BEIRUT: "I take a lot of pictures of walls," says Nermine Hammam with a dose of dry humor. It's mid-morning and the 36-year-old Egyptian artist is sitting by the reception desk at Espace SD, the Gemmayzeh gallery where her latest show of digitally manipulated photographs - called "Metamorphosis" - opened the night before. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and faded jeans, a utilitarian black messenger bag by her side and an espresso close at hand, Hammam is casting a critical eye down the long, side-lit exhibition space.
Her works are lush, multi-layered creations. Each piece carries a dense mesh of photographic images, creeping colors, fragments of text, and elements of graphic design. In reality, Hammam prints one composed image onto a single sheet of paper to produce her work. But the visual thickness of each piece results from that seemingly dull idea of taking pictures of walls. She captures the harshness of concrete blocks, the ostentation of architectural detail, and the roughness of ruined stone. Then, like making wallpaper patterns out of Cairo's weather-beaten but resilient built environment, she slips these shots into the texture of her work so they seem to reverberate between foreground and background.
Hammam spent much of her life living in the U.S. and the U.K. First she attended boarding school and then she went to New York University, where she studied film production. After graduating in 1989, she took off to Los Angeles and seemed poised for promising career in cinema (she worked on Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," for example). The thing is she hated it.
"I couldn't handle the whole atmosphere," she explains. So Hammam headed home. As she told an interviewer two years ago, "It was a conscious decision to come back, because I was lazy and I didn't want to work so hard and to have to compete with everybody else." That said, "I don't have any particularly strong 'national' feelings that drove me back."
In Cairo, Hammam set up her own graphic design firm called Equinox in 1990. Her office handles logos, print campaigns, and interactive websites. But as much of a departure as this may seem, whatever compelled Hammam to study film in the first place soon found ample expression in her artwork, which has a notably cinematic touch. (She repeats photographs like frames in a film strip or blocks in a storyboard and used optical illusions, what she calls "a trick on the eye," to evoke sensations of movement in her imagery.)
In 2001, Hammam staged two solo exhibitions in Cairo: "Mitigation," at the venerable Townhouse Gallery; and "Portrait," at the Al-Hanagar Art Center. A year later, she hung her work in two high-profile group shows: "Photo Cairo," also at Townhouse; and "Cairo Modern Art," at the Fortis Circustheater in the Netherlands.
For someone just three years into her art career, Hammam has generated a striking amount of critical response. Serious art criticism is as lacking in Cairo as it is in Beirut (to say nothing of other cities in the region). Yet Hammam's images have stoked heated debates on the relationship between painting and photography, modernism and authenticity, English and Arabic, orientalism and postmodernism, and finally, Eastern and Western in terms of her artistic influences and the socio-political implications that viewers may read into her work.
Hammam's latest exhibition will only fuel the debates further.
The 20 images on view at Espace SD are aesthetically seductive. All are beautifully framed, floating in glass, encased in flat dark wood, and tilted forward about six inches from the top. There is a grainy dreaminess to these pictures reminiscent of 1990s era fashion photography, such as Ellen von Unwerth's "Original Sin" or Glenn Luchford's advertising campaigns for Prada.
"I take a lot of pictures," Hammam explains. Previously, she shot candidly, in public or at the moulids (saints' festivals) in Cairo, capturing strangers ready to pose. For this new body of work, however, she enlisted the help of her cousin, a dancer, to be her model.
"We spend the whole day," Hammam says. "It's not a rigid process. It's a collaboration between me and another person. They put in as much as I do and something comes out of it."
With the physical presence of a woman's body, the fact that the viewer seems to be perpetually following a female subject like a voyeur, a stalker, or a lover in each shot, and always through ruins such as graveyards and across doorways and thresholds washed in light - Hammam admits that it's a common response to read sexuality into her work. But she doesn't see it.
"Maybe everything has a sexual undertone to it," she says simply.
Hammam shoots with a basic camera using expired Russian film. She send the negatives to be developed in photo labs around Cairo, precisely because they tend to wreck the film, so the images come back to her scratched, degraded, and all but ruined. Then she scans hundreds of images into her computer and begins to build.
"I start by creating a background," she says. "Then I color. There is an element of working with the subconscious. Probably the guide is the picture itself."
On a formal level, what's interesting about Hammam's work is the technology she uses. "I think it's a new form of art altogether," she explains. "In my opinion, the software [Photoshop and so on] is up to par but the hardware hasn't caught up yet." Hammam has the benefit of high-quality printers, installed in her office to print billboard campaigns. But even so, the machinery, the paper, the physical stuff of her artwork, can't yet handle the innovations that are visible on her computer screen. "I haven't found the right match of paper to machine yet," she says. At this point, "the machinery still downgrades the quality of the image."
But on a more theoretical level, what people seem to find so troubling about Hammam's pictures are their strange blend of East and West. People tend to react immediately to the presence of Arabic script and to the gauzy swathes of fabric draped over the upper regions of a woman's body. Clearly, the veil's the thing.
"In the work I was doing before, I wanted to use an international medium and give a Middle Eastern feel," she says. "In my previous work I think I succeeded. Here, I don't know if I've succeeded. The language is eastern but the content is western." Regarding the use of Arabic script, she says: "I want to have our own identity using calligraphy. A lot of the words don't have meaning. I haven't taken it to that level yet." Regarding the presence of the veil, she says: "I play with the veil, but it's the western veil."
Indeed, the figures in Hammam's pictures take long furls of thin fabric and tie them at various points on the body. They lend a second sense of movement, the limbs in addition to the trailing scarves. As clothing, these could easily be the creations of a deconstructivist fashion designer, part sari, part chador, updated for a girl on the go, imbued with a tinge of melodrama and mystery. All this in addition to reading the cloth as an accessory to a wedding gown. One shot, of a woman against a wall covered in a long, tangled, and textured scarf, could have been ripped from a Rei Kawakubo collection. Another, of a woman bending her head, draped in red cloth, over a set of burning candles, could find its source material in any number of the world's religions and rituals. It's an inevitably broad gesture of mourning before a makeshift shrine.
The veil shots have rankled a dealer in Cairo, a collector in Paris, and a curator in Qatar. The so-called "headscarf girl" issue being what it is, some detract because the women are covered; others because the women are too exposed. Strangest but perhaps most on point of all, some accuse Hammam of exoticizing and orientalizing her work and the subjects she frames.
"It might be orientalist," she says, "but it's from within. And I'm not a foreigner. I know how to interact."
Representations of "self" versus "other" have long occupied academic scholarship and artistic expression. As the writer Lee Smith noted in an essay in Artforum last year: "When does the other, Islam, the Arab world, stop seeing itself as the other and [try] to explain itself from that position?"
Looking back to her work, Hammam makes an honest admission. "Obviously I haven't found my voice yet. It takes years. It's still representation. But we're creating an identity in interesting times, in the process. One day it will stagnate and it will have to be deconstructed all over again." But for now, it's still loose, shape-shifting, and as open to creation as it is to interpretation.
Nermine Hammam's "Metamorphosis" is on view at Espace SD in Gemmayzeh through Dec. 11. For more information, call +961 1 563114.