by Mia Jankowicz
As literally generic as it is to produce a medium-specific show, the What Are You Doing, Drawing? show at Nile Sunset Annex responds to some quite specific elements of the Cairo art scene. It was in part inspired by the recent exhibition What Does A Drawing Want? at the new art space Beirut, in Giza, which saw the medium as ideologically as it did physically; but also the artists who run Nile Sunset Annex decided to respond to their hunger for object-based and materially substantial artwork, which is often lacking in the Cairo art scene.
The commitment to works with a tangible physical presence would be an odd decision for Nile Sunset Annex, whose diminutive space consists of a single small room in the apartment of two of the artists that run it, Hady Aboukamar and Taha Belal. Space, however, doesn’t seem to be a limiting factor so far, as What Are You Doing, Drawing? poses a wide breadth of ideas and questions about who makes a drawing, and what it can be. The title, by the way, is to be read as questioning the drawing, not the draughtsman. One of the most striking decisions was to invite drawings from both artists and non-artists: the list included a curator, a historian, a finance manager, a biologist, and a nine-year-old boy – and while this is not really signalled to those not closely enmeshed in the Cairo scene, it still somehow shows.
The exhibition not only acts in anticipation of the old saw ‘my nine-year-old could have done that,’ but it actively alludes to the role that drawing can have in everyday lives and exposes numerous types of effort as potential drawings. In some cases, this has worked with simple warmth and humour, as Untitled (2013) by Ayman, the little boy, is as lovely as all children’s drawings. The decision to display Untitled (2013), a polite email from the historian Khaled Fahmy declining to submit a drawing, is a little coy, but it sets a tone of openness that follows through the show. The inclusion of Cairo’s most treasured administrative manager Mohammed Abdallah demonstrates this. Primly sellotaped spreadsheets on a lightbox (CIC Budget 2012 (mid-year amend) #1, and CIC Budget 2012 (mid-year amend) #1, both 2012) emphasise the unacknowledged beauty in creating those most accurate and administrative of objects (that artists hate having to deal with). I’m reminded of GH Hardy’s assertion: “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.” Nor for ugly spreadsheets.
In other cases, what might have been a cross-disciplinary artefact ends up a little eager to please ‘artistic’ expectations. Biologist Betty Khoury submitted a beautifully detailed drawing of various patterns of mimicry in nature (Untitled, 2013), but you get the feeling that a less consciously ‘artistic’ effort would have been more rewarding, as Dr Khoury happens to have a fascinating visual practice as a much closer function of her professional work. The show clearly aims to make us discover drawings in numerous places in and outside of art, rather than to propose ‘exemplary’ work to us. The amateur efforts would not resonate without the artistic contributions, and vice versaProbably the most successful artist contribution is Hady Aboukamar’s work, 6b beat (Nasty Emails) (2013). A speaker, mostly swaddled in a large blanket, occasionally emits a deep bass thrum surprising in its intensity, providing an aural analogy to the plushness and darkness of a soft pencil. On top of the exposed surface of the speaker are loose images: a pencil drawing, and on top of that, a photograph photocopied onto a transparency, which complicate and abstract each other by being shifted around in the vibrations. The work actualises sound’s potential to ‘draw’ in the most expanded sense, but does not labour the point.
Undoubtedly what decisively pulls the show’s aims together, however, is Drawing Instruction (2013), the contribution of design collective tlm111, who requested that the artist organisers produce a pencil wall drawing of each of the works already included. This ‘echo’ next to each work, reminds you of the basic roles of drawing (like verisimilitude), which then allows the more esoteric works even more free rein in their broad interpretation of drawing. But it’s thankfully not that ponderous, and this humour and openness characterises the show overall. In the drawing that accompanies Betty Khoury’s piece, each of the painstakingly drawn nature patterns were obviously too much work to reproduce so they substituted scrawled description: ‘honeycomb … leopard spots … sunflower … I’m not sure … don’t want to give false information.’
Mia Jankowicz is a writer and independent curator based between Cairo and London.
More info: Nile Sunset Annex