Harem girls and belly dancers, pashas and pyramids, formulate some icons representing what has come to be known as orientalism. That is to say, the West has for some time reduced complex and varied societies into neat, romantic, stereotyped images.
What of the Occident however? Few images can be said to have been repeatedly reproduced by Eastern artists, but does this mean the Orient is without shared perceptions and collective impressions of the West?
The Occidentalism exhibition is an event drawing together 19 Egyptian artists of various ages and experiences with the West attempting to answer “How do you see the West?
Repeated themes have to do with military might, hegemony, and category. Ironically, a few artists felt a desire not to depict the Occident but to confront the Occident with their portrayals of the Orient.
Still, a range of disparate feelings and images are emitted through use of varied techniques and mediums – some aesthetically pleasing, some disturbing, but all thought provoking, so long as the placards are properly read.
In “Man in War artist Mohamed Abla paints enlarged black and white WWII postcards of handsome American soldiers kissing their sweethearts or leaving proud though sad parents, a small video of Hiroshima running between the pictures. What appears to be a mockery though, a condemnation, is not actually the intention.
Abla explains that though he at first did intent to be critical of “The Great War Machine, through his research he became more sympathetic towards the individual soldiers who are used and whose lives are lost while “unrelated to the politics of war.
For Abla, who has lived in Europe, the project was important to get away from simply criticizing the West and moving towards cultural exchange and dialogue.
One of the most intriguing works is Khaled Hafez’s video depicting the simultaneously competing ideologies of Saudi-style Islamism, American-style capitalism, and Soviet-style militarism. While he does not believe any are “workable in Egypt or other parts of the Middle East, he also says he cannot blame anyone if he does not start with home. “We imported it . nobody forced us to.
Despite the sinister implications in his work, Hafez’s words are much cheerier. “I don’t criticize, condemn, or complain, he says, also adding that there is always hope. “Hope is there when we look at the mirror, and look at our own problems, only to solve, not to regret.
Huda Lutfi also spreads the blame, showing that we are all victims of stereotype and attempting to “contest superimpositions which she says cause a lot of wars and conflicts.
Her enlarged feminized shisha tongs face each other bound by a common chain – one woman Eastern (indicated by her Pharaonic eyes), the other Western (tall, straight hair, sexualized). Behind them the mirrored wall is cracked, reflecting the opposite wall lettered with a mantra, “I am not who you think I am She is not who you think she is . Lutfi explains all women (and cultures, and races) are subjected to such simplifications and expectations and her depiction then, shows what unites East and West rather than separates, through that imposition imposed by both cultures.
Lutfi says what she admires about the exhibition is that “the viewer must think a lot to reach what is said indirectly.
Another highlight includes Lara Baladi’s large-scale collage of both Western and Eastern icons, together part of a generation’s collective and personal memory, inexplicably surrounded by lions, tigers, and elephants on a green pasture which is certainly not Egypt’s.
A more disturbing montage is Shady El Noshokaty’s video “Stammer which leaves the viewer in a dark corner with images of Americana (Superman, Bush, The Insider, Coke, Beavis and Butthead) projected all around the viewer on distorted walls, overlayed with similarly themed sound bites. The feeling, intended or otherwise, is one of powerlessness and suffocation.
Lebanese Curator Karim Francis, who has lived in different areas in the East and the West, says that the goal of the exhibition was always “to open dialogue.
He explains how things changed after the war in Lebanon this past summer. “Before we were talking more generally: the West is like this or like that. But after Israel invaded Lebanon I had a revolution in my office. After that point, he says, the conversations and artwork became more caustic.
Nicola Bellomo from the European Union delegation agrees with Francis. He says that grassroots cultural endeavors are needed to complement political and economic exchange, and the exhibition is just the first of five cultural projects the EU has commissioned.
The exhibition runs until May 23 at the Hotel Suisse, Downtown, with Music and Open Forums discussing the topic with the artists, held at the Greek Club. After its Egyptian launch, the exhibition will tour international cities. Please check www.occidentalism2007.com for schedule.