Atlanta

Fathi Hassan: Edge of Memory at Clark Atlanta University Art Museum

In his 1978 text Orientalism, Edward Said states that the “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab–Islamic peoples and their cultures” is not just bound by historical clashes, sociocultural differences, or geography, but a constellation of a “whole series of interests” predicated on the desire to control, manipulate, and incorporate “what is manifestly different.”[1] Under Western hegemonic power, the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, Said suggests, is now a struggle for dominance between postcolonial marginalized cultures suffering under the mandates of local elites eager for power and visibility within the West’s global market relations, investments, and forced modernizations.[2]

Fathi Hassan. Crossing, 2016; acrylic and gauze on paper; 58.25 x 74.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Fathi Hassan. Crossing, 2016; acrylic and gauze on paper; 58.25 x 74.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Walking through Fathi Hassan: Edge of Memory at Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, I felt the frustration, anguish, and urgency of Said’s claims circulating through the painterly and linguistic surface textures of Hassan’s works, as well as an acute awareness that the tensions of imperialism are not just of the 19th century, but distinctly of today. This timely exhibition asks us to engage with the historical legacies of imperial power alongside the representational possibilities, problems, and mutabilities inherent in visual and linguistic production to form connections between the lived experiences of colonialism and images of it.

Born in Cairo in 1957 to Sudanese and Egyptian parents of Nubian origins, Hassan engages with the history of colonialism through experimentation with ancient scripts and graphic forms of languages that have been upended by imperialism. For Hassan, these “interventions” into Nubian culture shift the historical and cultural memories of those who live at the seams between different accounts and consequences of history and occupation. The legacy of the Nubians, an ethnic group originating from modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan, with a history dating back to dynastic Egypt, is a narrative peppered with outside conquest, displacement, economic strife, loss of traditional forms of writing and culture, and a fraught political relationship with the Egyptian state.[3]

Fathi Hassan. Angel, 2008; stone etching; 16.5 x 26 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Fathi Hassan. Angel, 2008; stone etching; 16.5 x 26 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Hassan’s engagement with the ancient forms and figures of his Nubian past presents a desire to unearth, rework, and revitalize the slow dissolution of this rich culture at the hands of Egyptian elites. Thus, like many artists living and working outside or displaced from their country of origin, Hassan registers the condition of cultural shift and migration conceptually as something liminal—between different spaces, times, perspectives, and memories—as well as precarious and fragile. Nowhere is this expressed more powerfully than in Crossing (2016), a painting rendered on tissue-thin paper, which works as a kind of fulcrum in the exhibition to turn viewers’ attention to the delicate nature of Nubian culture as it exists in an Arab world. Thrusting, ominous vectors of black-and-white layered figures cut into the force of other spaces and grounds built of repetitive calligraphic fragments of Nubian and Arabic languages—teetering between legibility and nonsense, and competing for domination. Bold and powerful despite its insecure foundation, Hassan’s work presents a battle for the survival of Nubian traditions.

Fathi Hassan. Container of Memory, 2000; mixed media with sand; 19 x 27.75 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Fathi Hassan. Container of Memory, 2000; mixed media with sand; 19 x 27.75 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

This struggle finds new form in Angel (2008), a soft, saturated work on paper of a camel progressing through the deep vastness of a desert environs, with an ominous, feathery vortex of bodily and organic fragments emanating out of the animal’s hump. The camel is set on mounds of Arabic-Nubian characters, while a jar sits precariously in the foreground, neither within nor on top of the mound. The desert, through Said’s eyes, is a place of Western imagination, fantasy, and exoticism. Hassan responds to these problematic projects of the Western gaze by presenting the desert and its noble beasts as a historical space of Nubians, who once dominated the deserts of Egypt in nomadic tribes—an account of the former mastery of a terrain they have since lost. The camel as an angel (of history in the Benjamin-ian sense, perhaps) is a monument to the history both alive and lost, walking out of or into the vast desert as a figure or mirage.

The symbol of the jar as a vessel of history and memory is rendered overt and recapitulated in Hassan’s Container of Memory (2000). The ancient utilitarian object often used in rituals, funerals, and ceremonies bears witness to religious rites as well as the activities of the everyday. The form of the jar is shaped from Nubian and Arabic characters that range in scale, from bold and chunky to thin and elegant, and it’s covered with a grainy, sandy texture. The piece points to the absurd logic of historical memory as something fully present and available within the stories and objects of a culture, but forever slipping out between the edges of one period and the next.

Fathi Hassan: Edge of Memory will be on view at Clark Atlanta University Art Museum in Atlanta, GA through May 26, 2017.

 


[1] I must extend my thanks to Dr. Maurita Poole, Director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, and curatorial assistant Diamond Mason for all of their help in the research and writing of this article. For in-text citations, see Edward Said, “Introduction,” in Orientalism (1978), New York: Vintage Books, 2013, pg. 9.

[2] Ibid. pg. 9.

[3] The most famous incident of Nubian oppression is the seizure of ancestral homelands during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s by the Egyptian government—a decision that has been an environmental and human-rights disaster for the Nubians (famine, erosion, flooding, and drought are just some of the consequences of this building project). See journalist Khaled Diab’s writing on Nubian history and culture for The Guardian; most recently, his contextualization of Nubian history in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution.

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