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A Facebook-Based Collector's Cave Of Nostalgia In Post-Revolution Egypt

Hany Rashed’s Facebook-based Baba Museum displays personal objects of dead people and plays with nostalgic idea of the past.

Baba Museum opened on May 10, 2013
Baba Museum opened on May 10, 2013
Sara Elkamel

CAIRO — As a child, artist Hany Rashed waited for his father, Salah, to come home so he could sit by him and watch as he unloaded strange objects from bulging pockets. What would he pull out today? Salah Rashed, who worked at Maspero, the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union, mined the streets, shops, and his day-to-day life for things — keys, locks, rosaries, stones — which he kept safe in a closet, declared off limits. When Salah died in 2002, his son inherited this seemingly useless treasure. He rushed to the closet and hungrily opened the plastic bags that indexed the objects. One bag held stamps, another watches, while multicolored buttons snuggled together in another. There had to be a reason why his father had left this collection behind, Rashed figured. It took him years to find out exactly what that reason was.

One of Rashed's most recent art projects is Baba Museum; a Facebook-housed museum dedicated to his father. It features photographs of his collection of objects, some with captions that offer dates or descriptions. In one photo, shot in a Maspero studio on December 12, 1976, Salah Rashed appears with legendary al-Ahly footballer Mahmoud El-Khatib. Another photo shows a thick burgundy necktie with red and white cubes. The page currently has more than 6,700 fans, up about 1,000 followers from just a couple of months ago.

Baba Museum emerges at a time when more and more artists whose work had been politically motivated around the January 25 revolution are turning to the past — both historical and personal — for subject matter and inspiration. "Nostalgia has returned, stronger than ever," Rashed tells me as we sit down for a conversation about the museum at Medrar For Contemporary Art's space in Garden City, Cairo. He is dressed, per usual, in a thin baggy t-shirt and jeans, frenzied brown curls framing his animated face. "This is the perfect time for a project like this."

Hany Rashed is one of Egypt's most prominent and prolific contemporary visual artists, widely exhibited in Cairo galleries and at art fairs and biennales abroad (his work is part of the Tate Modern collection). Though he is considered to be one of the artists who have engaged most fervently with the revolution, his employment of subversive subject matter was limited before 2011 — and not strictly by choice.

There had to be a reason why his father had left this collection behind.

Early on in his career, just as he turned 30, a state security officer came across a poster announcing an upcoming solo show by Rashed, titled Faces of Egypt, at the Mashrabia gallery. Because the portrait on the poster was of a policeman, the officer promptly invited Rashed over to his office for a cup of coffee. The uniformed man in the painting had his back turned to the viewer: "Are you implying that the policeman is turning his back on society?" the state security officer (or aspiring art critic?) had asked Rashed, without really waiting for an answer. He advised Rashed to opt for painting "belly dancers and pretty ladies," the artist told me in 2011, and confessed that he had complied, for fear of retaliation.

In 2013, a little over a decade after Rashed's father died, the artist decided to move his father's treasures objects out of the house and into his studio. Holding these objects in the comfort of his studio, he recalled how much his father liked to show off his collection to anyone who would come for a visit. It was at these moments, when he pulled out his arbitrary treasures and proudly exhibited them to friends and relatives, that Rashed saw a gallerist in his father, maybe even an artist. Surely he hadn't left these objects for his son to hoard, out of sight. "I suddenly realized that he had left this all behind so I would build a museum for him," Rashed says. "I felt that exhibiting his collection for the world to see would make him happy."

Baba Museum was born on May 10, 2013, with a photograph of a minuscule baby shoe, painted red, blue and yellow as Rashed's inaugural upload. Though the shoe was among the father's collection, it had probably belonged to Rashed — our first clue that the project is, in many ways, self-referential. The shoe, Rashed's or his father's, features a black zipper that fastens it completely, in effect rendering the shoe useless. What is the function of a shoe you cannot wear?

To his delight, the objects he posted, no matter how mundane or run-down, drew affection (expressed as likes, shares and comments) from the audience. Rashed quickly realized, however, that the project he launched in 2013 might have to be put on hold for an indeterminate period of time. "It wasn't the right time for Baba Museum. Why? There was a revolution going on," Rashed says. "It meant we wanted to bring down the regime. It meant we wanted to bring down nostalgia. Erase a black past."

After the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-in in Rabea Square was brutally dispersed in the summer of 2013, marking the fall of the group from power, Rashed turned his attention from Baba Museum to another Facebook page, this one called Kalam Amwat, or "Conversations of the Dead." In one of its albums, Rashed collected the final Facebook posts that people killed in the dispersal had written. "I screenshotted their last words; I was like the undertaker of social media," Rashed says.

It was commenting on the revolution as history.

The idea of the archive, and the museum as a form, had intrigued Rashed for years. In December 2013, Rashed put on a show with Ammar Abu Bakr, Ganzeer and Ahmed Hefnawy that was explicitly critical of the military. It was mounted in the crumbling 1890s Viennoise Hotel, where Ganzeer designed an arcade game, satirizing the rampant political conflicts at the time. Abu Bakr spray-painted the walls, evoking his street murals of martyrs and activists. Hefnawy's installation featured rows of empty tear gas canisters, as white clumps of fabric stretched from ceiling to floor. In Rashed's work, miniature blocks of cement, redolent of wall fragments, were coated in mini-murals, posters, and stickers. The work at the Viennoise marked a subtle shift in emphasis: It was commenting on the revolution as history, no longer serving as part of an ongoing mass movement.

The show drew a massive audience, hundreds on some days — many of them young people who heard about the exhibition on Facebook or Twitter — much the same way they would have heard about a protest.

That exhibition was the last time Rashed showed work in Egypt that directly opposed the regime. Soon after, he began planning with Abu Bakr and Ganzeer to exhibit a "Revolution Museum" in an American gallery that would document the events of the January 25 revolution. The 2011 euphoria had long collapsed, as repressive new governments filled in for the old. Artists who had been making work revolving directly around the unfolding revolution were losing their public canvases and audiences. The proposed exhibit was a desperate attempt to stay engaged. But when the media started going after Ganzeer and Abu Bakr, they decided to put off their plans for the Revolution Museum indefinitely.

On December 22, 2014, Rashed uploaded another picture to Baba Museum. It was a Menatel calling card that he had found in his father's pocket when he died. It had LE4.80 in credit. The post marked a brief pause in the page's two-year-plus hiatus; Rashed only posted a couple of photographs that winter, then went back to his silence.

It has only been in the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of months, that Rashed has returned to Baba Museum, posting more photographs of his father's collection to a growing audience. "When the revolution ended, the Sisi regime that emerged was so forceful that people started lamenting the previous Mubarak regime," Rashed says. "It was the return of nostalgia." Surveying the discourse circulating around TV channels, magazines, and the internet — where glorification of the past prevailed — Rashed grew sure that his museum project could thrive. "So I started posting again, and more and more people started interacting with the posts," he says.

If Baba Museum stays static, visitors will stop coming.

Something about Baba Museum comes across as facetious. The name, for one, sounds like an oxymoron; Baba is a somewhat intimate term that immediately conjures a relationship that cannot be neatly displayed or divulged in a catalog or audio tour. Meanwhile the word museum denotes a cold, manicured building with high ceilings and impenetrable glass cases.

Because Rashed is determined to emulate world-class museums, he has been digging into online museum practices for ideas. He recently launched what he is calling a "parallel museum;" an album dedicated to public submissions of objects — or rather photographs of objects — that belonged to departed parents, relatives and friends. He is convinced that if Baba Museum stays static, visitors will stop coming; the page would dry up once he uploads the entire contents of his dad's closet. Issuing a call for submissions would ensure a stream of new content — which Rashed believes "establishes a relationship with the public" and stimulates him personally. "This project is essentially about taking an inanimate object that belonged to someone who has died, and re-contextualizing it to give it value," he says.

It was good to hear Rashed talking about magic, and contemporary art, as he scrolled eagerly through Baba Museum to show me the images of clumped shoelaces, or the Menatel calling card his father has left behind. When he talked about the revolution's end, it was with less bitterness than the conversations we have had over the past eight years. Less bitterness, and more distance — maybe even disengagement. He seems content digging into his late father's pockets for material. Maybe this is it; maybe it's when we extend a hand into a familiar past that the restlessness subsides. Even if just for a moment.

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But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

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Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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