Not so Silent
On Walking and Crawling
In the late 1990s, an African-American man dressed in a Superman outfit with a skateboard strapped to his back was sighted on numerous occasions crawling across Broadway, the longest street in Manhattan's financial district. This man was not the 'Clark' of Lois Lane. He was not trying to break a Guinness World Record, nor was he part of a comic skit on Saturday Night Live. This Superman could not fly (while on duty, he does not even walk.). But his super powers lay in his ability to transform a simple physical gesture into an iconic performance: William Pope.L's The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street.
It's December 2009. I arrive in Cairo for the first time only a few weeks after Amal Kenawy's controversial street performance Silence of the Sheep was staged. In a nutshell, Kenawy dressed in overalls and big sunglasses, led a group of 15 people – mostly male labourers – crawling on their hands and knees across Champollion Street a busy area in downtown Cairo. As I make my way around the city, visiting artist studios, I hear chatter surrounding the event: people were angry, there was hostility. The artist, performers, and some members of the public were arrested and released 24 hours later.
Staged on 14 December 2009, Silence of the Sheep was part of the group exhibition Assume the Position at Cairo's Townhouse Gallery, curated by Nikki Columbus. It also coincided with two other main art events that attracted an international art audience: the 25th Alexandria Biennale and an international curatorial workshop organised in collaboration with Tate Britain at Townhouse. With so much activity happening in Cairo, many visiting curators, artists and arts professionals came out to see and photograph Kenawy's performance. For some, this created a perception of this being nothing more than a pageant that unfolded for the benefit of a western gaze. Another assumption surrounding the controversies that erupted was that Kenawy, perceived as a member of the middle class, was seen to be demeaning Egyptian workers by parading them on the street. The crowd's reactions transcribed from her video documentation include:
'Stand up everyone!'
'She paid you 20 Egyptian pound to do this?'
'You don't care about your Egyptian pride?!!'
'Shame on you!!'
'You bring workers to do this to them.'
'A bunch of sheep.'
In a conversation with writer Mai Elwakil, published in the Egypt Independent on 2 January 2011, Kenawy defended her work: 'The public was offended by the Silence of the Sheep's performance, although it basically mirrors what people discuss on a daily basis.' At the time, there was a strong sense of helplessness towards the harsh living conditions that maintained the status quo. (Ideas of conformity and difficult living conditions are central themes in Kenawy's diverse practice.) Sarah Rifky – at the time a curator at Townhouse Gallery – was one of the few female (and artistic) participants in the performance. Six years later, she remains conflicted about what was achieved. Working closely with Kenawy to realise the work, Rifky stated that the actual mission was, 'to create an interpretation of the everyday through a gesture that would insinuate political apathy'. The artist was interested in creating hyper-realistic gestures that would be performed by a group as an intervention. Her intention was to stage the action in a setting that would take her outside of the confines of the gallery space and have a direct engagement with the context it is addressing.
As it was performed, the contracted male participants outnumbered the women. In an effort to balance these gender dynamics, Rifky and two other children volunteered to participate. They were all dressed in neutrally-coloured pyjamas, a choice that could not fully conceal the markers of class and gender, nor gloss over their radically different incentives for participating in the work.