BEIRUT: The silhouette of an aristocratic crown caps an elaborately drooping form that seems to bear 10 breasts. The roof of a temple tops a shape that curls up on one side like an elephant's trunk. A tower climbs out of what appears to be the stylized body of a mollusk. Mona Marzouk's paintings for the series "The Morphologist and the Architect," on view last fall at Beirut's Galerie Sfeir-Semler, bespeak an active and intrepid imagination.
But as wild as Marzouk's subject may be, her style is remarkably streamlined, superflat and minimal. Her two-toned canvases are nearly austere, with a pastel color palette reminiscent of the British painter Gary Hume's work.
Where her colors come from is anyone's guess, including her own. "[It] is a very tricky matter because I really can't say for sure," she says. "Every series pushes me into a different color zone. It really depends on how I feel about the subject I'm painting. The color schemes I used in the 'Morphologist' have this sensuality and seductiveness about them that I felt really added character to the shapes.
"A kind of dreamlike dimension was created when the hybrid shapes were colored with soft prismatic colors. I think they give you this feeling of twilight which is both somber and sensual. Just like when you can't tell the difference between early morning ... and late afternoon ... It's kind of confusing but attractive because you're in a time warp."
Unless one considers the city of Alexandria itself to be a kind of time warp, Marzouk's paintings seem to have nothing to do with the city where she lives and works. Alexandria - with its long-faded cosmopolitan glamour, its drab and dusty buildings and its threadbare grid of streets lining the sea - is nowhere to be found in her work. How curious, then, that Marzouk has lately put herself very much in thick of things in this place so often referred to as a ghost city.
Founded in 331 BC as a capital for Alexander the Great's empire, Alexandria has cemented its position in the (primarily Western) literary imagination through the legend of its library, the poetry of Constantine Cavafy and Giuseppe Ungaretti, the novels of Lawrence Durrell, Naguib Mahfouz ("Miramar"), Edwar al-Kharrat ("City of Saffron," "Girls of Alexandria") and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, and through a potent little guidebook E. M. Forster wrote for the city while taking a break from writing "A Passage to India."
Alexandria is remembered for the colonial grandeur of its architecture and the intensely international flavor of the population that once lived there, before Gamal Abdel-Nasser kicked all the foreigners out.
But aside from the immensely impressive, $212 million reconstruction of the library, Alexandria is today a ragged, downtrodden, baldly conservative city that tends to make the news only when tensions (and occasional violence) flare up between the city's Muslim and Coptic Christian residents. It is not, in the least, a hotbed of contemporary artistic production.
On a mission to change that, last December Mona Marzouk and Bassam El-Baroni took over an empty apartment in a run-down residential building in Downtown Alexandria and opened ACAF, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. Part exhibition venue, part incubator, ACAF is a modest attempt to mend a gaping hole in the fabric of Alexandria's contemporary cultural life, motivated, Marzouk says, answering questions by email, by "an overwhelming feeling of necessity."
Unlike other countries in the Arab world, Egypt places culture high on its list of priorities. In terms of funding, the Culture Ministry is second only to that of Defense. But the price of government subsidies for the arts in Egypt is a system that is highly centralized and prone to cronyism. This leaves Alexandria a city on the outside looking in, always coming in a distant second to the capital.
"Alexandria ... keeps becoming more and more peripheral," says Marzouk. "Living outside of Cairo means that you very rarely get to see a quality contemporary art exhibition or come across a good contemporary art book.
"There is always too much romanticizing about Alexandria's cultural legacy, and sometimes it's very hard to explain to people that at present 'we have a lot of catching up to do.' To 'catch up' and advance the arts in this sort of context," she continues, "means trying to get the message across to art lovers, art students, artists, intellectuals and most importantly the general public."
ACAF opened with an ambitious group show entitled "Family: You, Me and the Trajectories of a Post-Everything Era." Featuring works by three Swiss and three Egyptian artists, the show sought to crack open the idea of the nuclear family as a social construct and explore its ever-more flexible role in the formation of identity in the age of globalization.
Potentially heavy stuff, but Marzouk and Baroni tried to make it more palatable and accessible to the general public by elevating the word "Family" and relegating the subsequent mouthful to the status of a subtitle. It worked.
"We were thinking of how to present cutting-edge contemporary art practices to the local public without totally alienating them," Marzouk explains. "The opening was one of the very few and rare occasions that had people coming in from Cairo and other cities especially to see the show. It was a great feeling for the local art community."
But what does Alexandria's local art community consist of, exactly?
"The art scene here today has many of the same problems Cairo had around seven years ago and Beirut had around 11, 12 years ago," she reasons. "The majority of the art being produced is craft- or skill-based work with little emphasis on the critical side of art making."
Alexandria has a state-run atelier and a few small, tourist-friendly museums but no real gallery system to speak of. "The city has been suffering a long recession," says Marzouk, "in the visual arts especially."
It also suffers a degree of intolerance. One artist who mounted a show at ACAF after "Family" had to contend with local printers who tore up photographs for the show, detecting a hint of sexual innuendo in the material. Marzouk and Baroni, however, decline discussing such details.
"Honestly, [there are] just too many obstacles and challenges to talk about," says Marzouk, explaining that they prefer to handle things as they come up, on a case-by-case basis. Overall, being still new to the scene, she and Baroni just want to keep ACAF up and running.
"I think the space's main aim is to assist in creating a better and wider awareness of what contemporary visual culture is and what it can be. I use the term 'visual culture' because we are trying not just to concentrate on exhibitions, but to cultivate this multidimensional understanding of art in relation to all aspects of contemporary living.
"ACAF is totally non-profit making," she adds. "There is not much of an art market here, and when you try to avoid exhibiting craft-based and decorative pieces, then it's extremely unlikely that the type of art you're showing will sell."
ACAF, then, collaborates with funding bodies such as Pro Helvetia in Switzerland to pull off its projects. But lining up exhibitions, writing out grant proposals, spearheading a mini-revolution in the local community - none of this would seem to leave much time for Marzouk to pursue her strange, luminous art. How does she manage, considering that she just completed two major mural projects (one in the US, the other in Spain) and has a solo outing scheduled for Galerie Sfeir-Semler's studio space in Germany come November?
"I don't know really," she says. "It's a very organic process. I figure out my priorities at any given moment, then make a decision."
If "The Morphologist and the Architect" offered a cool study of how far an artist could go using architectural references and the logic of construction, Marzouk's more recent work, particularly the murals, entitled "Black Oil Odyssey," has a hotter tone, tracing the missing links - political, financial and otherwise - between oil, industry and nature.
"It has an emotional voice that's very different from the 'Morphologist.' It has much more anger and is more aggressive in its color scheme." Clearly making ample use of her time, Marzouk adds, "I'm doing a lot of research for a new series but I'm still not sure where it's taking me."
With that, she's back into the time warp to get some work done.
ACAF is located on Hussein Hassan Street in Azarita, Alexandria. For more information, please see www.thefamilyproject.info