August, 2008: Museum as Hub: Antikhana @ New Museum

August, 2008: Museum as Hub: Antikhana @ New Museum
Jan Rothuisen, The Lost Tourist of Cairo, Courtesy New Museum, New York
     Susan Hefuna, Vitrines of Afaf, Courtesy New Museum, New York

By Taha Ebrahimi

Through September 21, the New Museum’s fifth floor “Museum as Hub” curatorial experiment hosts the exhibit “Antikhana,” named after the neighborhood that surrounds Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art. “Museum as Hub” is an ongoing partnership with five international arts organizations, each given the chance to commission work for the New Museum’s fifth floor to address the topic of “neighborhood”. William Wells, director of Townhouse Gallery, guest curates the latest installment.

Cairo’s Antikhana neighborhood is a patchwork of history covered and uncovered—ruins such as Said Halim’s Palace lay alongside maze-like lanes housing the city’s conservative male workers, as well as popular places for artists to gather and for the Townhouse Gallery to exist. The neighborhood’s clashing characteristics mirror the various eras it has lived through, the different phases of style and politics constantly modified in the architecture and daily interactions of people. Four artists contribute to this small space: Susan Hefuna, Ayman Ramadan, Jan Rothuisen, and Tarek Zaki.

Upon exiting the elevators, the visitor is first faced with two of Hefuna’s Vitrines of Afaf, large glass display cases that resemble street-corner snack carts so common in the Middle East. Hefuna, who is both German and Egyptian, has always explored the notion of identity and location in her work and, in Vitrines of Afaf, she turns her lens to the women of Antikhana—the daughters, sisters, mothers and wives of the conservative workers who live in the neighborhood.

  Susan Hefuna, Vitrines of Afaf, courtesy New Museum, New York

Each glass cabinet holds a mish-mash of collected intimate objects belonging to these women, worn items drenched in meaning but otherwise inane. There is a careful row of spent lighters, a shiny tin drinking cup, plastic game coins, crushed fabric roses, a plastic Mickey Mouse ashtray, gaudy glittered cards, a collection of hair brushes. Perhaps most interesting of the objects are the handmade toys and dolls that appear in both vitrines, the obvious love in each of these individual acts of art. A miniature ox made of scrapped pieces of foam and burlap pulls a miniature cart made of clothespins and a disposable water-bottle. We see beautifying items (sample packets of shampoo) and items of beauty (a small porcelain baby carriage), the inside and outside of intimacy, just as a neighborhood has an inside and outside. In Vitrines, Hefuna marries the two, bringing the intimacy of the female household into the public eye of man’s street commerce.

The contrast of public and private is most exemplified in the Middle East’s perception of politics. Ayman Ramadan’s Koshary Min Zamman or “Koshary of the Past” depicts an idea of politics as mere games of illusion, quick fixes that do not nourish. “Koshary” is one of Cairo’s most popular and affordable dishes, a meal of pasta, rice, lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce favored by workers. The exhibit claims Ramadan himself is the grandson of the El Shafei brothers who once supplied koshary to the Egyptian troops and allied forces during WWII.

Along one wall, a stack of disposable, plastic koshary bowls are branded with fake logos devised by Ayman, while the adjacent wall is hung with portraits of political figures. In one portrait, U.S. President George W. Bush sits at a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the fake brand of koshary is on the table in front of them. In another portrait, George Bush, Sr., holds the koshary bowl up to an adoring crowd, cheering them on. In each portrait, the fake brand of koshary is a product placement, part of the endless commercial of politics, no line between acting and reality. Each photo opportunity for peace negotiations is temporary and short-lived, just as koshary itself does not keep one full forever.

An interesting addition to Antikhana is the inclusion of Jan Rothuizen’s work. Rothuizen is Dutch, but his work informs the perception of Westerners from Middle Eastern eyes. Poking fun at himself, the name of the series of photographs and drawings on exhibit are “The Lost Tourist of Cairo.” In one piece, he asks men to make a sculpture of his face and then answer a few questions on a type-written sheet of paper. The resulting photographs of the sculptures are presented beside blown-up images of the translated worksheet. On one, Rothuizen asks, “What kind of animal or car do I remind you of?” and the answer is “Hamster.” In another, he asks, “What do you think is typical Dutch/European of me?” and the response is, “to question yourself, discover yourself.” Indeed, the quest of discovery may sometimes seem a luxury to the average worker in Cairo.

 Susan Hefuna, Vitrines of Afaf, courtesy New Museum, New York

Most interesting of this series are large ink-drawn maps the artist sketched on various walks he took through the foreign neighborhood. The maps show far more than the physical location of places from a birds-eye view, but they also follow the emotional state of the walker himself, morphing into diary diagram. Detailed descriptions mark points on the map: “Fruit stall man (do not trust him)”, “Drunken man talks to me while groping his crotch, I walk away but he follows me, walk away again without meeting eyes”. Alongside the physical locations of mosques and Vodafone stores, malls and historical landmarks, we also learn where the artist received cell-phone calls from his girlfriend and was smacked with a dead rat by locals. Rothuizen then takes larger-than-life photographs of his sodden and stained jacket and Keds worn during the making of the maps and it becomes more apparent why locals might throw dead rats at him. He is, afterall, a lost tourist in Cairo, an outsider on the inside.

Lastly, Tarek Zaki contributes a piece to round out the show with an insider’s view of the inside, since Zaki is a local product of the Townhouse Gallery. Plaster and cement objects lay on a platform, what looks like the casting of an upside-down flower-pot, several wall outlets and small cones. The result is a carefully arranged series of gray objects, meaningless in their current visage but perhaps ripe with it in their original non-cast form. Indeed, objects seem to be the thread that runs through this show.

These pieces of work viewed next to each other illustrate a Cairo that is steeped in meaning yet forced to forge into new and foreign territory. This Cairo is aware of its tourists, as Rothuizen shows in his maps. This Cairo is eager to show the intimate side of its past, as the women of Vitrines of Afaf show us. This Cairo will use old symbols like koshary to tell new stories of politics. It will also use new mediums like foam and throwaway plastic bottles to tell old stories, days when an ox would pull a cart. Old and new, inside and outside, public and private—all uncontainable properties that simple, inconsequential objects ignite.

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Taha Ebrahimi

Taha Ebrahimi's award-winning writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Seattle Times, RIVET Magazine, Elan Magazine, and is forthcoming in "Love and Pomegranates: New Voices Celebrating Iran." She received her M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh where she also taught writing for three years. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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