Expressions on how women or men should align to a certain idealized standard of femininity and masculinity are common to several languages or cultures. In Italy, sentences such as “comportati da uomo” or “fai l’uomo” are surprisingly common among women towards growing-up boys. In English, the phrasal verb “man up” translates as “being brave or tough enough to deal with a difficult or unpleasant situation”, where the reference to the male gender remains unclear to me. Estarghel! is an exclamation in Egyptian Arabic that translates as “be a man!” or “behave like a man!” and when living in Egypt I used to hear it quite often.
Ibrahim Ahmed’s works included in the exhibition A Whole Population of Poets decodes his relation to masculinity, analysing the modes of its construction alongside its implications. His personal history as a male immigrant who moved from Kuwait to Bahrain, then from the SWANA region to the US, and has been based in Egypt since 2014, is the point of departure for an internalised dialogue with his male self, tracing a trajectory that proceeds from his family and looks at society at large.
The four chapters of the project dismantle manliness as it is perceived and performed across different geographical and cultural areas. An oppressive system of power perpetuated through the “real man” discourse, masculinity is part of a wider colonial and imperialist domination.
The concept of the exhibition reflects on the transformations that took place in the Middle East over the past decades, metamorphoses on various levels of people’s lives, cultures, and countries over time. As we read in the statement, “In A Whole Population of Poets […] the artists invite us into their personal odyssey.” A sentence that seems perfect if we think about your work.
Indeed, the work moves from a personal act of meditation initiated in 2016, and I consider it as the product of a journey, a process of awareness. It makes visible the ways in which we are held in place by a cultural repertoire of masculine behaviours and how this has implications on micro and macro levels. It opens up uncomfortable questions that undermine the philosophies of the world we live in.
The first series, Burn what needs to be burnt (2016–2019), comprises collage works, photography, writing and sculpture where you manipulate your own body as the battleground for self-analysis, meshing it with car parts, architectures, or design elements.
The photography The things I hope to bury (2016) is a self-portrait and a vantage point for the project. Here, I wear a metal mask made of assembled car parts whose references are multiple. Cars and motors are a symbol of power and of male performativity, but the design of the mask also resembles war helmets and architectures. Moreover, the mask is a popular element in various African cultures, where it represents a supernatural being that possesses the wearer as much as the simulation of masculinity overtakes mind and consciousness without being questioned. My face disappears behind the cage and the expression is absent. Hence, the mask represents the limitations and constrictions of manliness as performance.
In the photo collages of the series You can’t recognize what you don’t know (2020–2021) you perform in the studio, assuming postures that resemble Greco-Roman and Ancient Egyptian statues with their idealized standard of power and masculinity or you struggle with a stone. In both, your body disappears bit by bit.
The hyper-masculinity reaches a climax and the unbearable tension with the self is openly visible. Entangled muscles, physical power, and strength create a grotesque super-ego. The struggle with the stone, a cement block used in the neighbourhoods of Cairo to claim parking spots, is a metaphor of the weight of masculinity and the exhausting role-play it implies. while also considering it as an occupying force relegated to enforcer of certain parameters within the nation state.
The title of certain artworks such as What comes after. Bring peace to this restlessness (2018) is quite telling about the draining performativity of the super-man character. The remnant cut-outs converge into images where the excavated, empty body reflects what survives when masculinity is created at the expense of the individual self.
While searching for the roots of your relation to masculinity, you started an exploration of the photos of your family, focusing on your father’s photographs and on his personal trajectory from a farmer boy in the North Delta region to a banker in the US. Here the archive of images is a historical document that witnesses a constructed visual landscape.
Some parts seem forgotten (2020–2021) explores the correlation between the architecture of my father’s body and mine. Creating the black and white images of the first two chapters of the project prior to viewing the family archive, I noticed how cyclical these architectures are, even though they are a generation apart. It compares the two of us, finding incredible similarities in our body postures and gestures.
In my father’s photographs emerges a narrative perpetuating itself through certain models. There is always a car, a flag, a monument, a military procession such as the celebration of the Independence Day (July 4th). Quickly but carefully crossed to the other side (2020–2021) elaborates on and illustrates these masculine trajectories that traverse several geographies, and the patterns one can witness through my father’s photography in order to put into question the terrain we are inheriting.
The project was quite demanding to you both as an artist and as a person. You construct, deconstruct, reconstruct, and analyse yourself in order to dismantle a much wider structure embedded into our society, the making of gender identity on a larger scale.
I would define it as a passage from a microscope to a telescope. The first part of the project focuses on myself and on the analyses on my identity as a transient being.
I attempted to portray the fictionalised character coming out of both me and my father but also from the deconstruction of the narration of the nation-state building of masculinity. What discourses do societies create about men and what role does the established power play in preserving them? Colonialism and imperialism favour a narrative of dominance and exertion that reflects on their construction of gender identity. Colonial masculinity interprets manliness as aggressor and dominating, part of enforcing hierarchy through “machismo” performance that is loyal to the prevailing nations of the imperialist project.
It is a political act and denounce of the still-active imperialist heritage.
Yes, of course. The contemporary implications of colonisation and imperialism are present in my practice, as I believe colonial history and neo-colonial dynamics determine today’s politics of the world. There is a connection between the public and the intimate, the macro and the micro where masculinity is a macro product of imperialist power echoing in the micro-politics of individual body and family nucleus.
The medium of this project is very different from what you usually use. In your previous works you have resorted to painting, fabric, and installation often blending the techniques together, such as in the installations Does anybody leave heaven? (2019) or Only dreamers leave (2016). Here, you have completely changed the approach to the technique of your work, and I have discussed this with curator Davood Madadpoor.
True, I do not have a favorite medium. I approach medium as a part of the artwork that responds to its content, and therefore according to what fits in best with the topic I am dealing with. For this project, I needed a medium that was quite literal and that mirrored the process of self-analysis and observation of the self. Therefore, photography seemed perfect, and the idea was reinforced when I retrieved photos from the family archive.
The archive is a tool to understand history and to mine it at the same time, re-read it and re-create it. You end up telling different stories on pre-existing structures and narratives, reshaping what is being transmitted as an established truth. As the concept of the exhibition suggests, your transformation is an attempt to shed light on the present and also to pave a new way into the future.
In the project, I invite the viewer to recognize what is relevant outside of the grid placed on us. In this sense, I hope the artwork serves to counter or to deconstruct the official narrative and the dynamics behind it, without perpetuating the same circle. Throughout my work, I eventually generated a counter-archive or an “archive from outside” that revolves around personhood, agency, and self-determination: in one word, it expresses the basic need to narrate one’s own story. This way, I believe that not only my artwork but also my artistic practice as a whole is a testimony of a time, a trace. It acts as a documentation of and a gate to access a moment in time – a key to mine the past to rethink the contemporary world.
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Flavia Elena Malusardi is an independent curator, researcher, and art writer. Her work focuses on the contemporary arts and visual culture of the Middle East and North Africa, with an interest in archival and collecting practices within post-colonial contexts. She lived in Cairo and Dubai, where she worked with international galleries and curators. She is the editor of Vista Sud a bi-monthly column featured in Osservatorio Futura and she contributes regularly to the visual arts section of Arabesque, the first Italian magazine devoted to the study of culture of/from the Arab world.
Malusardi holds a Master’s degree in History of Art and Architecture of the Islamic Middle East from SOAS School of Oriental and African Studies (London) and an MFA in Visual Cultures and Curatorial Practice from Accademia di Brera (Milan). She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art with an international position between Università Cà Foscari (Venice) and OIB Orient Institut Beirut (Beirut). Her project investigates the role of gallerist Janine Rubeiz and her informal space Dar Al Fann as a platform to support artists and the shaping of the cultural panorama in pre-war Lebanon.