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ÂRCO Art fair  2005
Eric de Chassey


 Summing up the narrative of Amal Kenaws video The Room (10 mn, 2003) won’t be of much help to someone who hasn’t seen it.  Images unfold simply from one sequence to another, with many returns: from a veiled bride in a bathroom to a trapped butterfly, from a beating heart decorated with lace, pearls and an artificial rose to a caged tree, from a flooded still-life to a bed slowly covered by a web of yarn… Stating the obvious subject matter of the piece won’t do either, as its importance makes it universal and common at the same time: it speaks of identity as defined by inner feelings but also by boundaries imposed from outside, especially for the female individual. Paradoxically, far from an objective viewpoint, it might prove more fruitful to tell how I personally encountered this work, about which I knew nothing beforehand (nor did I know anything about its author). Skipping from one booth to another at ARCO, I came upon an image on a plasma screen, the image of a white bed with a washed out sleeping beauty, on which nails were planted to the sound of a gentle tympanum. Threads were then fastened from one nail to another, forming a network which ultimately hid it almost completely, fading into a composition made of a dangling pair of female legs in a skirt made of wire. That part looked like animation and I was surprised when after a short break (I had actually first seen the end of the video) I came upon filmed footage of a veiled woman holding a bouquet in a shower, water dripping all over her. Not that using various media in one piece is such an uncommon thing to do nowadays. But this video shows that Amal El Kenawy has a particular ability to mingle different modes and forms, with a constant strength in feelings, whether she deals with clichés or with a more personal imagery. Identity is a slippery and a constructed notion, especially when it doesn’t exclude intimate feelings (which it shouldn’t). It is as ambivalent as that image which is the basis of the central sequence of Amal El Kenawy’s video: a pulsating large heart installed on a white sheet (as if for a surgical operation or for a religious offering, made more familiar when the camera pans out and shows it to be a pillow), slowly ornamented by a pair of lace gloved hands with several pearls and one flower, in a gesture both violent and delicate, familiar and strange
Born in 1974 in Egypt, where she lives and works, she has indeed been first known through her collaborative work with her brother Abdel Ghany Kenawy, which has consisted since 1997 in multi-media large-scale installations, with a strong sculptural bent (The Room also exists as a performance piece, the film projected on one screen next to a live performance whose main character is a woman dressed as a bride).  Amal El Kenawy’s personal work deals more specifically with her own identity, especially as a woman living in an Islamic country. But even though The Room deals with the specifics of that identity, it hasn’t fell for the simplifications which a Western audience might be waiting for (women always in hijab if not in burkha, deserts and psalmodic chants). It acknowledges the history of women’s representation of their condition (the video as well asrelated drawings sometimes evoke previous works by Deren, Hesse, Bourgeois or Schneemann), while literalizing the kind of metaphors one finds in Egyptian syrupy movies or Arabic poetry.  
.ÂRCO Art fair  2005

Eric de Chassey