17 September 2020

Politics of play. Jasmina Metwaly in Conversation

Arkadiusz Półtorak
'Downfall', 2019-2020, curtain; mixed fabrics, in collaboration with Marta Szypulska
Politics of play. Jasmina Metwaly in Conversation
'Downfall', 2019-2020, curtain; mixed fabrics, in collaboration with Marta Szypulska

Arkadiusz Półtorak: Working on Anbar, the threefold film project and a series of exhibitions centred around the films (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles 2019; KW, Berlin 2020; Galeria Arsenał, Białystok 2020; produced as part of the Consortium Commissions 2018/20, an initiative by Mophradat), you entered a close collaboration with the costume designer Marta Szypulska. One of the film works depicts an Egyptian tailor who explains the know-how of “power-dressing”. Where does your interest in garments stem from? Some of your previous works dealt with how courtrooms represent the existing power structures through their sheer theatricality… Is it fair to say that Anbar builds upon that material?

Jasmina Metwaly: If you consider the theatricality of public life to be the steady undercurrent within my work – then, I would say, yes… Except that, in fact, the Egyptian judiciary is not so public, at least not in the strict sense. What triggered me and my long-time collaborator Philip Rizk to be working with the legal matters after 2011 – so, the time of Egyptian revolution and the so-called Arab Spring – was the anxiety surrounding the very spaces where the law is enacted. My main instinct here – the main impetus – was to reveal something that remains hidden, to ‘dig into it’. Now, as it happens, that place of secrecy is where some critical decisions of legal but also political weight are being made. And, indeed, it is the place where the legal is performed as a sort of play, with its specific protagonists and aesthetics. The latter factor provides a good entry point for what one might perhaps call ‘artistic critique’. But quite often this theatre is not really accessible to the general public, or to the media, unless it’s a top down decision ordered by a judge in charge. 

You mean the court proceedings are closed off from the public view?

Essentially not, they are open. In fact very often they are made very public. But it all depends on who is proceeding the case, what the judge decides, what is allowed to appear in the media. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a lot out there happening that is not made public. Sometimes the orders appear arbitrary, even whimsical. What I find interesting in these court proceedings is the role of the camera, its position, what is allowed for the camera person to film and what isn’t. The camera in some ways becomes an interlocutor between the closed public of the courtroom and what’s open to the general public after censoring or editing. The only other evidence, testimony, memory of what was said during the proceedings “comes out” of that room through those who listened and remembered what was said: families and friends of those behind bars, lawyers… Now, Anbar does not reflect on the legal space itself, but it does build upon legal notions of censorship. I find it very useful and important to rely here on stories that are told by witnesses to events that cannot be or were not documented. Most of the interviews that I worked on for Anbar were coming from this practice of witnessing, looking for stories, asking questions.

‘Anbar (Badrawi’s atelier)’, 2019, 2K video (colour, sound), 19’10’’, courtesy of the artist and Mophardat

Then, how about the garments? Why did you choose to focus on the ‘theatrics’ of military uniforms?

The interest in garments as such comes from my long-standing engagement in the theatre world and the will to slowly weave in some elements of performance, or costumes – a specific mise-en-scene, if you will – into my work. During the early stages of this project I invited Marta Szypulska, with whom we imagined a series of costumes inspired by photographs, films and stories that touch upon notions of masculinity, censorship, the body of a soldier, and of course my own body.

Your own body?

Yes, my own body. Caught up in quite unwieldy relationships to street politics, protests, tactics of personal protection… I was confronting myself, in a way, with the past, decoding traumas… It was a long process and it took me a while to get into the space of tailoring something out of that, both literally and figuratively. 

Speaking of theatre… Was the political weight or the performative component key to the process that led you and Philip to works such as the lecture performance Exercises on Trials?

Both. And I can barely disentangle these two aspects. As someone who lived through the revolution and saw its immediate aftermath, I witnessed the renewal and erection of prisons, police stations or court buildings that proceeded as the post-revolutionary political order was getting solidified. My curiosity was the simultaneity of the visible – or, if you will, aesthetic – changes in Cairo’s public spaces and the growth of the culture of secrecy surrounding whatever happens inside these buildings. In any case, we weren’t just drawn to performance as ‘puppetry’.

‘Untitled’, 2019 – 2020, one from five costumes; leather, wool, acrylic, polyester, cotton, velcro, wire, elastane, polyamide, fabric, in collaboration with Marta Szypulska


I’m stressing this because, somehow, these legal and aesthetic shifts felt too real to reduce them to ‘the performative’, to some clear-cut, neat, neutral ‘theoretical objects’. Even though all of them also felt surreal, in some respects. At times they were hard to believe.

So, to rephrase the initial question, in what way does Anbar build upon that material?

A friend of mine has recently said to me that the way I talk about the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution shows that I’m stuck in some mental space. What they meant was, I guess, that it’s hard for me to get a grip on the present, the reality as-it-is. And I’m sure they were right to a certain degree. But it is not that I am constantly haunted by the memories of the revolution and the dreams of a better future [for Egypt]. What haunts me is also – now that I live in Germany – the sense of inability to be there at the moment. I am certainly a different person than I was in 2011. And maybe it is the reality surrounding my friends and family back home or in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine that didn’t ‘move on’, in a sense… The political situation in Egypt did not change, which means that whether we are here or back there, the present means being stuck to a certain degree. 

I think that all works I made or co-authored after 2011 are interconnected. The continuity of subject matter is the most obvious – but there are also indirect connections, the ones that belong to ‘the toolkit’. Playing with the interview, with the documentary format… Or the exploration of what it means to show the work publicly and to mediate it in any given context… The continuity of such interests also gives a sense of coherence to whatever I made after 2011. But ‘the toolkit’ is also where the most drastic shifts in my artistic persona occurred. It provides a plane of continuity and a plane of development simultaneously. 

I’m sorry if I digress too much…

No, no, it’s okay. But then, tell me what this development is all about. And what do you mean by mediation of your work?

So, mediation is whatever one does with the film work – or, in fact, any work – once it leaves the editing room, or a studio… As a filmmaker, I have always been interested in the limitations of film as a medium – as a tool in its own right – but also in the fact that the work is not complete once you turn the camera off or leave the editing table. It is the cinema or the gallery where the material acquires a new life – or participates in a different performance, so to speak. 

One might also say that this ‘new life’ is being endowed to the content that makes its way to the editing room. Not just to the work as such, as an autonomous, separate entity. This sort of perspective was very important to me while I kept myself busy with Anbar.

‘Anbar (Marta’s studio)’, 2019, 2K video (colour, sound), 18’59’’, courtesy of the artist and Mophardat

Why so?

Again, the impetus came from the political conditioning that surrounds image production, censorship, legal side of things… The Egyptian law currently imposes very harsh penalties on people who express themselves online in the name of cyberspace protection. The suspects are not necessarily ‘propaganda fighters’. They are mostly social media influencers, just casual TikTokers… Of course, these legal measures reflect a global process; laws like this spring up everywhere around the world, and the internet nowadays might be a much more ‘puritan’ space than it used to be, say, in the 1990s… But the gravity of the Egyptian bills should be seen in the context of the country’s political and social development. It is symptomatic of wider political phenomena.

Facing the introduction of such measures, I thought that I might use my ‘tools of trade’ and the museum or gallery spaces to ‘inspect’ an item of special importance to the Egyptian lawmakers and guardians of the social norm… The military garment. There are three distinct characters that appear in the film works belonging to Anbar – an ex-soldier, a tailor and an activist filmmaker. They all have certain ties to the military world. 

And wasn’t your ‘inspection’ of the precious item coupled with some sort of purposeful playfulness, maybe comparable to the play that some of the more expressive TikTokers or Instagrammers enact in their social media presence? I’m thinking now of the ‘mashed-up’ uniforms you designed together with Marta…

It was a play of sorts… But don’t get me wrong. Neither did I mean to provoke, nor to ‘go viral’, nor to do something goofy with the military outfit. What I wanted was to take a closer look at garment as a means of personal expression and political representation in equal measure… As a thing that acquires various meanings in different contexts, some of which might get heavily politicized. By the way, I’m sure that Polish TikTok could provide great material for studying how military aesthetics acquires new symbolic meanings… So do Hollywood movies. For me, one of the main entry points during work on Anbar was the story of Anwar as-Sadat’s uniform. Its public display at Bibliotheca Alexandrina… The iconic recreation of the ex-president’s outfit in the 2001 film about his assassination, Days of Sadat… Last but not least, the attention that Sadat paid to his own appearance and the looks of his soldiers and officials.

For sure, when I collaborated with Marta Szypulska on the costumes that were displayed alongside the films at Hammer, KW and Arsenał, I did allow a certain degree of playfulness to come through… And since part of that process is also visible in one film, I guess it is fair to say that the play ‘slipped’ into the video triptych, too…

‘Untitled’, 2019 – 2020, one from five costumes; leather, wool, acrylic, polyester, cotton, velcro, wire, elastane, polyamide, fabric, in collaboration with Marta Szypulska

What was this playfulness useful for?

You see, playfulness and irony entail a certain distance to the subject matter, which I deem significant… Perhaps not the distance of “high criticism” – but certainly one that allows you to see connections beneath the seemingly far-off narrations like, say, the narrations inscribed into Sadat’s uniforms. The one carefully stored at the studio of Badrawy – so, the tailor I interviewed – and the one kept at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the one that Ahmad Zaki wore in Days of Sadat. They, in a way, present two different scenarios of looking at Sadat, at his politics and, last but not least, at the public life in Egypt. What if one builds a bridge between these two is the question that I have been thinking about a great deal.

So, is there any ‘politics of play’ that you try to formulate or think about in Anbar?

I think I can only answer this question sincerely as an artist and speak of ‘the political’ in the arts rather than politics in general. You know, the fact that I spoke to a tailor that caters to the military forces and recorded him does not imply – to me – that I made some sort of grand political intervention. What he revealed to us and the camera is only what he wanted to reveal – and, ultimately, what he could reveal… But I consider two stages of artistic process as ‘politically charged’, so to speak. The first is the moment when I take the recorded material to the editing table… or when I edit and remix some motifs from ‘real life’ in a studio, just like I did while working on costumes with Marta Szypulska. People like military tailors shape our common ‘real’ through aesthetics – through fictions, if you will… Hence, there is a degree of power in restating the constructed quality of the so-called ‘real world’ and engaging with it in the plane of fiction. 

The second political moment in art making occurs when I take the final edits or complete objects to the gallery, the museum or the cinema… I firmly believe that we need such spaces desperately. We need the ‘real life’ spaces where one might engage with the content of cultural production, mediate it and have face-to-face conversations about it. The cyberspace might be a great space for personal expression and for addressing issues of public importance; doing these things in the internet might even get penalized for all the wrong reasons, paradoxically reasserting the importance of the online activities… Especially in countries like Egypt, where the public sphere is not limited to, but centers around the cyberspace. Still, sometimes ‘the online’ is just not enough. 

And how about the ‘playfulness’ you and Philip Rizk channeled while working on Out on the Street, the 2015 film that depicts a group of Egyptian workers reenacting their encounters with factory managers and the police during a theatre workshop?

It was there, for sure. But it was a different sort of playfulness than the one I channeled with Marta. We worked with real people, their real stories from their lives, the time of the revolution, privatisation of factories and worker strikes in Cairo…

‘Downfall’, 2019-2020, curtain; mixed fabrics, in collaboration with Marta Szypulska

On the other hand… The distance I spoke about earlier was definitely at play even there. We held the theatre workshop in a tent that was placed on the roof of a building in Mounira, a district of Cairo that was quite remote from the workers’ houses. They had to invest their time and energy into coming there… They had to genuinely want that experience; to place themselves in a remote place – or rather, non-place – outside of their day-to-day life and usual preoccupations. Going through improv exercises also entailed a certain distance. The task was to remove oneself from ‘the serious stuff’ via improv – but also to look at the very significant, grave issues that shaped the workers’ lives through the improv lens. 

Now, to wrap this talk up, tell me what drives you forward in your artistic work these days.

For now, I need mainly rest… But also the mental concession on doing things that are even more playful without a sense of guilt.

Doing things in what medium?  

Film is the most familiar, of course, but familiarity is of secondary importance at the moment.


ArtistJasmina Metwaly
ExhibitionAnbar. Exercises in Mimicry
Place / venueArsenal Gallery in Białystok
Dates20 June – 4 September 2020
Curated byArkadiusz Półtorak

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