Maybe it’s easier in places like this, Places like Cairo, to believe that you can engage with art. Even for laypeople there are so many examples of work so familiar, work that we’ve learned references for since we were children, that it’s so easy to live among it and engage. To comment.
As kids we all learn about Hieroglyphics, we learn the names of the three biggest pyramids even if we can’t recite them later. Most of us can name a pharaoh or two, maybe all of us can at least recall Cleopatra, and probably some vague idea of her artful accoutrements.
If you’re me then you sat in more than one lecture hall at more than one art school learning about the Egyptian canon: a series of measurements and rules that delineated the ideal depiction of the human form. As precise and unchanging as a fractal, the canon was so immutable that even spanning hundreds of years there are few examples that deter from it: a hand is always in the same proportion to a face is always in the same proportion to an arm, etcetera.
One odd side affect of this is that without a historical record, it makes it really difficult to know what Egyptians actually looked like. The canon erased impurities, deformities, any physical personality that individual humans might have; the canon makes clone-gods of people, replacing them with a version of perfection that’s endlessly trapped in profile.
But most artistic records don’t follow a path quite so rigid. By definition it’s the expression of culture so it’s easy to see styles change, zeitgeists morph: there’s a fluidity to it that follows the slow march of time.
And yeah, personally? I love this. I love complex, constantly changing art, but I’ve had all of this jargon on my tongue since before I got my period. I never knew exactly how it would happen, nor in what media, but I was definitely younger than ten when I knew – and I mean knew – that I was going to be some kind of artist. So for me, who could delineate between abstract expressionism and abstract minimalism before I started high school, engaging with art has never felt challenging.
Part of this, and to this day I think the most important part, is that I never much cared how I was engaging with art. I just wanted all of it, all the time: books and museums and galleries and posters for punk bands on telephone poles and even all of those wear-worn sketchbooks that I’ve flipped through that were owned by all those patchouli-scented pot heads that hung out at Gasworks and on the Ave back in the 90’s.
A while back, back when I was in Istanbul, a friend of mine posted a photo of a piece by Reed van Brunschot on Instagram, a piece called Thank You Bags (Giant) from the Guerrilla Girls’ 2017 Miami Art Week show called FAIR (get it?). Accompanying a photo of the work, which is two giant t-shirt bags bearing classic Thank You messages in red, he wrote: “brb, doing fine art by making big garbage,” and it was so goddamned clever that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
So much art is fucking garbage, that’s just one reason it’s been so easy for me to stay here, in Cairo, where there’s 4000 year old art and 4 day old art that laypeople and creatives alike are welcome to peruse. And if you’re as lucky as me then you’ve been privy to a cool cohort of Cairo creatives that drink cool beers on cool patios in cool jackets and talk about film and photography and writing, albeit half of it is in Arabic.
But just as I told my friend about his insight into that van Brunschot piece weeks ago, “I don’t wear my fine art hat too often these days,” and it’s true, I don’t. But here, where I’ve had the opportunity to flex all those long atrophied muscles, I shocked myself with how easily my hand came back in. Just in time for me to miss Miami Art Week 2020.
I haven’t bought a ticket yet, but I have to leave. I have to go back to Istanbul where Zai and Lovage are patiently waiting for me. But I will miss this–this weird little trap that I’ve fallen into here where we all do the same things. And because we do all the same things, so many things go without saying.
And so many things have gone unsaid.
But in my head is so permanently stamped an ideal hand, a face, an arm. And I guess those are the things I’ll take with me, because it never occurred to me to release him from the canon while I was here. But maybe that’s how it should be: that instead of reverting to an actual human being, that he stays god-like in my mind, some personification of a perfect profile that I wrote for him with all of my wishes.