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Honoring a Fallen Witness

Deceased artist Ahmed Basiony is honored in the Egypt Pavilion of the Venice Venice Biennale.

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

By Ania Szremski, Arts Editor

“This is our last chance for our dignity, the last chance to change the regime that has lasted the past 30 years. Go down to the streets, and revolt, bring your food, your clothes, your water, masks and tissues, and a vinegar bottle, and believe me, there is but one very small step left. … If they want war, we want peace, and I will practice proper restraint until the end, to regain my nation’s dignity.”

This was 32-year old Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony’s last update to his Facebook status before he was killed on January 28, 2011, the so-called “Friday of Wrath,” when over 2,000 protesters were injured, and at least 62 killed, on the bloodiest day of Egypt’s January Revolution.

"30 Days of Running in Space," 2010. Image courtesy of Universes in Universe.

Today, artists Shady El Noshokaty, Magdi Mostafa, and curator Aida Eltorie are preparing to honor Basiony’s life and career by re-staging his 2010 work, “30 Days of Running in the Space,” at the Egypt Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale. The historically conservative Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s acceptance of El Noshokaty’s proposal to celebrate Basiony’s work is a deeply poignant, and highly political, move.

When the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown and the nation was officially rid of the British colonial presence in 1952, one of the first acts taken by the freshly appointed President Gamal Nasser was to buy the land upon which the Egypt Pavilion would be built in Venice. The country’s representation in the prestigious Biennale was intended as a message that the newly independent nation was on the same playing field as the former colonial powers. And today, Egypt’s participation in the Biennale is symbolic of the most significant moment in the nation’s history since that Free Officer’s Revolt over 50 years ago.

Artist Shady El Noshokaty, a close friend and mentor of Basiony’s, spearheaded this project with the help of Eltorie and Mostafa. “30 Days” was first staged as part of the 2010 “Why Not” exhibition in front of the Palace of the Arts (a major state-run exhibition space close to the downtown Tahrir Square). In this cybernetic performance, Basiony dressed in a special self-designed sensory suit that monitored his vital signs and movements as he ran in place for an hour, computers simultaneously translating that data into colorful visualizations displayed on large screens behind him. The performance was repeated daily over 30 consecutive days.

For the Venice Biennale iteration, video footage from the performance will be projected onto a set of three screens. Two other screens will display random excerpts from raw footage of the demonstrations recorded by Basiony during the first days of the revolution. The experience not only pays homage to Basiony’s work, but also communicates the chaotic experience of the revolutionary moment, and the disorientation of the individual in a time of massive upheaval.

"30 Days of Running in Space," 2010. Image courtesy of Universes in Universe.

Magdi Mostafa’s role in the project is “as a partner to the artist, as someone who is really familiar with his work and the way he structures it. … My role is to make a selection of the artist’s sound tracks and engineer them into a higher quality sound, put them in a multichannel format in the pavilion space, and then synchronize them as much as possible with the videos.” However, despite his familiarity with Basiony’s work, Mostafa initially declined to participate in the project.

To re-stage a performative artwork is always a fraught endeavor, and this particular piece is especially difficult. “It’s very emotional,” he told F Newsmagazine. “It’s a very sensitive case. I can always feel him sitting next to me every time I play something of his work. I didn’t want to do it, but Basiony’s friends and family strongly recommended me to go ahead, because of our past successful collaborations.”

The two artists studied together at Helwan University and frequently collaborated, working together on projects like the award-winning “Madena” of 2007, as well as in the “Stammer” exhibition curated by El Noshokaty that same year. Mostafa told F that in his early years as an art student, it was rare to find others who shared his interest in sound installations and technological explorations.

“It was such a good feeling to have a common interest between myself and another good artist,” he said. “Before collaborating with Basiony, I felt lonely in this career in Egypt. I could share a lot of ideas and thoughts with others, but not at a high level, like I could with him.”

When the January 25 revolution began, Mostafa and Basiony took to the streets together each day. Their initial goal was to take sound and video recordings of the demonstrations, but the artist says they would often forget the task at hand and get swept up in the protests themselves. January 28 was the last day they went to Tahrir Square together.

“We got lost from each other four times throughout that day, because of the crazy attacks of the police on us, but then we would find each other again,” Mostafa said. “But then I went up closer to the police lines, and he was in the back interviewing people with his video camera. It was so wild, the person next to me got shot in the back with a real bullet, and I was injured in my head and my arm, so I was bleeding like crazy. A girl and her father took me in their car back to my house, so [Basiony] was there alone, and I couldn’t call him because the government had shut down the mobile connections.

“That was the last time I saw him. After I left, he went up to the front lines of the police to try to record a sniper who was on the top of the building [shooting into the crowd] with his video camera. The sniper shot him in the head with a rubber bullet so that he fell to the ground, and a police car smashed his ribs.”

The footage that Basiony recorded that day was never found. For Mostafa, the very possibility of re-staging “30 Days” is of profound significance, both in terms of Egypt’s evolving political climate and in terms of what it means for practicing artists.

“The project shows that the category of the ‘young artist’ isn’t valid anymore,” he said. “Basiony and I were rejected to represent Egypt in this same pavilion two years ago. But a good artist should now be able to represent his country or his generation without challenges from the curator.”

But even more than that, for Mostafa the true goal of restaging “30 Days” isn’t to glorify (or fetishize) the revolution, nor is it to highlight the personal relationships that he and his collaborators had with Basiony. Rather, “it’s about presenting this mind to the world, his experiments; it’s about this artist.”

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