“Hello, I am an asshole narcissistic”, it is written by a secret admirer on a poster hung on the wall of Roof Top Gallery in Cairo, which hosted the audio-visual installation “Local” by Mohamed Alaa. On the monitors installed on the terrace the images of the artist and himself younger remain fixed on the screen with a background of kitsch Arabic music that not even a belly dancer would be able to dance. It is the same image printed on the poster of the event. Mohamed Alaa is not at all disappointed; indeed he is amused when he shows the photo with the autograph of fan. “That’s what I’m looking for: interaction”, undoubtedly we cannot say the contrary, after all what is the audiovisual art if not creating an immediate emotion? Provoke a reaction in the viewer? How many of us have been in front of several installations in museums and would have expressed the same opinion of the anonymous Egyptian? This is also artistic democracy. The audiovisual installations something target an emotion that our soul often refuses because in contrary of our views and our morals; they stir into the soul something that leaves displaced, lost, excited or consternated. If in 19th century, the impressionists’ and expressions’ works had shaken the conscience of a rarefied middle class, which was accustomed too much to stereotypes of the past, we can say that role is now been playing by visual arts.
Mohamed Alaa may seems introverted, but perhaps his attitude is an artistic approach to have an external point of view to understand better what goes on around him, as often happens to filmmakers too. However, he talks with pleasure about his work and his projects when he gets more confident. For this reason, during the festival AfrocineCasoriaContemporary Art Museum (CAM) of Naples has been dubbed “Lo scugnizzo”, he participated with one of his works (Under Siege) for a African artist group exhibition. Nickname could have not been more appropriate: his gaze is sharply and far-away, curly and rebellious hair, almost Rasta, a capturing crafty smile that seems that he might catch everything under your nose without you notice it. Mohamed Alaa observe around, meanwhile his brain is grinding out ideas, always on the move, as the art he represents.
He was inSaudi Arabiato shoot a video when the revolution broke out inEgypt. He was struggling with a Saudi sheik, working for the secret services, who was monitoring the observance of Islamic customs in the Macca’s land. The policeman ordered him to stop shooting and filed a report to the competent authority for offense of public decency, in few words, he has been charged because he had three buttons of his shirt loosing and was wearing a leather and silver bracelet! Among the impossibility of filming his new project and the news which were arriving fromTahrir Squareby the TV, at the end prevailed the desire to return home. On February 1st went straight from the airport to the heart ofCairo. He participated with his coetaneous and friends, he filmed video and internalized emotions that the square was being soaking. Mohamed does not speak so much of those moments, as he has being preserving an idea for a future installation.
Less than a month by the resignation of Mubarak gave a performance in Tahrir called “Work in the streets”. He brought a blank parchment 50 meters long, and he lyed on the square where everyone could write their opinions and ideas about revolution: the elderly, children, men, women, Egyptians, foreigners, religious and atheists … who called for a better future, who just wrote his/her name, who blamed the corruption and old regime, who drew only … and who was angry and teared the roll of paper because someone else had the courage to leave his shoe’s imprint above the inscription Allah. This demonstrator angrily accused Alaa to be a Christian Coptic, but his family is one hundred percent Muslim, and he continues to laugh while he is telling me the story. Not that he agreed, the goal was the ability to express themselves, artistically to interact in the revolution, developing into the participants a critical analysis to future democratic developments and on what had happened in the recent months. This was Alaa’s goal, and he considered seeing his idea-work being destroyed by some religious intolerant was a way to interact, though in the end he had no other remedy that acting, repairing the parchment with tape!
Another installation he made has been a day before the referendum of March 18th. He paved the center of the Cairo with graffiti using a frame in Facebook format written in Arabic, “I do not respect any beard to mislead and incite the citizens to say yes to the constitution which fell successfully due to the Revolution I propose and I expect every Egyptian to express his opinion freely … Like Comment”. He explains his idea. “Given that not all people have internet access here inEgypt, I thought to share with them what they could not see in social networks online, so I created a tangible “Facebook” onCairo’s streets and squares. The writing was directed mainly against the Muslim Brotherhood, but also against the Coptic Church: the first because they were in favour of the reforms but without a real change in the constitution, and to push mistakenly the citizens stating that a negative vote would abolish the values of Sharia law in Egypt; the latter only to be in opposition with the former. We had a revolution because everyone could express him/herself freely”
“But there must be political parties or movements that mobilize and sensitize the masses”
“The Muslim Brotherhood put pressure on people to vote YES intimating voters with the prospective thatEgyptcould have become a country like theUnited States, but it was not true. Many are ignorant inEgypt, and following without thinking, it is not fair to take advantage of the genuine faith of poor people”. He does not say it in an altered tone, but with an analysis of those who know the reality and the land in which they live in. He shows me a picture of one of its frames with a splash of yellow colour. “Do you want to know what was written under it?” I nod. “The biggest gay of the revolution”. He laughs. “This is also interaction! I had even responded back looking for a debate, sad that someone covered the writing with that paint”
He works in his studio at Helwan, away from the centre. The windows do not have the glass and let the dust through in, which drops in every atelier’s angle; often Mohamed reuses it for his installations or audiovisual performances. “Why the dust? Has it something to do withEgypt?”
“For me, dust is related to the sky, the time and the death, they are inseparable concepts that I express in my work”. For instance, “The Pendulum 1” is a clear representation of his concept of space and time, where the use of dust aging his swinging face in front of the camera; the work was shown at the New Museum of Modern Art in New York in August 2008 along with other Middle East artists for a group representation proposed by the Egyptian Townhouse Gallery. It is a clear representation of usage of dust by Alaa, his work “Under Siege”, where a scared ego is locked behind the barrier of a dusty glass, which was like a shield, a wall, a thin layer that protects the alienation of solitude and time; a millimetric cape building a barrier, which does not allow individual and personality development. This description in somehow reflects the Mubarak regime: oppression, obedience, police harassment in exchange for security, poverty and hunger. “Under Siege” was exhibited at the Townhouse Cairo in 2009, then at Magmart Naples Festival in CAM museum and, through the Cervantes Institute, was screened at the museum Reina Sofia ofMadrid.
In his atelier, Alaa shot a multimedia project called “In the box”, which consists of three videos: “In the box”, “Live in the experimental box sound and performance” and “Piece of bread”. The first was hosted by CAM of Naples in 2009. The second was a live performance still in Naples. The third landed at the Humboldt Moving Picture Show of Chicago in 2010, at the exhibition of international artists Emerging Human Rights in Verona, organized by Spazio Tempo Arte, and once again at Magmart of Naples in 2011. Not bad for a twenty-six narcissistic assholewho has been denied by the same project by the Egyptian committee to Saloon el Shabeb (Salon of young artists under 30). In the image of “Piece of Bread” we can see the artist with a sculptor’s hammer beating the wall with ferocity. In different phases of the operation draws the image of a snowman around the hole. The scene is shot and simultaneously recorded from both side: behind and in front from the other room. When the hole is large enough to pass, Alaa tries to cross it, but he remains suspended halfway between the two rooms in a huge effort to go through. As we look the video, he speaks up: “This is the Egyptian revolution, we were able to break the wall, to overthrow the system, we voted in a referendum and began the legal process against the old regime, but we are still there, at the top, paused, unbalanced, and yet unable to proceed, to go beyond the wall”. The image of the video ends like this, with him suspended between two rooms, between two worlds, two realities that still do not belong to him.
Mohamed Alaa, in his small prospective, as others filmmakers and audiovisual artists like him, represents the new generation of artists in Egypt and throughout Africa. For his age is certainly still at the beginning, but in some ways follows the tendency traced by many documentary filmmakers of the African continent such as Saad Nadim, Salah al Tohami, El Attiat Abnoudi, Abdel Kader Al Telmessani, Segun Olusola, Paulin Vieyra Soumanou … but taking advantage of the modern technologies and audiovisual art which he seems to have familiarity like an already experienced artist.