Białystok: Jasmina Metwaly
June 20 - September 4
photo: Marcin Zaniewski
Anbar. Exercises in Mimicry
Curator: Arkadiusz Półtorak
Production: Tomek Pawłowski Jarmołajew
The exhibition Anbar. Exercises in Mimicry at the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok is a presentation of Polish-Egyptian artist Jasmina Metwaly’s latest works. From the year 2011 onwards – which was when Metwaly engaged in activism in support of the so-called Arab Spring – her oeuvre has focused on themes associated with social control systems, the law, and civic resistance tactics.
Describing the artist’s practice in categories of “activism through art” would not be accurate, though. In her work, Metwaly distances herself from politics, viewing it through assorted “filters”, including literary and theatrical fiction or such research methods as discourse analysis. If, as Walter Benjamin wrote, criticism is a matter of adequate distance, Metwaly’s artistic activity might well be summed up as an exercise in critical awareness.
Nonetheless, it would be worthwhile to emphasise that the artist never loses issues of power, subordination or resistance from sight. In her works, even the aesthetic contents reflect the composition of the social world, as well as interdependencies between individual existence and broader orders of community life.
The political quality of aesthetic devices and objects is the lead problem that Metwaly has explored while developing her exhibition Anbar. Exercises in Mimicry. The foreign word in the title conceals assorted meanings: in Arabic, “anbar” might mean a “prison cell”, among others; in modern Persian, it morphs into a “shop” or place suitable for storing commodities. The artist references both meanings in her works: while the legal and penitentiary system in Egypt remains her primary focus, clothing – invariably alluded to as a sign of social standing – is the good referred to by protagonists of the films shown at the exhibition.
In Anbar (Badrawi’s Atelier), an esteemed tailor from Cairo talks about working on commissions for the Egyptian army. “A soldier’s appearance must be associated with prestige,” he declares. “A soldier’s attire has to convey the role he has been assigned before he even opens his mouth, just like in theatre or film.” In Badrawi’s shop, which has been accepting orders – as proven by press cuttings on the walls – from top Egyptian officials representing diverse parties, tailors engage in constructing the aesthetic spectacle of politics from scratch. It is a form of performance that requires no theatrical stage, and without which the rules of public life could well prove completely illegible. The process of this performance’s development is narrated from a different perspective by the protagonist of the film Anbar (Assem’s Pictures), who covertly documented intimate moments in the lives of young troops over one year of his military service. Assem explores the displays of military discipline both as an artist and a soldier in army barracks. Three female voices in the work Anbar (Marta’s Studio) offer yet another take on the public performance of power. One voice is that of Aida, an artist who plays out Assem’s monologue from the aforementioned film, expanding it to include crucial details (suggesting for example that his account might be biased due to his gender and social class). Another voice is that of Metwaly herself: in conversation with Polish set and costume designer Marta, she shares her beliefs on public life and civic resistance in Egypt. Marta’s own voice is the third and final one. The co-designer and co-author of costumes (also on display as part of the exhibition at the Arsenal Gallery) describes her own associations with the military aesthetic alongside concepts of its experimental applications, partly leaning towards the pastiche.
Mimicry – imitating others or “playing out” social norms through behaviour and/or attire – is a recurrent motif in all protagonists’ remarks. Mimicry might well be perceived as a synonym for conformism, especially in the context of Assem’s and Badrawi’s accounts; both talk of how behaviour may be applied in “producing” civic subservience. Yet Metwaly suggests that this form of mimesis may carry critical potential as well. At last, the embodied knowledge of rules and codes of conduct that govern the system “from within” supports any attempts at undermining the order. The ambiguity of the show’s overarching theme is accentuated in the subtitle of the Białystok exhibition. The addendum Exercises in Mimicry references military exercise and discipline as its inherent characteristic, as well as exercise interpreted as experimentation – the process of acquiring knowledge and perfecting agility, both of which may be used in violation of pre-specified rules or the teacher’s will. Metwaly’s works are – in equal measure – archives of codified societal knowledge or “the aesthetics of politics”, and an invitation to join a thus-defined experiment.
Jasmina Metwaly’s Anbar. Exercises in Mimicry was produced as part of the Consortium Commissions 2018/20, an initiative by Mophradat, and was presented by the project’s partners the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2019) and KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (2020).
Arkadiusz Półtorak, exhibition curator
Visual artist, author of films and co-founder of the video-activist collective Mosireen, born to a Polish-Egyptian family. While the camera remains her main medium, recently she has been revisiting drawing, a technique she practised as student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. In her film projects, she has been drawing extensively on traditions of theatre and performance art, focusing on the creative process in particular. She is concerned with practices that might be assigned a sociogenetic role, and the generation of tensions between art project participants and audiences. Her film works include We Are Not Worried in the Least, 2018; From Behind the Monument, 2013, and Out on the Street, 2015 (with Philip Rizk). She has recently exhibited at the SAVVY Contemporary (Berlin), Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), and KW (Berlin).
Translated by Aleksandra Sobczak-Kövesi