Nermine Hammam: A whisper in a war

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Nermine Hammam: A whisper in a war

In the days, weeks and months following 25 January 2011, the world’s eyes were focused unblinkingly on Egypt, and the unfolding events that would throw the country into a full-scale revolution. Although the dust has far from settled in Cairo’s Tahrirsquare, Egyptians have already begun to reflect on the cataclysmic events that turned Egypt from a dictatorship into a democracy – at least on the surface.

Along with the street art that has been painted and sprayed on the walls of Cairo and Alexandria, artists across the country have been using their work to come to terms with the recent changes. Nermine Hammam, who now brings her first UK solo exhibition to London, is one of those artists.

I meet Nermine at the Mosaic Rooms in West London, where her exhibition will be opening on 20 July, and she tells me more about her work and her experience of being in Tahrir square. She has a boyish charm, a lithe energy and eyes that fix me with a searing intensity as she explains how she uses the camera to subvert notions of power.

“Power and reality are myths, constructs. They reside only in the images we hold of them; which is why the camera is not objective but merely reflects our own reality,” she says.

The two series forming part of the exhibition, Uppekha and Unfolding, are prime examples of this constructed power. Uppekha, which refers to a Buddhist notion of experiencing the world through a lens, features images of young soldiers set against utopian landscapes: blue skies, verdant fields, snow-covered mountains and spring blossoms. Hammam explains that she took the images of the soldiers in Tahrir square because she was surprised by their youth and their seeming frailty. It struck her as absurd that these young men, barely out of childhood, were assuming the pretence of power by virtue of their army uniform; and so her portrayal of them is both a parody and a form of exposure.

“By reclaiming these soldiers as individuals, the artist seeks to reveal the vulnerability of youth parading behind the weaponry and masculinity of the military, questioning the reality of power and its construction.”

The works making up Unfolding, on the other hand, can be seen more of a “critique on how we see violence,” Hammam tells me. She explains that the saturation of violent images in the mainstream media has resulted in the “commercialisation” of acts of physical brutality and the “de-humanisation” of victims. She compares her work in this area to a form of Sadism, in which “beauty is found in the obscene”.

“My work has been criticised for being too ‘pretty’, but beauty itself is violent, seductive. It sucks you in and doesn’t give anything back,” she explains.

Unfolding uses images of police brutality uploaded on the Internet in the year following the revolution, and places them in intersection with Japanese-style landscapes and foliage. Hammam created the series partly from her personal anger of seeing a protester die from asphyxiation in Tahrir.

“People die all the time in Tahrir,” she says, “the square is a microcosm of human nature.”

The result is an eerie juxtaposition of violence and beauty that leads us to question our own assumptions about what we see. Hammam is passionate when speaking out against the Egyptian military and the need for further change in her country, but she stresses that she is “absolutely not an activist.”

“Egypt is, and always has been, a state of chaos,” she says emphatically, “I use my art to express how I feel, express my vision in an accessible way. It’s like a whisper in the middle of a war.”

She may consider herself nothing but a whisper, but Nermine Hammam looks set to become one of Egypt’s leading contemporary artists through her nuanced and intuitive portrayal of some of life’s greatest conundrums. Her work is powerful because it transcends the confines of Tahrir square to speak to deeper notions of power, violence and reality that are accessible to audiences across the world; whether or not they have been witness to a revolution.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Sunday Express.

Nermine Hammam’s first UK solo exhibition, Cairo, Year One, presented in association with Rose Issa Projects, will run from 20 July – 24 August at the Mosaic Rooms.

All images courtesy of Nermine Hammam and Rose Issa Projects.