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Art Of The Revolution: Egyptian Exhibition In London Captures Jan. 25 Creativity Burst

Nine Egyptian artists offer their interpretations and instinctive reactions to the popular upheaval that swept their country. One of those artists paid the ultimate price.

Stencil art of revolutionary martyrs (left to right) Mustafa al-Sawy and artist Ahmad Basiony
Stencil art of revolutionary martyrs (left to right) Mustafa al-Sawy and artist Ahmad Basiony
Nadine el-Hadi

LONDON - Throughout the Arab spring, art and information both reflected and propelled the popular uprisings. A new exhibition of Egyptian artists, dubbed "From Facebook to Nassbook," at London's Mica Gallery, showcases the work of nine artists active in Egypt's art scene. Part of London's month-long "Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture," is at its heart a tribute to the Jan. 25 revolution.

Nass is the Arabic word for people, and with the Internet shutdown on Jan. 28, people shifted communication from online social media back to the physical world, and word of mouth. The artwork is diverse, made up of photography, conceptual pieces and interactive media. It illustrates how artists of varying ages interpreted this year's revolutionary fever.

An installation to honor experimental artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during the 18-day revolution, is also on display, including quotes taken from his Facebook page.

Mica Gallery is also exhibiting and selling stones collected from Tahrir Square and signed by public figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa. Some might see this as a gimmick at best, or at worst a move toward commercializing the revolution. Yet artist Ashraf Foda, who personally collected the stones, has conceived of the project as a public form of activism: to raise money for the families of the revolution's victims.

Occupying pride of place in "From Facebook to Nassbook" are three pieces by versatile artist Khaled Hafez, whose work might already be familiar to art buffs. His series, "First Temple of Flight" and "Tomb Sonata in 3 Military Movements: The Sniper," was shown at the 12th International Cairo Biennale. Yet in 2011, they appear in a revolutionary setting, and take on new meaning; Hafez now describes them as "premonition pieces."

It is "Tomb Sonata," however, that he is particularly proud of. This painting, completed in 2010, "shows elements that I actually lived and saw a month and a half later in the field, the field being Tahrir Square," Hafez tells Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Modern themes, ancient symbols

The vast canvas is dashed with color and seems fragmented yet full. It combines military iconography with his trademark ancient Egyptian symbols, in this case, the cow goddess Hathor. "I use the basic rules of ancient Egyptian painting -- the flat graphic surfaces, with human forms striding across rigid registers -- because this medium lends itself so perfectly to my message," explains Hafez, who insists that the military elements in his paintings should not be seen as a literal reference to Egypt's military conflict.

"They are designed to develop a generic alphabet inspired by media-propagated war images. These modern-day hieroglyphs explore the stereotyping of the Middle East as a region solely defined by, and reduced to, conflict," he adds.

Art can be a powerful tool to address stereotypes and present new perspectives, says Reedah al-Saie, director of the Mica Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition. Saie speaks of the "tremendous respect for the Arab world" in light of the Arab Spring and sees this show "as a positive way of engaging with different communities."

The exhibition provides examples of how art can take on new layers of meaning that reflect momentous changes in society, such as revolution, making earlier pieces seem current and part of these changes.

While the more established artists at the show have found the currents of revolution running through earlier works, their younger counterparts are showcasing work that was directly inspired by it.

Ashraf Foda, who works in advertising and hasn't had an exhibition since he was a graduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2007, describes the revolution as an awakening on a personal level.

"One of the good things about it is that I started making art again," says Foda. "I became more conscious about what was going on in my country."

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