Nermine Hammam’s exhibition, Metanoia, currently showing at the Townhouse Gallery is a first of its kind.
For three months, Hammam gained unprecedented access to Egyptian psychiatric hospitals and photographed their inmates. The result is a beautiful, frightening glimpse of a forgotten people, isolated by the stigma of mental illness, imprisoned by the draconian laws which have kept some of them there without reason — sometimes for decades.
A sense of stopped time, of stillness, is a leitmotif running throughout Metanoia. Patients are static, literally and metaphorically. Lying in bed, sitting on the ground, hunched against a wall, looking out of the window there is a sense of time having stopped, an impression added to by Hammam’s use of color and the aged appearance she creates.
It is as if time has been stolen from some of these patients, particularly when we recall that for many years Egyptian law allowed individuals without any mental illness to be sectioned by relatives who used psychiatric hospitals as a means of settling disputes over inheritance, or of disposing of troublesome sons and daughters.
Hammam describes her experience of showing one patient who has been in the mental hospital for 40 years a photograph of herself.
“She said, ‘That’s not me. I’m not that old.’ I realized that she hasn’t seen herself since 1960-something,” Hammam said. “There are no mirrors in mental hospitals.”
In a soundtrack loop accompanying Metanoia we hear patients’ voices, a piano, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz saying, “Horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared, they are truly enemies.”
Hammam emphasizes that “[Metanoia’s purpose] is to show the conditions of a segment of society who we choose to turn a blind eye to. We don’t want to see them. So we ignore them. I wanted to show that.”
Some of the responses Metanoia has received demonstrate this.
“I got a lot of hate mail because they think I put this in the Townhouse gallery for the tourists to come and see but the strange thing is they didn’t say, ‘OK, my God, Is this our condition? Let’s fix it.’”
In addition, the government body that gave Hammam permission to take the photos refused to let her exhibit roughly 20 images.
Revealing other worlds is a theme which has informed Hammam’s previous exhibitions, particularly her last work, Escaton, a playful dive into the world of bathers on Egypt’s beaches, where social conservatism and sexual norms are temporarily submerged below the cover of the waves.
“The world has a double. The world is not what it seems to be,” the Metanoia soundtrack says, and in Hammam’s images we see Egyptian society’s double; ugly, ill, rejected and locked away.
Unlike her previous exhibitions where she used layers upon layers of images, Hammam has manipulated Metanoia’s photographs very little. This, she says, was deliberate.
“I think the whole project in my mind is to show the plight of these people. If I start manipulating these images people [won’t] know where the real reality of it starts.
“I wanted to use the medium in its rawest form. I changed a bit of the colors and I put a layer of old 35 mm scratched film that I had from previous work. I tried to keep the medium in itself as pure as possible.”
Hammam suggests that there is a “sense of documentation” to photography which other media lack. “It falls into a very sensitive, grey area almost. Is it a documentary? Is it art?
Despite the conditions in the hospitals Hammam photographed, the confinement and the desperation, she did find some hope. “There are certain images where the [subject’s] look is very nice because it’s defiant — they didn’t break their souls.”