Nermine Hammam’s voluble cry of freedom

6 Min Read

By Mariam Hamdy

I didn’t used to be a fan of Nermine Hammam’s earlier work, but recently I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s time to pay it its dues. To those who have not yet been to her exhibit at Safar Khan Gallery in Zamalek, rush to it now.

Hammam has always been a controversial artist, with her last show “Metanoia” being heavily censored and aggressively attacked. Tackling the dire conditions of Egyptian psychiatric hospitals and their inmates, the show was difficult to digest. Despite the frighteningly beautiful images it presented, its subject matter — society’s forgotten people — hit too many nerves, exposing the plight of those who are neatly packed away for the sake of our personal comfort.

“Anachrony”, the current exhibit, is much calmer in tone, boasting serene compositions of dream-like landscapes interrupted by what appear to be long, elegant brushstrokes of deep red, fuchsia and white.

As this is the case with almost all of Hammam’s work, the palette is toned down and seemingly washed with a fog of greenish grey tint, present here ever so lightly. The stroke of bright color is in fact a human figure draped in fabric, tangled around the body and blowing its remaining lengths in the wind. The background is the Fayoum desert, and the figures are dancer Karima Mansour and the artist’s daughter.

Nothing indicates that the figures are female, yet it appears instinctive that they are. Perhaps it’s the stereotype behind the use of tones of red fabric, but I personally felt a strain in the movement that mirrored my own and not, for example, my husband’s. There is an innate femininity in the works that can be felt but not seen.

The sprawling desert in the background demonstrates Hammam’s excellent eye for composition. Hammam tackles her work like a film director, providing her viewers with an experience rather than an angle. The beauty of the fabric flying in the wind is accentuated by how it clings to the figure of the women it drapes, suffocating rather than shielding her.

Upon that recognition, the movements, perceived only seconds ago as elegant modern dance-inspired poses, swiftly emerge as the struggling motions of bodies fighting to free themselves from a gorgeous, flowing straitjacket.

The work is reminiscent of the sprawling images by Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum, whose pieces always tread a very thin line between the picturesque and the depressing. Hammam’s figures are flaying their arms and swinging their bodies in a struggle for freedom, but all we see is gorgeous fabric formations against a breathtakingly calm backdrop.

In some paintings, the figures sit still in one corner of the piece, with the fabric lazily stretched to its length by the wind across the sand. Whether this signifies capitulation or preparation for the next fight remains a mystery, yet what is palpable is Hammam’s ability to move us swiftly from sheer will to despair as we move across each piece.

Hammam is usually known to employ the graphic design approach to layering in all her work, where each piece is never just one image but rather a concoction of layers from various photographs and angles.

“Anachrony” presents this approach in a sparing manner; instead, the artist piles up on messages. In the simplest and most delicate of imagery, Hammam manages to relay the feeling of being choked in a vast landscape of water, sand and air. It’s as though one is in heaven, but due to the thinnest of veils, is unable to breathe its air, see its sky or bask in its freedom.

The figures, the women, in the pieces are dying, but doing so beautifully.

Without wishing Hammam to experience another grueling experience of censorship, but I find some of the pieces to be her most provocative to date; which goes to show what kind of censorship and understanding of the arts we have so far.

Her commentary on the state that we are in — ‘we’ being men or women, masquerading as free citizens but in fact weighed down by draconian laws, traditions and leaders — is as elegant as it is hard-hitting.

Like a much-needed slap on the face when one is in a deep slumber and late to get up, “Anachrony” brings home unequivocally what we’re up against. A definitive must see.

“Anachrony” is showing until April 18. Safar Khan Gallery: 6 Brazil St., Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2735 3314, 012 2312 7002.

7002.The beauty of the fabric flying in the wind is heavily juxtaposed by how it clings to the women it drapes, suffocating rather than shielding. 

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