The History-Making Work of Contemporary Egyptian Art
While growing up in the Midwest, Dr. Kat Hammond encountered negative attitudes and stereotypes provoked by the events of 9/11, which propelled her interest in gaining a fuller understanding of the people, cultures, and artists of the non-Western world. As an undergraduate student of art history at Ohio University, she was captivated by lesser known branches of contemporary art, and by examples of people responding to their experiences in ways both subtle and complex, and outside the mainstream history books.
“There was a ripple effect after 9/11, which lead to the demonization of certain groups of people. I saw it happening in this region in Ohio, and I was drawn to try to understand more about these people through their art,” said Hammond.
After completing her masters degree in art history, she found herself teaching courses with titles such as Non-Western Art History and feeling moved by how students could recognize the biases built in to the historical framing of art from outside the Western canon. They were dissatisfied with the historically simplified version of what constitutes the artistic identity of the Middle East.
“When we studied Egyptian art, it was all Ancient work, all pyramids and pharaohs, and nothing about this contemporary moment. My students were asking to see contemporary Egyptian art. My own fascination with this absence led me to begin asking my own questions, in a much deeper way,” said Hammond.
Just as her curiosity was building, a momentous shift was taking place. In January 2011, a revolution was breaking out across Egypt, taking shape on hand-held devices and across screens, as documented and covered by citizen activists and journalists on the street. As Hammond describes it, street art in Egypt became immediately prominent.
As soon as the revolution began, there was a wave of activity in Egypt focused on public discourse and consciousness to which she felt drawn to understand. This led to her beginning the Interdisciplinary Arts doctoral program in 2013.
Hammond began her study in the School of Interdisciplinary Art knowing she’d be focused on contemporary Middle Eastern art, specifically street art during the 2011 revolution. Although she was excited to continue her research under the mentorship of Dr. Andrea Frohne and Dr. Jennie Klein, both of whom had mentored Hammond in the past, this doctoral program provided her the opportunity to work with other scholars as well, including Dr. Charles Buchanan, who chaired her dissertation.
“The level of support was truly unprecedented, the amount of time and attention really made a difference in the development of my writing and the quality of my research. One thing that is unique to this Ph.D. program is that candidates get to teach starting in the first year of study—even our own unique courses,’ she said.
“I think there are assumptions that art history is inherently confining, with strict categories, but I think the field is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. Getting to work with others who come at art history from a range of backgrounds has been really helpful for me.”
In her dissertation, Historiography, the global contemporary, and street arts of the Egyptian revolution, Hammond offers an analysis of artworks created in Cairo between 2011 and 2013, including paintings and murals on Mohamed Mahmoud Street by Ammar Abo Bakr and Alaa Awad; films produced by the Mosireen collective; and the documentary film Crop, co-directed by Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke.
Imagine looking at pieces of street art as visual documents of history: records of the thoughts and voices of the artists, activists, and communities involved in making and sharing the work online with the wider world. Murals that reflect a tumultuous moment in time and resulting radical changes. How are these types of artworks helping to write the historical narrative for future generations? What historiographic work are these documents doing?
As Hammond describes, these artists and their artworks narrated and documented the unfolding of the revolution's events, countering those versions propagated by state-sponsored and international media outlets. The artists claimed the agency and authority of creating historiographic work, through the media of paint and film, and provided a voice for the protesting masses, a counter-narrative to the official account.
Historical films were doing a kind of history-making also. Artists knew the work was created for both local audiences and potentially others paying attention around the globe. The growing presence of citizen journalists, documentary film collectives, and activist filmmakers was increasingly evident and powerful. Hammond found connections between the work of documentary film projects and the street artists who were working sometimes together, sometimes independently, to draw attention to and record the important changes underway in Egypt during the revolution’s early moments.
Challenges exist for scholars attempting to research topics at the leading edge of history as it unfolds, including the difficulties of accessing information in locations too dangerous or too costly to visit. Nearly all of the street art Hammond researched is now gone. She accessed these works online through images, social media, and videos, and was able to reach almost all of the artists and filmmakers through video and email interviews.
“By the time I started researching this topic in earnest, there were no study abroad opportunities that would give me access to the region I was focusing on. Access was prohibited, meaning I would have to find alternative means to reach my subject.”
Hammond was also challenged by a language barrier, in terms of scholarship and interviews, as she doesn’t speak fluent Arabic. Through translation services, and by seeking out resources that empowered her ability to communicate as directly as possible with individuals who were on-location experts, she was able to overcome this issue.
Some have questioned whether she should be working with a culture that isn’t her own, writing about Egyptian art if she’s not Egyptian. Hammond, responding with humility, connects the driving force that inspired her scholarship to begin with: the exploration and sharing of knowledge can be a tool to counter stereotypical assumptions. By developing a greater understanding of the experiences of others, Hammond believes we can better understand our own.
Hammond presented at this year's Visual Culture Association Annual Conference in Washington D.C. titled The Port Said Mural as Historiographic Object. And currently, here in Athens, Hammond is guest curating an exhibition for the Kennedy Museum of Art scheduled to open on September 20 and run through December 24, 2019. The show will highlight works from the museum's recent acquisitions collection.
• • •
Dr. Hammond's Reading List
A short list of resources, compiled by Kat Hammond, for anyone interested in further reading about the art of the Egyptian revolution.
https://858.ma/ [Mosireen Collective]
Mosireen Collective's recently launched 858: an archive of resistance. The url is a reference to the 858 hours of archived video footage, collected since 2011 and available on launch.
“Egypt: Walls of Freedom”
Tea After Twelve, Issue 01, Chapter 2 “Art Revolution.” Ammar Abo Bakr
Cairo: Images of Transition-Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011-2013
Dal, Mikala Hyldig, ed., Allux Printing: Cairo, 2013
The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order?
Haddad, Bassam, Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish, eds., London; New York: Verso, 2012
Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution
Hamdy, Basma and Don Karl, aka Stone, Berlin, Germany: From Here To Fame Publishing, 2014
Read more stories from Spring 2019 issue of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts Alumni News.