by Rosalyn D`MelloSep 16, 2022
A discomfort crawls through the skin, eyes, mucous membrane – of the body, the microcosms and beings of individuals who find it difficult to process art and time amidst political turmoil. As the tear gas continues to act upon sensory receptors, it also infiltrates houses and boundaries that demarcate the private and the public, leading to a blurring of inaction, and consequentially - the provocation for a response. In the face of events that ricocheted during the 2011 Egyptian revolution following the demand for overthrowing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, many artists, in their studios or on the roads, fathomed the meaning of occupying time at a moment when it became hard to produce art. Reacting to such a crises that hijacked lives, an anxiety was birthed - for friends and acquaintances participating in demonstrations as the incessant scrolling on social media serves as an appendage to the lodging of a fear: the fear of losing bodies and meanings of freedom.
Why are artistic responses delayed in times of upheaval? What forms, shapes, encounters contemporary art takes when production seems nearly impossible? When do these responses transform into expressions for an audience?
Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled, unable to produce works in the wake of the aforementioned events, encountered Italian orientalist artist Antonio Scognamiglio’s painting, Painter on a Study Trip, at the Alexandria Museum of Fine Arts. Viewed from behind, the painting features an artist seated on a mule and a help carrying the easel. A provocative influence for Khaled to look at the meaning of art, question its role and the time when one turns away from it, the painting evoked an addressal of doubts that often whirl through the minds and bodies of people in times of conflict. After coming back from Beirut in 2014, Khaled – afresh with newer perspectives on visual art – put up an art exhibition by the same title at the Gypsum Gallery in Cairo. In this, he too, like Scognamiglio, lead visitors back to the beauty of Antoniadis Garden – a destination for generation of artists in Egypt to seek inspiration from nature, a destination that now shelters lovers on its abandoned grounds. The exhibition served as a critical point for him to transform his training in fine art education and classical painting into more conceptual works where forms, shapes, colours and traditions crumble into novel sites for investigating culture, gender and sexuality. At the same time, it served as a point for him to reflect on the downhill of the Egyptian Revolution in 2014 and respond to the echoes of turmoil that continue to ripple through within the houses of Egyptian folks.
In Khaled’s practice, this conflict between the home and the world finds further prominence through the structure of house museums. In a conversation with STIR, Khaled states, “The house museum is a memorial, a trophy for someone who is no longer there. It is also a moment of transformation for any house that in future turns into the form of exhibition. House museum, which is usually for, by and of the white male privileged folks finds a dominance in culture which negates the unusual suspects – women, queer folks and people from marginalised communities.” In responding to and creating a space for the latter, Khaled has been working with the framework of house museums with projects such as Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (2017), an imagined fictional space based on the 2001 event in Egypt where 52 men were arrested on grounds of being at a gay party.
House museum, Khaled states, is “heavily curated. A house museum comes with captions, audio guided tours, time slots. For me, it feels like a funeral where you have to follow a schedule. There is a strong sense of delay and absence for the subject is usually someone who has been exiled, prisoned or has died. But this also depends on the western and non-western context. In the non-western context, house museums are abstracted and lend more from imagination because the lacks are multiple in its relation with the institution of art.” What makes Khaled’s evocation of these absences in house museum stand out is the presence of sexuality that are heavily edited and rarely find a space in these structures.
Further, an imagination of the alternate history comes to the forefront in Khaled’s works and anonymity becomes a visible part of his practice. This, for him, has primarily emerged from belonging to a generation that entered from a pre-internet to a post-internet era. Meeting people online that are incognito, unnamed, unidentified, Khaled began processing different works where he would collect chats and create fantasies which negotiate with absences while maintaining a critical distance between the self and the subject. “The distance that I try to establish requires a lot of work before one starts to process any production. The format of house museum is a great structure for it demands that distance and rigour. Its only in a third person that the house becomes a museum,” shares Khaled.
In Khaled’s current work, titled Fantasies on a Found Phone, Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It, on view till September 25, 2022 at The Mosaic Rooms in London, the visual artist curates a series of installations to erect an architecture for the imagined dwelling of the owner of a lost phone and with it his queerness. The phone that is assumed to be found in a public toilet room extends from an influence that emerges from Max Klinger’s work Fantasies on a Found Glove, Dedicated to the Lady Who Lost it (1878). This intertextuality that is incorporated in Khaled’s work becomes a method, owing to the release of a block upon encountering a work by Klinger which provokes an artistic intervention that is linked to the personal. Klinger’s works that smartly celebrated anxieties and longing for a woman’s glove which he found in a skating ring led him to have sleepless nights. His fantastical drawings became an obsession for Khaled to enter into queering this narrative, and developing Fantasies on a Found Phone, Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It over a period of one year.
The exhibition summons a domestic dwelling of this absent figure by delving into his persona which is at once erotic and troubled. On the question of imagining the absent man, Khaled shares, “I remember Sontag talking about dreams. Dreaming isn’t about sleeping, seeing things and waking up. It is about telling someone or oneself, and reimagining while saying – this is the dream. This intriguing metaphor is something that also extends me to work on staging someone who is not there. Giving hints of elements within a narrative, helped me imagine the man better. And of course, friends, lovers, relatives, experiences all become come to catalyse this absent figure.”
Within the immersive exhibition, the first art installation is titled Calm. Draped velvet and voile curtains with a disproportionately long bed made from leather and wood, adorned with bondage straps to conjure the sexual life of multiple absences. With this, are wall murals that are influenced by Klinger’s series A Glove and a soundscape that invites the visitor to a state of slumber. The second installation titled For Those Who Can Not Sleep borrows from Hugh Hefner’s iconic 1960s office-bed that became a symbol of heterosexual masculinity within microcosms of the home space. A rotating leather bed perpetually in motion is complemented with a soundtrack of discordant melodies that play on loop.
The phone, much like the person who owned it, is never found in the exhibition. “The phone is the most personal device and I wanted to hide the contents of it for in reality it is hard to know what happens in that private interaction between oneself and the phone.” Though hints for finding its location are spread through the wallpaper, it is only on the bookshelf that one finds a publication (in collaboration with designer Marwan Kaabour) which becomes an archive for the life of the absent figure. Erotic, intimate, baroque images intertwined with the experiences of scrolling and swiping usage of social media and dating applications find a place in this publication alongside which is a photograph of a bedroom with handwritten words that state: “I can’t sleep without you anymore.”
'Fantasies on a Found Phone, Dedicated to the Man Who Lost it', the first UK solo exhibition by Mahmoud Khaled, is on view at The Mosaic Rooms until September 25, 2022.