C A T E G O R I C A L   I M P E R A T I V E S

Curated by

Khaled Ramadan and Anni Venalainen

Raed Yassin Khaled Hafez  
Ayman Ramadan Lena Merhej  
Dalia Al Kury Mireille Astore  
Mounira Al Solh Khaled Ramadan  
Najib Mrad    
  12 – 30 April, 2010


Categorical Imperatives

Each of us can be seen at the same time as an individual and as a representative of our culture and country. For others to see past the images and sometimes prejudice caused by the surrounding visual culture and news feed, not to mention propaganda and counter propaganda, requires courage and ability from any one of us to judge the situation ourselves instead of trusting given ideas. People witnessing and living through a conflict day after day as well as those who are related to it through their family or fellow citizens must also overcome personal traumas to able to do this. Middle East has been a playground for international powers for centuries and as we know how deeply traumatized people are within the situation and the fact that unless it is solved, newer generations will inherit and renew the conflict. Artist reflect these issues in their work, but the Middle East is also many other things. This collection of video works gives the audience an idea of the variety of approaches and the different points of view to the contemporary life in this region.

The works in this collection reflect the subject of Kantian categorical imperative. Categorical imperative can be defined as a rule that advises us to act in accordance with what we would want to be a universal law. This underlying theme connecting these works is not always obviously manifested in each individual piece. These works cannot be said to present a maxim that would sum up the piece, as would be the case with children’s stories that end with a simplified moral lesson. If there is a lesson it is rather something that the viewer needs to find.

All of the works in the exhibition Categorical Imperatives one way or another deal with socially related issues. They study ideologies, moral concerns, religion, and politics as well as gender issues. With the title we want to encourage people to reflect on their own opinions and attitudes in relation to the subjects dealt with in the works and the thoughts that the works provoke.

Ayman Ramadan is using Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper as a reference point for his work Iftar (2004). The set-up of Da Vinci’s painting resembles the Islamic breaking of the daily sunrise-to-sunset fast (’Iftar’ in Arabic) during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Each afternoon during Ramadan free food is provided for all those who cannot afford a meal and also those men away from home who have come to the city to work. The similarities between Last Supper and the tradition of Iftar are not only visual, but there are also other parallels that bring in the religious tradition. In his work Ramadan underlines the aspect of equality and social justice in Islam, which is in contrast with the fact that extreme poverty in Egypt within the working class persists.

Ayman Ramadan says that his work is always inspired by his immediate environment, typically downtown Cairo and popular urban culture and street culture. He grew up in a small village in the district of Sharqiya, 50 kilometers out of Cairo, where according to him, family and community are top priorities in society. The only jobs available for most of the young people from that are in the nearby city of Benha or the factories of Cairo. Ramadan says that moving to Cairo in search of work, the impact was enormous in terms of the chaos of the city, and also in terms of his sense of community and human relationships. He attempts to channel his experiences through his work, trying to make visible things that often stay overlooked or otherwise taken-for-granted elements of the life and society. Ramadan says that through his work he wants to provoke the viewer to consider issues relating to labor, the anonymity of the individual in the urban landscape, and frustrations stemming from local political realities.

Religion, church and art bind together in the Christianity forming the core of western pictorial tradition and art history. By using Da Vinci’s work Ramadan shows the common history of East and West and how the roots of our cultural and religious heritages are mixed and equally bound together. This way the mysterious “other” is brought closer. Charity is a fundamental virtue in both Islam and Christianity. Sharing food together on the other hand is one of the most profound things in humanity. You may say that as a metaphor sharing food means sharing beliefs and values.

There is another theme in Last Supper that perhaps needs more attention. We are familiar with what happened to Jesus after the meal he shared with his disciples. The political tension currently happening between East and West makes one ponder who plays the roles of martyr and the traitor here. As the viewer our perspectives become challenged and we need to look for our own position in relation to this scene. Where do we place ourselves? By the table or somewhere in the shadows observing the event? There are also no women dining here. Exclusion of women both in Christian and Muslim traditions gives women the role of somebody mourning the martyr. This work can also be seen from a conceptual arts point of view as a piece studying art history, history of religion or the way that art tells stories of religion and history, and furthermore how art is also used as a means of education. In the background we hear Arvo Pärt’s piece Fratres, which also has Christian religious connotations.

The theme of food continues in Khaled Ramadan’s Hysterma (2009). This is most of all a conceptual art work. In this four minute video we see filmmaker Raed Yassin sitting by a table in the street of Cairo. People and cars are going by. He eats a falafel sandwich. This work refers to Andy Warhol’s video where we see the artist sitting by a table with the American flag, eating a hamburger and then announcing that he just did what we saw him doing. In the same manner Raed Yassin states in Arabic that he just finished a falafel. When he says this, he claims the falafel to be his cultural heritage. The culture of food can also be a means of colonization like we see what is happening with big hamburger companies spreading around the world. For instance, there is hardly a place on earth that doesn’t have an American fast food joint today. The existing reality, however silly, of  “who invented the falafel” between Israelis and Arabs is part of the larger conflict in the Middle East and different players involved.

Raed Yassin’s The New Film (2008) is a montage of snap shots from Egyptian films from the 1980s to the present day. In every shot we see President Hosni Mubarak’s portrait hanging on the wall of an office where officials bark at their subordinates and people who arrive telling about their concerns. The omnipresent president watches over his subjects like a supernatural eye that sees into minds and thoughts. The artist is using ready-made footage to comment on the political circumstances where artists try to express their points of view. By always cutting into the president’s portrait he makes his point through the material that has received the official seal of approval succeeding to actually make it look like something other than what it was originally intended.

A different side of the everyday life is studied in a work called The Sea Is a Stereo by Mounira Al Solh. This work is an ongoing series of reflections on a group of men who swim everyday at the beach in Beirut regardless of the circumstances: rain, wind, war, etc. Al Solh says that even as we read this, the men might be swimming or preparing themselves to jump into the water. The part of the project now seen, called Paris Without A Sea focuses on interviews that Al Solh has conducted with the men. Al Solh has lip-synchronized her voice over the men’s voices, which immediately puts everything that is said in an unexpected light. By asking the men about basic and almost banal matters she touches on much deeper social issues.

By using her voice Al Solh seems to be making fun of the men. But why is it that a woman’s voice makes men look ridiculous? As we see, this trick is actually loaded with the issue of the women as the “other” of the patriarchy or the male dominated world. Again humor is used as a way of talking about serious or painful issues. Yet the artist takes on the funny side of the matter thus disarming the men or assaulting their masculinity and depriving the men’s control over themselves. In a way these men appear to be “possessed” if we think of the Arabian folklore with wandering spirits and genies. Furthermore it recalls the cheapest way of dubbing films and tv-programs by using one single voice to perform all of the roles.

Al Solh’s strategy makes it obvious how foolish the men sound with their machismo and their arrogant statements, when they try to maintain their status while Al Solh is asking them silly questions. The everlasting male vanity makes them an easy target for ridicule.

They show their muscles and boast about the distances they’ve swum. They also brag about their womanizing and girlfriends in a manner that is not very far from the stories of catching big fish, which makes the viewer doubt the truthfulness of the stories. Some of them seem however a little uneasy as if suspecting that the artist has a double agenda. Nevertheless they end up playing by her rules. Many things here lie between the lines; things that are not spoken out straight but are nonetheless there. In her work Al Solh is bringing in the female voice. She is addressing the men in a very equal or even condescending manner, pressing them to give her answers.  This way she is using a counter strategy of patronizing, pointing it back to the men.

Dalia Al-Kury’s work Caution! Comment Ahead (2006) continues the same theme of the power relations between men and women. In her documentary work Al-Kury investigates why there are so many men ready to verbally harass women on the streets. Traveling on the roads of Amman she is trying to find out what is going on in the men’s heads.  Her work highlights the social, psychological and moral complexity, the reasons that have happened to normalize this daily practiced phenomenon of catcalling.

Al-Kury states that although Caution! Comment Ahead was her first documentary film it was widely screened in all the cities of Jordan and aired nine times on the most popular Arabic Television station MBC channels. She says that the popularity of this film confirmed her belief in the necessity to talk about what is supposed to be seen simply as a casual and normal street phenomenon. According to the artist this film stirred a controversial debate about woman’s continuous fight to walk in the streets without being verbally harassed. She says that the film also empowered women to take their rightful place on the street more seriously and made men realize that women are truly uninterested in being "flattered" in this way. When asked straight it is very seldom if ever that anybody can give a convincing and justifiable reason for sexual harassment which is always based on the offensive chauvinistic attitudes in the society.

We stay at the level of an individual also in Najib Mrad’s work Lebanese Cockroach (2007).  According to the artist this work was inspired by the moment in his life when he was about to get his drivers license, and was preparing himself to be a part of his country as a full citizen. He says he was then discovering that there were so many conflicts in the government of Lebanon as well as chaos in the everyday life and the relationships between people that the circumstances prevented him many times from achieving his goals. Mrad says he made this film to show how a small insect which here is the alter ego of the artist, a young guy, a harmless creature who tries to make his way through big Lebanon, a city full of conflicts and chaos. In his work Mrad makes a remark on those many Lebanese who have left their country to live elsewhere and how it is not always necessarily better there, as well as showing the way people who stayed think of those who have left.

Mireille Astore´s work Not From Here (2005) is a video based on an undated historical photograph found in the archives of the Broken Hill City Library in outback Australia. The photograph of a group of 12 young women and one young man was probably taken around the beginning of the 20th century.

According to the artist “it is an artwork that attempts to negotiate displacement, exile, migration and identity formation using a historical narrative. Unleashing the unheimlich through repetition, it emphasizes the multiplicity of moods, characters and presentations that can be inhabited in the same individual and at the same time. Dislocating the “prim and proper”, it challenges assumptions about race, gender and class. The photograph, as a tool for the suspension of time and an inert authoritative object is also contested as it morphs before our very eyes.” Unheimlich is a Heideggerian term that refers to uncanny, unearthly or eerie, it is something that turns things that are familiar into unknown. Astore is thus making us question what we see and what we expect to see. She also provokes us to pay attention on our act of looking at images and the way we interpret them without really noticing what we are doing.

Khaled Hafez´s says that his work Third Vision: Around 01:00 pm (2008) is a nostalgic narrative of visuals that he has kept in his memory for as far as he can remember, precisely for over forty years; memories that shape his practice today. In this work he is using archival photographs from his own family album, photographs he collected along the years he was training to be an artist. He is also using film footage, some extracted from VHS-recorded TV material and/or Internet, isolated from its original context, and assembled in a hybridized manner to create a personal narrative.

The artist creates a principal structure for The Third Vision: Around 1:00 pm by using the modern changing social and military histories of Egypt in relation to an international context as a reference point for. For the second time in his practice, namely after his earlier 2007 video “Visions of a Contaminated Memory” commissioned for the Sharjah Biennale, the artist is using historical footage of the assassination of Sadat (Muhammad Anwar El Sadat, or Anwar El Sadat was the third President of Egypt) the incident he witnessed live on Egyptian TV when he was 18. The artist is using a narrator – himself - who substitutes vocal narration with a typewritten text, to hide the nature of the exact age of the narrator as well as her/his gender for as long as possible as it appears on screen.

The artist says that he tried to make The Third Vision: Around 1:00 pm look like the story of everyone, all of us who keep nostalgic memories of love, fear, family, war, death and playfulness. According to the artist the historical events that are mentioned in sequence in the video are true; the family events are accurate, and the personal feelings are authentic as they happened. 

Lena Merhej says that her work is grounded in play. In her comics and animations she tells stories about her memories and her experiences in Beirut. Family, war and frustration are recurrent themes. This is also the case with her work Drawing the War. Merhej gets inspiration from different recourses both inside and outside art. She says that she loves details and ornamentation, and that she is inspired by henna and arabesque patterns, but also, the Art Nouveau and R&B music. Her aim is to add multiple levels of interpretation in her work by dissecting and playing with the contradictions that surround her.

Drawing the War (2002) is a recollection of the Lebanese war, a story of unfolding pages and memories. Lena Merhej was one year old when the South of Lebanon was invaded. This is how she describes her memories of the war. “I was five when the invasion spread to the capital, Beirut. I had my first bomb to collect when I was nine. I do not recall the succession of the events after that. I only remember images. Bits, and pieces.” Drawing the War tells about this experience. Merhej states that she is on a mission to tell the story, and that she is on a mission to remember.

Anni Venäläinen

Visual artist MA and Co-curator of Categorical Imperatives


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