Issue 2/2015 - Artscribe
Adelita Husni-Bey’s exhibition The White Paper: The Land began as a distinctly spatial installation, where the arbitrariness of juridical power and the intangibleness of land speculation were arranged into revealing their concrete ramifications for the body politic. To this end the artist resorted to a hands-on manner of visualization commonly employed by the respective agencies tasked to do so: the model.
Upon entering Beirut one was presented with a lurid cityscape resourcefully made from bits of cardboard, plastic packaging, foam-core, and electrical wiring complete with the obligatory miniature shrubbery, simulating a kind of developer’s wet dream become real, familiar from Dubai and Las Vegas: a flashy condo-shopping mall architecture, here tellingly built atop a large ramshackle wooden base. A ramp leading up to the model afforded viewers the kind of privileged vista over this jumbled spectacle normally reserved for the pinstriped helicoptering gaze. Accentuating the demographic hierarchies underlying urban planning and gentrification, Husni-Bey placed a flat screen showing the video ARD (2014) – the latter a phoneticism denoting the Arabic word for land – made in collaboration with the filmmaker Salma El Tarzi and activist Nazly Hussein, beneath this mirage of faux marble and glass.
In the video, representatives of the constituency affected by such ventures gather around the exact same model in a Cairo theatre space, transposing the stage’s Brechtian legacy as a platform for illuminating discourse and igniting agency to contemporary Cairo. More specifically, the actors assembled here represent actual inhabitants of Qursaya Island , a largely unspoiled enclave on the Nile, having elsewhere been described as "[…] a quiet 70-acre patch of agricultural land amid a megacity, where mooing cows provide the soundtrack, and farmers and fishermen have lived for generations."
Watching the video’s ensemble consisting of almost archetypically cast residents – the learned lefty firebrand; the weathered stoic agrarian worker; the taciturn woman in traditional rural garb; the receptively mediating pragmatist – one learned of the Egyptian government’s and army’s joined efforts over the past years at aggressively evicting the island’s inhabitants to make room for arguably lucrative building projects or simply to annex neglected, yet in fact prime real estate for their common special interest. While the ignorantly brutal measures frequently taken to by the military-industrial complex are a global phenomenon, they manifest particularly drastic in Egypt; a regime where the separation of powers has been willfully undermined for decades, and, following the withering of the Arab Spring, where this notion continues to largely be not even worth the proverbial white paper it may at times be printed on. (This, in fact, is very much the crux of ARD, as the Qursayans’ victory in the state court conceding them their territorial rights may prove ultimately irrelevant).
Rather than staging a nostalgic front of uniform natives rising up to these Machiavellian schemes, Husni-Bey frames the grouping as a legitimate plenum where wants and ideals can freely be stated and clash for a change. When the participants are encouraged to rearrange the scrappy Atlantis in front of them according to their aesthetic and material criteria, things literally start to fall into disarray: the newly added bridges to the city proper are ripped off while urbanites’ condos with a view, actually desirable to some in the group, are torn down to be refashioned into suburban bungalows by others. As such, the collective carving out of time from this subjugating status quo, a chronopolitics so to speak, is a crucial gesture running through Husni-Bey’s entire exhibition. This is most directly implemented when the artist compiles the short video posts that together comprise the work Time Under Siege (2013), simultaneously adopting and sabotaging the instructional language of the Egyptian authorities by asking Cairo citizens to “Please only film during the curfew hours. 7pm to 5am”. The various clips encompass individuals climbing rooftops for an ad hoc get-together; letting nail varnish dry; flicking through dug-out family photographs; origami; and of course the capturing of screens showing corny TV programs. All this content transmits a strange serenity in the reclaiming of time under siege, while, once dissociated from the specific context, it produces timeless vignettes of the weariness, isolation and hopeful resilience of the common.