Egypt’s late minister of irrigation, Ahmed Ali Kamal, was not just preoccupied with dams, pipes, and soil. He was also a keen photographer and concerned traveler. He held a unique relationship with the Nile. An engineer who gave himself the task of preservation. In The Valley of Walls, artworks intervene with Ali Kamal’s archive and apartment. From personal letters to technical drawings, these form the basis of archival-based art presented by Nada Baraka, Mohamed ElMaghraby, Hany Rashed, and Malak Yacout. In November 2021, the artists entered into a conversation with the apartment and the archive. Now they ask: Can the artworks’ intervention have an ecological quality of its own? With what intentions do you bring artworks into a space? How do you relate to an archive about nature? You let the apartment lead.

Personal archive with Ahmed Ali Kamal standing center left. c. 1950s, Photographic Print. Photo credit: Ahmed Ali Kamal Baraka Archive/ Nada Baraka.

Archiving Cabinets

As a high public official and minister between 1974 and 1975, much of the archive deals with the Nile, the building of barrages and dams throughout the valley, as well as questions engaging with ethics and morals. Ali Kamal’s previous home office has been transformed into a museum with astutely organized details about his life and achievements. With three vitrines, the display cabinet borrows from the language of archive. This room is a discursive space for engineering the archive. Outside of his office, each artist came to appreciate the unique spatial context within which they were working. Their artworks mediated the relationship between the apartment and the content of that archive into a valley, but of walls.

Hany Rashed, And Things returned to normal (Water Recirculation), Site specific installation with pvc pipe, toilet, rubble, acrylic painted aluminum figurines, motor, 1.5 m by 2.5 m.

All but one room in this spacious apartment holds some form of storage space. This plethora of cabinets refers to the structure of the archive within the apartment. Indeed, as the artists discovered things within the apartment, they began classifying them. In the storage room’s cabinet for instance, they collectively sorted objects related to plumbing. These creative archival practices participate in the management and production of a different knowledge about the apartment. For instance, El Mahgraby’s Physiology of an Unknown Instrument is a technical drawing placed in a wooden cabinet previously designed for Ali Kamal’s computer. The drawing literally becomes technical as it espouses the mechanical nature of the cabinet. With Hany Rashed’s Land of Hypocrisy we encounter a steel cabinet, filled with sealed jars. The cabinet is a taxonomy of plants, sand, and rocks; common within the context of water irrigation. Yet, as one moves closer, we are surprised by words like “patience” or “courage.” This appropriation of the archive falls short of being faithful. Instead of naming seeds and rocks, Rashed uses morals and values found in many of Ali Kamal’s books about these topics. Subversively, art reconfigures its relationship to the archive. The only way to contextualize the archive is within the walls of this apartment.

Theatrical Appropriations

As with most archival-based art, their interventions subvert and limit a singular reading. Various theatrical maneuvers distance the archive room from the rest of the apartment where they are exercised. Hany Rashed’s And Things Returned to Normal (Water Recirculation) suspends the truth of the archive through theatricality. Inspired by a 1940s photograph of irrigation along the riverbanks, he transforms the apartment’s crumbling bathroom into a scene with characters and a properly staged set. We are asked to suspend our disbelief as theatrics entertain the archive into the apartment’s witty world.

Ahmed Ali Kamal, Personal Archive (Nile Valley near Aswan), c. 1930s. Photographic Print. Photo credit: Ahmed Ali Kamal Baraka Archive/ Nada Baraka.

The dining room becomes a feast for the eyes in A Carnival to my Ears by Nada Baraka. A painting installation captures viewer’s attention, making it difficult to spot the subtle archival traces. The postcards that belonged to Ali Kamal, who is also Baraka’s grandfather, hide amongst the objects in the room. They were the original inspiration, but now the archive competes with imagination. The medium of painting is a well-suited carrier for this type of re-appropriation. Baraka incorporates the fantastical creatures of her imagination within her grandfather’s travels.

Malak Yacout, Living Spaces of Murmu: A Broken Record 2023, Installation with carved marble, 2 m by 2.5 m.

In Living Spaces of Murmurs: A Broken Record, Malak Yacout revisited 1960s documents pertaining to the Qanater barrage. These contained crossed-out portions and decayed patches which interrupted their archival legibility. Her site-specific installation transposes these patterns, carved onto the marble slabs that floor one of the storage rooms. Their chevron arrangement fragments the reading of the document. While the materiality of the marble allows for a literal interruption of the facts in the archive.

A more critical subversion of the archive happens through speculation. In a small corridor leading to the kitchen, a short film about drainage is projected on the wall. We read questions to which there are no answers. We see a film in which there isn’t much to see. The 1960s’ archival footage gathered by Yacout seems to be missing something. Living Spaces of Murmurs: Another Man’s Flood is placed in a liminal space or a gap in the apartment. She turns our attention to these gaps through speculation. The subversions, inside the cabinet and through imagination, usher the artworks away from the dominance of the archive room and into the mystery of the valley of walls.

Nada Baraka, An Epoch of Grace, Site specific installation with watercolor on 90mg paper, pans, cutlery, kitchen cabinets, stove, sink, 2023, Variable dimensions.

Charismatic Objects

Theatricality prepared the necessary step toward breaking the archive’s rigidity. Now, enchantment negotiates the relationship between art and the apartment. Albeit abandoned for twenty-two years, the apartment remains very powerful in character. Dust and rust make its ordinary objects unique. The decision of exhibiting The Valley of Walls in the apartment was important. It brings with it questions regarding the relationship between objects and artwork. How will they coexist? What could be said about an old cabinet with a new drawing inside? What is being challenged? In an Epoch of Grace, different associations of kitchenware and drawings shed light on the vital existence of these objects. For instance, Baraka puts a colorful drawing of her grandfather’s medical prescription inside a toaster. The latter ceases to be an object used for heating. By dissociating it from its function, Baraka is more interested in the objects peculiarities.They roam freely in the kitchen.

A new ethos espouses the artists. Collaborating with the apartment, their intervention becomes concerned with preservation. Many of the walls are left empty to allow for their dust marks to speak about the past. A few collared doves laid nests throughout our time in the apartment and we decided the bathroom would be theirs. They are now part of the exhibition. This is reflected in Yacout’s Living Spaces of Murmurs: A Thousand and One Voices which imagines an archival report about groundwater from the 1960s that is being revisited by the many birds and geckos in the apartment. The apartment is an ecosystem where each of its objects has an agency of its own. An ecosystem of which the artists are now a part.

Mohamed El Maghraby, Facticities of an Unknown Instrument, 2023, Video animation, 6 min.

The humility with which art coexists in the space makes room for the unknown. El Maghraby’s augmented reality piece Phantasmagorias of an Unknown Instrument is at once absent and present in space. He shows us an unknown creature related to river dams. Similarly, Rashed’s Sweetness of the Unknown renders immaterial the furnished salon room. He wraps transparent plastic over all the objects in that room. All the more, the room itself is inaccessible, only its glass doors allow us to peer inside. The transparency and distance render the material room immaterial. The unknown remains inaccessible and refuses disclosure.

Ahmed Ali Kamal, Display of the Qanater Barrage Maquette with Ahmed Ali Kamal standing fifth from the left., c. 1930s, Photographic Print. Photo credit: Ahmed Ali Kamal. Baraka Archive/ Nada Baraka

Living Rooms, Literally

Each of the artists employed animation as an expression of their newly found relationship with the apartment. By faithfully listening to the objects, one might find enchantment happening. The animation of objects by Baraka in Occult and El Maghraby in Facticities of an Unknown Instrument is a testament to their exploration of the external world that exists outside of the archive’s fixation on truth and outside the engineer’s penchant towards mastery. The flora in Baraka’s painting, inspired by those found on the postcards, inhabits a fantastical world that Ali Kamal never visited. Likewise, the river dam which El Maghbraby imagines as a biological mechanism is always technical, never living. In wonder, the artists wandered through the valley.

As the title suggests, The Valley of Walls is an exhibition about the apartment. Its spatial quality became an important part of the curatorial process. Most of the works in this exhibition are site-specific installations. They are specific to the environment of the exhibition, resonating with it, without imposition. This brings us back to the primacy of the objects which now extends to spatiality, the apartment itself. This is a powerful empty apartment. There is no clear path with which to go about the space. Upon entrance, there are three doors leading to different areas. This non-linear path creates a sense of disorientation. We roam through the valley of walls with a heightened perception of its space.

Just as objects are considered outside of their function, so too is the apartment empty rather than unused. In fact, there are different degrees of emptiness throughout the space. The foyer with the augmented reality is empty, the bathroom was left untouched by the artists while a full storage room will remain closed, perhaps in rebuke to the archive room. That variety takes the apartment as an environment seriously.

The entanglement of aesthetics and ethics defines the exhibition in Ahmed Ali Kamal’s apartment. The art’s theatricality turns into an ecological intervention manifested in how the artists dealt with the space. This effectuates enchantment into a kind of ethics, that of listening to the valley of walls.
Farida Youssef
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2023

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