Amal Kenawy & Antje Majewski
Powerful Symbolism
Ica Wahbeh - The Jordan Times Weekender
February 15, 2007

The Room, 2004, video art & performance, 17' 00"

To the dramatic sounds of string instruments, barefooted and dressed in black, Amal Kenawy makes her appearance against the dark background of the colonnaded yard of Darat Al Funun. On the dais where she seats herself is a white wedding dress on an iron dummy, some unstuck parts fluttering in the wind.

Like a modern-day Penelope, she starts sewing part of it, graceful like a bird in flight, with measured movements full of purpose.

And then the screen behind her comes to life. A bride clad in a white wedding gown, the veil and gloves de rigueur, stands in front of a bathroom mirror, water flowing somewhere invisible, a vital liquid spreading like another vital liquid – blood – both recurrent motifs in Kenawy’s art.

Through a reverse animation process, a leafless tree, like a living object, gradually regresses to a small speck in a bare, clinical room, becoming a stone, a moving amorphous body that assumes the image of a beating heart.

The bride’s gloved hands start stitching the heart, a living organism pulsating with the rhythm of the music, each pull of the needle mirrored in Kenawy’s acts on stage.

Stitch after painful stitch pricks the heart. Scissors incise openings where beads on wires are inserted by the almost cruel hands that start sewing a white paper rose on the “breathing” organ.

The “decorations” becomes stifling, the thread wraps around the barely pounding heart that becomes the body of the bride lying on a huge white bed. She is covered by a shroud – never really having had the wedding party – and gradually, around huge pins with lit heads, threads are woven in the manner of a huge spider gone erratic, zigzagging, coming and going, smothering the woman, like the heart before her, till… nothingness. Darkness.

The total darkness is converted into light by the artist who sets fire to the dress she had been stitching, like another Penelope undoing her work, awaiting for another day, or like a Scheherazade finishing a story only to soon start another.

This is “The room”, Kenawy’s video and performance act, powerful, loaded with symbolism and deep philosophical thought, precursor to her other video productions that can be seen in the main building of Darat Al Funun.

You Will Be Killed, 2006, video animation & paintings, 5' 56"

Purple is the only concession Kenawy makes to colour; almost the colour of blood flowing through the body but also outside it, seeping out to let it die, like in “Stop – you will be killed”.

A dead/dying woman is lying on her back. A rat gnaws at her entrails, drawing purple blood, a transmogrified woman standing over her. The scene is repeated in a set of drawings on the walls of the hall, culminating in the video (based on the drawings) of the same woman, first real, then becoming a drawing too. To the sound of dramatic music, the skilled animation rapidly transforms scene after scene, faithfully rendering by now familiar images: rooms (dimensions given) that become of confining sizes and forbidding bars that become grids; rats that are metamorphosed into bats, all blood-drawing animals with lugubrious connotations; trees that become hearts, abstract shapes and well defined images, a familiar world and one of fantasy drawn by the imagination of an evil mind.

“You will be killed” is set in a real place/location – a military hospital. Fantastic images and spaces are projected onto the walls of this actual space, converting the hospital into a gallery. “The location has an undeniably intense history; it is a place that has witnessed conflicts/relations of power and violence. The superimposition of a picture of myself on the walls of the hospital emphasizes that this is my understanding of the place. The work however is not about a particular place or a specific event, it is about violence in general, whether on a personal or political level.”

The Purple Artificial Forest, 2005, video animation & drawings, 8' 50"

In “The artificial purple forest”, Kenawy constructs and deconstructs spaces and bodies. Purple body parts appear as normally as trees in a forest, coming together for a normal body or, single, sprouting branches, leaves and flowers in a continuous process of metamorphosis.
Pulsating blood, the eternal heart, confining rooms, the cage-like outline of a hoop skirt containing the floating legs or a woman, demons, bats, babies, spiders, butterflies – images succeed each other constantly, almost subliminally, are by now familiar yet unsettling.

A cobweb is wrapped around a woman, creating a chrysalis from which, in a strange process of evolution, a butterfly evolves. The same thread that suffocated life creates this life-giving pupa. The process is emphasized by the presence of light bulbs and electric pylons, objects that bring light, another life-giving element, into our lives.

The symbolism is such that you cannot keep pace with it. Life-giving and life-taking, women, babies, blood, light and darkness, juxtapositions that talk about transformation – of life gone into nonexistence, of one form of life into another, of one species becoming another, of the power of the human being to effect such transformation, of its impotence in succumbing to it.

The 33-year-old Kenawy is surreally philosophical and introspective in her art; too deep, one would say, for her age. Yet artists are like that, and in her case, “these images come close to portraying me, to being an expression of my true self, the self that I can see clearly way beyond the narrow confines of my body”.

According to her (in response to critic Gerald Matt who presented, with great introspection, her work at Darat Al Funun), “these body parts [in “The artificial purple forest”] and the imagined, hostile spaces that they lie in, have interchangeable roles, one devouring the other and vice-versa in an endless cycle of consumption/destruction”.

Frozen Memory, 2002, video art, 4' 00"

“Frozen memory”, done with her brother Abdel Ghany Kenawy, is another suggestive video work making use of her other imagery.

The “frozen” memory is not exactly that. It is water rippling in a glass container in which the artist’s face appears, clear at the beginning, slowly getting shadowed and finally, like in many other images before it, shrouded in an opaque veil that makes it (implicitly her existence) disappear. A wedding photo of a couple appears, a tree (the same that becomes a heart in “The room”), written pages, and then, again, nothing, but the water waving gently in its cold receptacle.

In a reverse climax from “The room’s”, fire this time serves to create, not destroy. A small fire flickers at the bottom of the vessel, growing stronger with each lapping flame, paradoxically “creating” the ever-present wedding dress instead of consuming it, leaving it floating in the water.
Water and fire, life and death, creation and destruction – contrasting notions Kenawy makes ample use of to tackle deep existential problems and look inside herself.

“When I looked within myself, I began to realize myself as an independent entity that contains a set of laws which rule and govern my body as a physical being. However, these laws do not represent or convey the true nature of myself for the do not correspond with my feelings about life and non-existence,” said the artist in her “personal statement”.

So the search is on, and in the process, she creates powerful, moving, surprising art that leaves one thinking, questioning conventional concepts, and a bit reeling.


"The Actor Kaveh Parmas plays a Dead Person", 2005, Oil on wood, 50x63cm

Continuing the philosophical trail, the relation between reality, and fantasy and myth, the Blue House houses German artist Antje Majewski’s oils on wood, “inspired by Mexican art”.

The subjects of death, the dead and the after-life are central to Majewski; her exhibition, organized in cooperation with the Goethe Institute, is a visual expression of her “spiritual and emotional meditation/search; it is her aesthetic contemplation of universal enigmas such as beginnings and endings, the ephemeral and the eternal, the natural and the supernatural, and the earthly and the divine”.

Figurative art depicts everyday, familiar objects: a light bulb fitted on a wall, with a string of beads and a white ribbon hanging from it; a “hybrid” chair (wood over plastic) alone on the canvas; the exterior of a house with barred windows and a curving external staircase winding up, a potted plant in the yard and the overall golden hue suggesting the hot sunlight.

Departing from it is a cubic form distorted by wedges inserted at odd angles. But this is only to provide a moment of respite before going back to the symbolism of contrasting concepts. Two women seated at a table vacantly stare somewhere in a darkened room; the silence is almost palpable. No communication, no dialogue, no animation. They seem suspended in a state of frigidness, dead bodies left seated, or, maybe, deep in thought that does not need to be shared.

The images of two men – one below the other, the bottom one upside down in a kind of strange symmetry – look like a reflection of each other. A closer look, however, show one alive, the other seemingly dead. Two levels, death, transformation, passing from one life to another.

The figure of what seems to be a petrified native Indian sits on a colourful chair of clear outlines, contemplating an unseen image. The lower part of his face seems to have disintegrated into a blurry beard – or is undergoing some process of metamorphosis, into another creature in the afterlife.

Four more portraits – of two men and two girls – are other interesting juxtapositions.

The men, staring into the unknown, are fully alert, an angry look fixed on their tattooed faces. Almost photographic in detail, they may very well be real portraits of young men (band members or revolutionaries) met on the artist’s travels.

The two girls, together in a round frame, are peacefully asleep. It is a state of utter stillness, almost death.

Immobile, deep in sleep, they could be just tired after a long day of work.

The viewer is left guessing in all cases, and that is probably what the artist wanted.


See also:

> Amal Kenawy
You Will Be Killed - video animation & paintings
The Purple Artificial Forest - video
animation & drawings
Frozen Memory - video art
The Room - video art & performance
Amal Kenawy talks to Gerald Matt, director of Kunsthalle Vienna
Death and the Maiden, article by Simon Njami

> Antje Majewski

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