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Hassan Khan in Cairo

Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF)

007 / 26 June 2014

In developing The Agreement (2011), Hassan Khan worked with a group of local craftsmen to manufacture ten home accessories of his design. The objects, a plate decorated with colourfully painted vegetables, a pink and blue glass sculpture with leafy branches and a range of ceramic and silicon statues, were all crafted like low-budget household objects common in Egyptian homes. Khan designed the pieces to go with five short stories he had penned, inspired by his hometown. Each story presents a single scene from the lives of the ultra rich, an aspiring social climber, and two police informers; one story is about school children. Together they offer nuanced rather than comprehensive impressions of life in Cairo, and when exhibited, the stories are printed on the wall above a shelf holding the objects, while a bilingual book with the same title is also available for visitors to take home.


Hassan Khan, The Agreement, 2014. Installation view, D-CAF 2014, Hassan Khan.
Hassan Khan, The Agreement, 2014. Installation view, D-CAF 2014, Hassan Khan.


Khan's approach to creating The Agreement was somewhat collaborative. In several of his projects, he works with craftsmen and performers, gradually developing the artwork over time. This kind of collaboration was perhaps more organic in the case of Khan's much-celebrated Jewel (2010), where all the moves were choreographed with the two 'actors'. Jewel is a six-minute film, commissioned by the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf) in Doha for its inaugural group exhibition, Told/Untold/Retold, in late 2010. It transforms a glowing anglerfish into an emblem around which two men perform a dance ritual. It is captivating, almost hypnotizing, even though a scene that is quite common on Cairo's streets inspires it. In its making, Khan composed the music and worked with each actor for an entire month to design gestures that are simultaneously personal and recognizable, to develop a language which made sense to them without being completely decipherable by audience members encountering the final video installation. Much of the choreography was inspired by the actors' backgrounds; some moves came from street dance; others were simply made up in collaboration with the performers.


Khan compares his role in such projects to that of a film or theatre director, building on the agency of his crew with the hope that the final results might surprise him. For him, the artwork is more important than a standard process. It needs to intrigue him. For viewers, learning about his process is at times essential to access the work. And so, on the opening night of his latest Cairo exhibition, one writer commented that the show needed a manual to navigate. Many agreed that the survey show was somewhat cryptic although underlying themes and interests become clearer with multiple visits.


The exhibition, simply titled Hassan Khan, constituted the entire visual arts program of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) this year. In its third iteration, the multidisciplinary festival partnered with the Cairo Laboratory for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research (CLUSTER) to organize the show, presenting 21 works by Khan from 1997 to the present – most of which were being shown in Egypt for the first time. A number of related talks and a concert were organized in the downtown area as footnotes to the event.


Khan started his public career as an artist in 1995 in Cairo. But over the past decade he gave talks, lecture performances, concerts and engaged in discussions locally as opposed to exhibiting his work. He occasionally took part in major group shows such as the biannual arts festival, PhotoCairo. In its 2012 edition, Khan showed Insecure (2002), a vinyl lettering piece through which he directs viewers toward their deepest vulnerabilities. In 2013, he screened the Blind Ambition (2012) video as part of D-CAF's second edition. Still, local artists and audiences only got to see glimpses of Khan's work although they regularly heard or read about it. Hence, while the decision to devote the art component of the city's major arts festival to a single artist raised some debate, the Hassan Khan exhibition was highly anticipated.



The location chosen to host the blockbuster show added to the excitement. With a special interest in reactivating downtown venues and connecting the art circuit with the public, CLUSTER curator and co-founder Beth Stryker decided to turn the Kodak Passageway into an exhibition venue for the first time. The Kodak Passageway connects two very busy, central streets: Adly and Abdel Khaliq Tharwat. It also overlooks the heavily guarded Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue. The passageway is, nevertheless, among the quieter pedestrian walkthroughs in downtown Cairo, as its old stores had shut down years back. CLUSTER worked on renovating four of the rundown storefronts to host the show, with several artworks made visible from the street.


Jewel was exhibited in a closed pitch-black store down the passageway. But, the Shaabi beats of Khan's music blared outside, luring pedestrians in. The open shop next door perfectly hosted Dom-Tak-Tak-Dom-Tak (2005); the sound and light installation being completely accessible from the passageway. The two remaining shop fronts acted more like standalone exhibitions, showing multiple sculpture, photography, video and text-based works. Much of the work stems from Khan's experience with his surroundings – he has worked in the downtown area for over a decade – making the exhibition almost site-specific in how it connects with its context. And although Khan refuses to peg his work to a specific geography, the references he uses as starting points for his art are relatable to local audiences in many cases. These references go through a long process, making the final artwork surpass being a mere representation or translation of a context.


Take for instance Banque Bannister (2010), which was shown in the second gallery. The sculptural piece is a recreation of an architectural detail: the outdoor bannister of Egypt's first national bank, located only a few streets away. Khan re-produced an immaculate version of the handrail; only he decontextualized it, suspending it in mid air like a supernatural creature – the only obvious reference to its origin being the work's title.


Other sculptural pieces on display such as The Twist, produced in 2012, also have a strong presence due to form. The Twist is a polished copy of an ornament from a balcony rail Khan saw in Alexandria, elongated to extend from floor to ceiling.  Khan describes his interest in the ornamental detail as a reflection of the moment of the 'birth of civilization' through this simple act of creation and design – a reference which could be highly opaque to the audience.


A similarly internal logic is followed in The Alphabet Book (2006), which matches each letter of the alphabet with a photograph. Copies of the book available for viewing are engaging in terms of the unexpected relationships viewers can draw between a single letter and a seemingly familiar image. But the process through which Khan devised the publications, if and when shared with the exhibition visitors, adds multiple layers to explore. The Alphabet Book draws on the artist's dreams, only he developed it by creating images to match texts which he wrote inspired by his dreams rather than being a direct literal translation of them. Khan seems to be offering through the publications a retracted trip into his psyche.


Hassan Khan, The Twist, 2012, and The Alphabet Book, 2006. Installation view, D-CAF 2014, Hassan Khan.
Hassan Khan, The Twist, 2012, and The Alphabet Book, 2006. Installation view, D-CAF 2014, Hassan Khan.


The Alphabet Book is one direct example of how the artist shares his personal vision with the audience. His long and diverse practice includes many more. The source of most of Khan's work is his personal observations, particularly in Cairo, a city that is overcrowded and dense, physically and emotionally. For years now, Khan has been working on these observations and borrowing languages that intrigue him from popular culture. He does not describe his approach as appropriation because he does not feel the need to fulfill the expectations from such literary, musical or visual culture formats. Khan also does not try to comment on these languages. His Shaabi music pieces, like the composition of Jewel, are meant as original music. His 1997 video work, Do you want to fight? – produced in collaboration with artist-filmmaker Sherif El Azma – is another example. It combines footage of two boxers, similar to an old Hollywood production, with a minimal sound track re-iterating the phrase, 'Do you want to fight?' in Arabic. The descriptive literary style of average fiction, which Khan deploys in text-based works such as Mahmoud El Ansari (2010), Mystery (2011) and The Agreement, is another. In the latter cases, these seemingly familiar languages are used to very different ends. Khan seems to use them to underpin existing social relationships and mobility in the city, the insecurities and paranoia, which Cairo might build within people. At times, they are quite obvious, if not totally acceptable, to onlookers. At others, like in the case of Mystery, an interesting spin can push the stories further. Printed on blank pages which Khan tore out of the 80s teen fiction series titled The Five Adventurers, he presents a fictional account of a man encountering the memoirs of another only to be taken back to his own child years with the same series.


Many of the works in Hassan Khan contain a circular nature. In fact, some works reference the logic behind the creation of other works. And it is this trip back and forth between the artist's references and the works themselves, spanning almost two decades that makes artist survey shows such a necessary eye-opener.

About the author

Mai Elwakil

Mai Elwakil is a writer based in Cairo. She is the co-founder of the Arab contemporary arts channel Medrar.TV, and was the culture editor at the English language news website Egypt Independent until April 2013. She blogs at Arab Art Beat.