image of lights emanating from the darkness is enigmatic.
This is the magic of ElNemr’s work. Her grace and warmth invites the viewer to take part in the curiosity and optimism that inspires it. And having the luxury of this perspective leaves the viewer feeling refreshed. These almost Soviet-era-looking buildings that we become so used to seeing in Cairo are all of a sudden infused with a new whimsy and imagination, subtle and heavy and beautiful, like the rest of this old City.
Townhouse Gallery: 10 El Nabarawy St., Downtown, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2576 8086. “Giza Threads” closes on March 21.