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Hala Elkoussy
Myths & Legends Room – The Mural

“Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” Roland Barthes

The myths and legends referred to by Hala Elkoussy’s Myths & Legends Room – The Mural are not those of a distant past but those of today. They are photographic tales based on historical facts, rumors, religious beliefs, traditions and other myths and legends, conjuring up narratives through which reality shimmers through: the reality of life in Cairo, the city that lies at the base of almost all of Elkoussy’s works. In the vast Mural, measuring three by nine meters, their presence is excessive, albeit as if an archival completeness is endeavored. That makes sense given the fact that the Mural suggests an imaginary museum room, the Myths & Legends Room, which in its turn is an unexpected itinerant wing in the Museum of the City of Cairo (which non-existence was in fact the trigger for this project). The only way to get a grip on it, and admire its versatility through the apparently abundance of detail, is to slowly unravel the piece by scrutinizing the whole and some of its elements, and putting it into contexts, not only art-historically but also in the framework of some of Elkoussy’s other work and, naturally, of life in Cairo.

The Mural consists of 48 separate photographs of 75 × 75cm. Their black frames are assembled as to form a large rectangular grid that is superimposed on the basic compositional structure of the scenery. Three horizontal levels arrange the composition. The upper level is characterized by its connection to the sky, featuring a city skyline, Cairo University Dome, Mokattam Hill, the ethereal apparition of Virgin Mary and more. The lower level is dominated by water, referring of course to the Nile, and a pile of debris that offers a floor to the giant black figure who dominates and balances the composition. On an iconographic level one can discern a wall or a room that is open to the sky, with scores of panels depicting all kinds of scenes floating in it. Some motifs appear in between or independent of the these panels, such as the seven virgins holding a mirror in their hands ingeniously reflecting other parts of the mural; the transitory fires and smoke clouds to the left, the colorful banners to the top or the pile of plastic bottles to the bottom, and so on.

Artistically this large mural exploits the ideas of the photo montage as it has become ubiquitous through the advertisement industry. Elkoussy uses the montage principle on a massive and colorful scale, bringing together custom-staged photographs as well as street photography, old photographs, original drawings, illustrations and computer-generated graphics and design. Such a compilation, and manipulation, of material can be seen in details such as, for example, the stamp in the upper left corner of the Mural, based on a commemorative stamp from 1961. Here it is subtly manipulated to show the Cairo Tower – sporting an acrobat on its top – as the pointed middle finger of a clenched fist on a pedestal. Another example slightly lower is the pious man Saii Al Bahr from the tenth century, believed to have cried to make the Nile flow, depicted here crying painted tears with behind him the street sign in Cairo that bears his name. The mural also uses custom made cartoon drawings by cartoonist Walid Taher, such as those of a demonstration crowd in the center and street children to the right side of that.

For a better understanding of the Mural’s creative background, first a reference has to be made to commemorative wall paintings such as those in the National Military Museum in Cairo, depicting various war scenes from Egypt’s history, the heroism of the military and its popular support. The Mural hints at this reference through the representation of a scene from the October War Panorama which celebrates the 1973 victory over Israel. In the Military Museum some of those paintings are hierarchically centered on the main protagonist, the military leader. In Elkoussy’s Mural this central figure, the Black Soldier, who sports a prosthetic cow leg and a fishing net as his sole weapon, is rather an anti-hero, inspired by a short story by the Egyptian writer Youssef Idris dealing with state brutality in the pre-revolution era.

The mythical and the legendary in the Mural are not only specific events. They are responses from within the highly complex entity that is the city: responses to the overarching imposed state control and its means of self-propaganda that penetrates the media and the educational system, resulting in political apathy, and instead constituting an ever-changing and constantly self-stabilizing structure through the interests and belief systems of millions of pressurized individual inhabitants.
Indeed, Cairo poses much pressure on its people. Being the largest city on both the African continent and the Middle East is an outcome of its incessant growth since the second half of the 20th century to accommodate the flow migrants from the countryside, looking for better job prospects. This manifests itself through the density of ‘informal housing’ on the outskirts of the city; partially unfinished housing units, built without permits and often lacking sanitation and legal access to electricity. Such dwellings are depicted in the upper left corner of the Mural, where they conform reality obstruct a romantic view of the great pyramids of Gizeh (and instead reveal a flipped Pizza Hut sign). A less visible element that fuels informal housing is the upward social mobility force, the end point of which are – hypothetically – the numerous gated communities of relatively recent developed for, and by, Cairo’s wealthy. The mobility impulse contains the metropolis in the pressure cooker and accelerates the modernisation of Cairo as it tries to connect to western standards of consumerism.

It is this social pressure and the subsequently stressed housing situation that is the focus of Elkoussy’s earlier work Peripheral Stories (2005). Here large photographic cityscapes of suburban Cairo, presenting informal housing blocks and residential developments on the city outskirts such as Mokattam, as well as an enormous villa for one of the more prosperous inhabitants, are combined with a 28 minute video film that evokes the constantly present sense of mobility, both physically as it manifests itself on the congested streets of Cairo, as socially. The fragmented stories that emerge in these ‘Peripheral Stories’ are re-imagined and recomposed from interviews, advertisement slogans, commercials, gossip and newspaper clippings, interpreted by a voice over which equally evokes the sense of urge of the city’s social craving – as well as a sense of its recent past and traditions.

Since Peripheral Stories the visualization of a vibrant social process in the metropolis has undergone many formal developments, but up and to Myths and Legends Room – which can be described as a film of which each scene is frozen into a photograph, or even better, a storyboard – Elkoussy’s work keeps on capturing a communicative memory. A communicative memory is characterized by its preservation of simple everyday details that are passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories over a time period that does not exceed 80 years, after which it transforms into cultural memory. That’s to say, when a specific story survives more than three generations it enters the sphere of culture, but the condensation of communicative memory in the Mural is an active intervention in this slow selection process: it transforms today’s communicative memory directly into a cultural one by turning it into an art object (which in its turn even evokes a complete museum department). There’s something slightly contradictory to such an enterprise. To describe this paradox one could turn to Max Rodenbeck, who in his outstanding monograph on Egypt’s capital, describes its ‘split between high and low voices’. Rodenbeck situates this split firstly within Arabic language itself, where one can clearly discern between the classical, Arabic of script and the colloquial Arabic of speech. One universal but hardly spoken, the other customized to the vernacular dialects of regions and cities. And this split also manifests itself on the level of daily news by the mass media, which since the revolution of 1952 are kept firmly in the hands of the government, versus that what characterizes day-to-day conversation in the streets, such as a lot of healthy cynicism.
One feels that communicative memory is that what is understood by a certain community, having only meaning within that community. An outsider might see that the precise meaning of a certain story is restricted to a particular group, even without understanding its content. And so the stories contained by Mural, as they come from below, won’t have much meaning to the average viewer or otherwise only to those from Cairo. But at least one can grasp its intention.

Likely, an outsider needs a key or some guide to describe what happens where in the Mural, just to give an idea of the richness of sources of the work and its intentions. For example, one scene in the lower right corner shows a re-enactment of a found photograph from the early 80s of a levitation act, which could have been part of the celebration of a saints’ birthday which involved street festivals. This type of errant small performances are endangered because of their perception of being in opposition to the spirit of true Islam in a wave of religious fundamentalist thinking that currently influents the Cairo government. To the far left a group of young pregnant women are posing happily in front of a backdrop showing the tree of Matariya also known as the tree of the Virgin Mary. Women desiring to conceive commonly visit the shrines of saints and the Tree of the Virgin to ask for blessing. This practice contradicts a large sign on the tree that reads the slogan of a birth management campaign: “small family equals better life”. In Egypt as elsewhere in the world, economic hardship is what pushes people to use children as a way of alleviating poverty and thus adding to the rapidly increasing population figures. To the right of this panel, hidden between some drawings of household products that were produced by the military factories after the revolution, one can discern a scene of a young woman tortured by policemen based on much-debated video footage posted on Youtube. Further to the middle a collage of black-and-white newspaper photographs refer to the great fire of Cairo of January 1952 which preceded the military coup of July that year. During this arson a suspicious number of foreign interests were targeted, forcing those to close their premises and move elsewhere, as one can read from signs on the shop windows.

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot in this Mural. It can be analyzed through various thematic strata such as ‘Folklore and ritual’, the references of which are used both as a source of cultural pride and a sign of backwardness; ‘Tales of the super-natural’ which are persistent no matter how Cairo develops its modernity; ‘Historical events between myth and fact’, characterized by the depiction of events of which official records are unknown or have simply remained unreleased by the government; ‘The voice of the State’, the official version here usually also confronted with an unofficial version based on handed-down stories and rumours, and ‘Everyday life’ which exerts the legendary power that fuels the unofficial histories.

Such a classification immediately clarifies its overwhelming if not obsessive archival nature. This aspect, the immersing of the viewer with a sense of institutional completeness and authority, brings archival practices of other artists in mind. Walid Raad for example, who with the help of the 1996 established Arab Image Foundation recovers all sorts of documents concerning the contemporary history of Lebanon within an artistic practice in The Atlas Group project. The project especially digs into the social complexities of Lebanon with regard to its civil war. Another one to be mentioned is Bleeding Through by cultural critic Norman Klein, a dvd-rom project with photographic and filmic documentation, interviews, gossip, press clippings combined with a short novel; all of it centred on a fictitious murder story in what used to be the densely populated and very lively centre of Los Angeles. That historical area became mythified through its appeal to the Hollywood film industry and mystified over the course of major urban redevelopments from the 1960s onwards. Like Elkoussy’s mural, Klein’s project is a way of memorizing a place in history not through the figures and facts handed down from those in power, but through reviving dozens of small stories. Both Raad and Klein rely on documentary materials but Elkoussy mostly stages her photographs to present memory on a physical, visual level in order to get them stick in the mind. For all these artists the archival impulse serves to make historical information present and order it, albeit retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.

The Myths and Legends Room specifically hints at an alternative itinerary for, or detournement of, an archive in the form of a museum collection. Elkoussy already practised such an itinerary for her commission for the Sharjah Biennial in 2009, entitled on red nails, palm trees and other icons take 2. This installation is best described as a cabinet room with walls that are from top to bottom covered with framed photographs, some found but mostly made, some already existent, others created for the occasion, together with moving images, in an “attempt to bring together an imaginary space that stands in for the flux in the visual, cultural profile of the city. In addition to over 300 images there is a video element that highlights certain activities that are on the verge of extinction.” Like the Mural this was done without much hierarchy, resembling the stacked Egyptian Museum in Cairo rather than the heroic dramaturgy of the Military Museum, albeit on a much smaller, intimate scale and digging into past that is so recent that it still is alive as part of a communicative memory.

Yet, the Myths and Legends Room is not without ideological content. If not criticizing, it is certainly dealing with certain states of affairs that sum up Cairo. The Myths and Legends Room itself deals with the situation of museum and school education that turns into state propaganda if modern history is at stake. And even more so, offers an archive as response to the absence of one, since the state of records and documents of recent history, at least since 1952, remains unclear since these are not public. But iconographically it also deals with vanishing traditions either because of the unstoppable modernisation processes or the religious conservatism that has succeeded the cosmopolitanism of the bygone era. A city where the distribution of wealth is enormously uneven, hosting thousands of street children and slums on the one hand, and incredible rich and gated communities on the other. A city seen by its working class as “wicked and wanton and possessed by others”, almost irrelevant except when it intrudes in the guise of bureaucrats and the police. But above all, the Mural pays homage to a city which has been and still is the heart of contemporary culture in the Arab world, dominant in the fields of literature, film, television and the visual arts, by both absorbing and radiating this cultural wealth.

Myths and Legends Room: The Mural comes out of a profound interest into the deeper layers of a complex urban community, and by lack of a reliable record of its recent history, presents its own myth as the matter of fact, turning an insider’s experience into a magnificent outsider’s view.

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