Sometimes you find cool stuff by accident. Often, it’s stuff that you don’t know much of or care about. So it was in my expedition to the “Colleges of Fenway” area, which I was crossing through to get to the new-and-improved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (more on that in a coming post).
Cutting through to the Fens from Huntington Avenue on my bicycle, I rode by the Museum of Fine Arts, noting that, though it was a weekday, they were bumping. The “parking lot full” sign greeted me as I rode by. On the other side of the road, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), there was a banner on the building that read “Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo.” I know very little about modern Egypt, less about modern art, and (embarrassingly) virtually nothing about the revolution that recently took place in that country. Regardless, I was out to check out new things, and I was frankly not doing so well, resorting to updated versions of things I’d already seen. This was an exhibit in a place I’d never been, and better yet, it appeared to be free. I decided to bite.
I locked up on a spiral bike rack I imagined was made in house. It was attractive, but not terribly utilitarian: The spiral was too short for my 53 cm Surly, so I had to sort of lean it diagonally to get my lock to connect. Walking through the mini-courtyard toward the school entrance, I was met by about two-dozen art students, all rebelling by dressing almost identically. About half of them were smoking. I brushed off my self-righteous inclination to indignantly question how people were still doing that.
Security’s pretty lax at SMFA. Or maybe I just looked like another art student. The guard at the door wouldn’t have questioned me, but I approached him and asked where “this Egypt exhibit” was.
He pointed it out, and then refused my offer to sign in somewhere. I took a right and entered a few rooms full of mostly-digital media.
There are, as the subtitle of the exhibit states, six Egyptian artists featured. To the layman (read: me), it was not clear that there was much of a different between the pieces. The majority were video projections of Egyptians on walls, or video on plasma screens. Immediately at the entrance, there was an Egyptian man yelling on a screen about being Egyptian. I went to the room on the right first, where I was face-to-face with a classroom full of Egyptian women (there were a few men) projected on a wall, repeating “My mind is” in Egyptian Arabic, followed by a series of poetic non sequiturs.
This was accompanied by another projection on a standing screen of a man scribbling on a chalkboard, and a poster of what appeared to be a subway map on a human’s head, along with the title of artist Shady El Noshokaty’s room-sized contribution, “Stammer.”
The next sub-room ran an old movie on one screen and an impromptu speech on another right next to it. The video for the speech was being run in negative. The words between the speech and the film, according to the subtitles, seemed to coincide. This was called “The Echo,” by Moataz Nasr.
On the main wall, there were three projections of men in flowing robes, one blue, one red, and one green, spinning continuously. The provided literature explained that this is a traditional Egyptian dance that allows Sufis to reach a “higher state of consciousness which raises them above difference and conflict into a perfect state of peace and balance.” It looked to me like it would make you very dizzy.
There were a few exhibits that didn’t really grab me. The one that did was the last one I looked at. Comprised of footage by Ahmed Basiony running in place in an isolation chamber while digitally recording his movements juxtaposed with footage he shot of the Revolution at Tahrir Square, this three projector installation drops you in the chaos of the Revolution in a very real, very visceral way. I watched the loops in full, watching a man in a weird white suit that looked like that of a low-budget space movie from the 1950s interspliced with a revolution that truly was televised. I felt the fury of a repressed Egyptian people standing there, and as I watched them chanting for freedom, I noticed the surrounding of Tahrir Square – A Hardee’s fast food restaurant, clothing stores, regular retail – and I thought how that could be Union Square, or Harvard Square, or Piccadilly Circus. I saw people with signs and people with cameras, taking footage just like the stuff I was watching, and I felt a bit of pride for these people, who are still fighting an uphill battle, but have at least set things in motion for themselves.
It was disheartening to read in the exhibit pamphlet that Basiony, who did the kind of installation art I liked the most, did not do the final editing. Ahmed Basiony, apparently a leading artist in Egypt, was killed in Tahrir Square. He very literally died for the art I was casually consuming.
This stumbling into an exhibit was completely accidental. I did not seek it out, and would frequently delete an email or pass by a flyer about a like-event. This was also one of the most powerful, effective, and beautiful exhibits I’ve seen in recent memory. While I’m by no means an artist or an art critic, I do believe that art is made for people at large, and not knowing what the words are for the kinds of art we’re looking at or what movements they’re in does not exclude us from scrutinizing it in all it’s forms. I don’t know whether this exhibit was “good art” (though it’s affiliation with the MFA infers it). I do know that it was incredibly effective. It was interesting and beautiful, and it made me relate to the core with people I very rarely find common ground with or think about.
As I left, I waved to the insecurity guard, and made my way out side. Kids still lined the space, as college kids should, and a girl smoking a cigarette looked up at me and smiled. She nodded at me like she knew me or wanted to, and then took a drag of her cigarette. I smiled, and acknowledged for a moment that smoking did look sexy and cool sometimes.
Unlocking my bike, I had a brief conversation with another student about my Willie Stargell pillbox Pirates hat. He offered me a cigarette, which I declined. On a rather grey, cold day, the sun broke out and the sun was on my face as I rode off. I couldn’t help but feel clichéd American emotions of pride and happiness that I didn’t need to fight off a dictator or wait for the tear gas to clear to enjoy the fleeting moments of sunlight. I regret that Ahmed Basiony will never get to have that moment in the country he helped to inspire, if only a little.
Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo will be at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through March 17, 2012. The exhibit is located in the Mrs. E. Ross Anderson Auditorium and Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, 230 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 02115
Experience Rankings 1-5
New Experience: 4.5: I'd been in the SMFA once before, but never spent any time in the galleries. I'd had no previous experience with any of the artists.
Can Others Do It: 4: This exhibit does have a shelf-life, but for people in town between now and March 17, this is totally doable. Note: the exhibits are closed on Sundays.
Enjoyable: 4: This exhibit is heavy. It was really interesting and enjoyable, but it also has some feel-bad residual baggage. It is not abstract. You're dealing with the really real world. It's pretty amazing, but it's also very sad.