For the past year and a half newsreaders of the world have been caught up in the Middle Eastern saga that has toppled dictators, made heroes of ordinary people and now may have morphed into a brutal conflict that could destabilise the whole region. Cairo Year One, by visual artist Nermine Hammam based in the city of the same name, is an exhibition in two parts, one which unveils the common humanity of the individuals caught up in this revolution, and a second that draws a rough, violent curtain over it.
The first, Upekkha, whisks Egyptian soldiers away from their revolutionary backdrop to pastoral scenes and encourages viewers to consider them as young men first, gun lords second. Sometimes it works. In “Dreamland”, the soldier leans over his gun. Behind him, flowers tumble from a trellis and a rustic housewife leans over the fence. The soldier’s eyes gaze into the distance – whether he is squinting at a checkpoint or immersed in this dream remains tantalisingly ambivalent.
In other pictures, the khaki-hatted soldiers seem to have been transported to a new battlefield, an inadvertent reminder of how beautiful landscapes enjoy no exemptions from war.
The second section of the exhibition, Unfolding, uses a similar technique of juxtaposing figures from 2011 with art, but this time the result is an expose of the brutality of the long revolution in Tahrir Square. “Codes of my kin” uses one of the most startling images from the Square, a nameless woman stripped of her black robe to expose a bright blue bra. In Hammam’s version, the police holding her down are shielded by the muddy foliage, leaving the viewer’s eye to be pulled back again and again to her indignity.
Indeed, this collection demands attention in a way that the dreaming soldiers of Upekha did not – in another work, “Escalate”, a woman stretches her arms out helplessly as riot police drag her away into a moon-filled sky.
At a time when there is a risk becoming jaded about Middle Eastern protest scenes, Hammam’s technique of juxtaposition succeeds in bringing out the violence to the fore without compromising on the complexity of forces behind it .
Whether the images will have the same impact in five years’ time is not so clear. But for now, as the internet is submered in live blogs and breathless tweets, it’s a much-needed opportunity to step back and think.
Cairo Year One is at the Moscaic Rooms until August 24, Tues-Sat 11am-6pm, free.
Image courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects