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"These are not Sunday painters" - Sophie von Olfers on MACHT KUNST
Make Art - The KunstHalle invites all Berlin artists to take part in a 24-hour exhibition
75 International Highlights in 2013
Maha Maamoun - Against the touristic eye
Everything is Illuminated: An Interview with Shahzia Sikander
Carlfriedrich Claus - Speaking Utopia's Language
The "Artist of the Year," Imran Qureshi, in an interview


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Maha Maamoun
Against the touristic eye

Starting in April, the exhibition “Stadt in Sicht” / “City in View” at the Museum Ostwall in Dortmund will present around 300 works from the Deutsche Bank Collection that demonstrate how international artists see urban space and living worlds. Among the works on view are the current photographic works of Maha Maamoun, whose work occupies an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. Brigitte Werneburg on one of Egypt’s most important woman artists.

The eight minutes of film that Maha Maamoun posted a month ago on the Internet video platform Vimeo seem very familiar. Although the scenes from Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years (2012) were filmed in the spring of 2011 in Cairo, Egypt, it feels as though we’ve seen something similar here in Germany more than twenty years ago: on January 15, 1990, in the headquarters of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in Berlin’s Normannenstraße, when demonstrators stormed the building and suddenly found themselves in the provisions section and happened upon a treasure trove of western delicacies.

The telltale relationship between the images from the two different regime changes shows that ultimately, beyond the many differences, the people of North Africa and Central Europe live in the same cultural space. The divide between the two sets of images is due to the advances in technology that have taken place during that time. A quarter of a century ago, the people storming the building didn’t have the video cameras, even more importantly the cell phone cameras that are standard fare in Egypt today. The images from back then were largely supplied by professional news media, while today’s pictures come directly from the people involved in the event.

Nowadays, people not only take the pictures themselves, but they disseminate them as well. All of the images in Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years were found online in the Internet portal YouTube, in existence since 2005. This made it possible for Maha Maamoun to contact their makers and ask for their permission to use the material, which in this case portrays not the shredded documents and torture instruments, but the western delicacies of the Egyptian secret police, so to speak: luxury limousines, wooden-paneled suites with marble bathrooms, and antiques.

The night visitors of the film’s title are the agents of the regime that burst into people’s homes in the middle of the night to arrest and haul away its critics, who were now, in an ironic twist of history, breaking into the headquarters of their persecutors at night. Maamoun condensed the material in short editing sequences in which she orchestrates a virtual tour of the state security building. Night Visitor is especially remarkable because the compilation is less a documentation of the storming of the headquarters than a gripping testimony to the emotions and excitement of the protagonists themselves.

There is a logic to Maha Maamoun making the public images available to everyone again in the Internet. The artist, born in 1972, works mainly with photography and video; she co-founded the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) in Cairo in 2004. The independent initiative addresses a wide public and sees its mission as creating a critical awareness of photography’s essential role in society and the media. It offers courses, workshops, and technical equipment to support media work regarding local and regional circumstances. The CIC’s activities in the field of contemporary art include exhibitions, residency programs, publications, and training.

Maha Maamoun was born in California and came to Cairo at the age of five, where she has been living ever since. She studied economics here and received her masters in Middle Eastern history from the American University, where she worked for several years as the director of a photo lab in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication. She acquired the additional experience necessary to set up an initiative as ambitious as the CIC during her time as project manager in the Cairo office of the Swiss Cultural Foundation Pro Helvetia. One can easily imagine that the artist and the CIC collective experienced Mubarak’s fall with great intensity.

During this time, Maha Maamoun writes an email that she publishes in the Internet: “I’m not a smooth writer… but in general, positions, attitudes and temperaments are changing here with every headline… it’s definitely taking a huge amount of time away from work. Most of our time is spent following the news in every form. Personally, I feel that previous drives in my work have been halted or changed. The result is a need to be quiet and research and find one’s (new) center of gravity.”

Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years is the result of her immersion in current events and their news coverage, which she has made into an autonomous work of art. At the same time, however, she also picked up on threads from her earlier work. The continued title The Night of Counting the Years quotes the title of a famous Egyptian film from 1969, also known as The Mummy. Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam, the film tells the true story of an Upper Egyptian clan that in 1881 - Egypt had just come under British influence - found a treasure trove of old mummies in the grave DB320 near the village of Kurna, which it sold illegally on the black market. Following a conflict within the clan, one of its members decided to help the police and the state antiquities department to search for the lost items.

For Shadi Abdel Salam, the history of the Ancient Egyptian cultural heritage that was sold off instead of being treasured represents the Egyptians’ search and struggle for their own national identity. In 2009, Maha Maamoun investigated these questions of history, state, and nation in her film Domestic Tourism II. In an overall length of 62 minutes, she has edited scenes from Egyptian cinema in the form of a temporal pyramid extending from today to the 1950s and back to the present day again. “In these scenes,” explains Maamoun, “the pyramids appear as the background. I was interested in seeing how and when this symbol of Egypt and its past is used as a backdrop in scenes in Egyptian films… it also brings focus to the politicizing of the pyramids as symbol of Egypt by different political regimes—the changing political meanings attached to the pyramids throughout time.”

The Egyptian art public is also interested in this aspect, as the film sequences evoke myriad emotions and memories of personal, intimate, and political nature. On the other hand, the international art public has hardly any familiarity with the long, rich history of Egyptian cinema, the oldest film industry of the Middle East. The artist discovered that non-Egyptians are surprised by the wealth of diversity in the film production and imagery that are so clearly different from those it knows of the Arab world through western media. And many of the viewers are also amazed to discover how near the great pyramids are to Cairo: “which was one of the raisons d’etre of this film: how the pyramids are part of the urban city fabric and how they are intertwined in narratives of the city, whether in cinema or in reality.”

At the same time, the title of the film montage Domestic Tourism also applies to the western or international art public. As with Night Visitor, many scenes seem strangely familiar. It’s not only the North African art public - westerners also revisit their media and social history. Because if the pyramids weren’t there, one would think that some of these scenes were taken from an Italian or French film of the 1950s and 1960s or American cinema of the 1970s - and one would be right about the time, which is evident in the look of the cars and the actresses’ heavy eyeliner.

The era between the 1950s and the 1970s, that is the heyday of the middle class and its culture of consumerism, nightlife, traveling, pursuing education - and the first signs of rebellion among the women. This middle class culture is an international phenomenon - a shared experience that would become history in Egypt a short time later, as the continuation of the montage into the present day makes clear. Workers’ strikes and revolts at the end of the 1960s point to enough explosive social potential, even if the explosion was only to occur in the 21st century.

In her films, it becomes clear how Maha Maamoun uses cinema’s function as a medium of representation in order to rewrite it as a medium of critical analysis. This also applies to the way she approaches the photographic image. The four-part series Domestic Tourism I, recently acquired by the Deutsche Bank Collection, was inspired by popular postcard motifs of the kind that can be found at tourist hotspots. It shows four motifs: ParkBeachCairo at Night, and Felluca, about which Maha Maamoun remarks that “these images are very distanced from the physical and political reality that most Egyptians live.” For this reason, she wanted to redesign these motifs in a way “that are more accessible to the regular person, but also that reflected more the emotional space of these public spaces.” Because, as Maamoun explains, it is “a more dense and complex emotional space, something that does not come across in the anemic tourist images that only aim to sanitize a space from any compromising emotional to physical elements that may deter tourism.”
As a result, Maha Maamoun digitally altered her material to make her own emotional reading of these locations clear. She made the streetlamps glow by daylight, and where lovers sit in the Park and in Cairo at Night, she exchanged the billboard motifs with enlarged images of Mubarak’s smile. Today, while life in Cairo is no longer overshadowed by Mubarak’s rule, the situation has not improved, as has become abundantly clear in recent days.

Neither Mursi’s present government nor the opposition has a concept for undertaking the urgently necessary political and social structural reforms. Egypt’s future is unclear. It is an absurdity similar to the UFOs that have landed on the playground in El-Sayyida Park, which Maha Maamoun photographed in another series of individual photographs. The images LandingTo the Future and Back, and El-Sayyida Park #01 and El-Sayyida Park #02, which were also purchased by Deutsche Bank, can be read as political-poetic metaphors for a Cairo that is both a megacity and an emotional state.

Here, too, the emotional space which the public space gives rise to in its respective form is the actual motif of the photograph. The UFO carousel quotes technological modernism as the utopian promise of a better and, in the case of the children, a more amusing life. This utopia, however, is evidently damaged. Whether the UFO still works and can take the children on an airborne journey is questionable. Maamoun’s series can be seen starting in April in the exhibition Stadt in Sicht at the Museum Ostwall in Dortmund. The show of over 300 works from the Deutsche Bank Collection investigates how international artists perceive urban space and living worlds and the contribution contemporary art makes in terms of the cities’ futures.

Maha Maamoun’s photographs of El-Sayyida Park show the fine line artists tread as they explore the phenomenon “city.” Although they are more clearly rooted in the genre of documentary photography than Domestic Tourism I, they represent an overlapping of apparent authenticity with photographic orchestration. It’s a matter of the “touristic eye,” the touristic image, which also disguises as documentary even though it orchestrates everyday life. Maha Maamoun also orchestrates and reworks everyday life, not to deliver an embellished version, but to critically question its image and in order to make the complexity of everyday life visually accessible.

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