This past Wednesday, February 22nd, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with artist Mohamed Abla in the context of a group exhibition entitled "Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo" hosted at the MFA School. This was a class visit with my students from a seminar I am teaching on Themes of Dissent and Resistance in North African and Middle Eastern Lieteratures and Cultures. After taking a little bit of time to see the different art installations we had a chance to sit down and chat with artist about the art scene in Cairo in light of the recent events in Egypt.
The essays we read in preparation for the meeting were useful in providing extensive background about Egypt's recent history and putting the events of the last twelve months in their broader context. The multimedia installions provided invaluable, and often intense, visual snapshots of Cairo's histories, but the stories that Mohamed Abla shared with us about his own adventures within Mubarak's police state drew a much more immediate and vivid narrative of that world. From his participation in the Kefaya movement launched in summer of 2004 against what were perceived as Hosni Mubarak's attemps to prepare his eldest son Gamal to succeed him as president of the republic. Although "Kefaya" which means "enough" in Arabic, lost a great deal of its strength as a movement in subsequent years, it is on many levels a key historic moment leading to the events that ultimately brought Mubarak's regime down.
Perhaps the thing I will most remember from my conversation with Mohamed Abla is the story of his native Island of Qorsaya and the struggles of its inhabitants to continue living on it and fight the aggressive push to developers and land grabbers. Using his artistic training and collaboration with the island's inhabitants, Mohamed Abla put together wide scale pacific protest events that brought the attention of the media to the plight of this small community of islanders. One of the protests consisted of digging a few dozen shallow graves where people symbolically buried themselves. The other event was to release 5000 red balloons to protest the military siege that Mubarak's army imposed on the islanders after their demonstrations.