Compiling a harrowing journey into death

BEIRUT: Bloody babies, decapitated heads and rotting flesh: Amal Kenawy compiled the most harrowing symbols of gore and emptiness in a contemporary video animation titled “You Will Be Killed.”

The gruesome five-minute clip plays on repeat until Oct. 6 at the Q Contemporary art studio, now a single, darkened room solely featuring Kenawy’s 2006 creation and two mixed-media on canvas pieces from the animation.

The Egyptian artist’s depictions of death carry a particular heaviness since she herself was suffering from cancer. Kenawy died of Leukemia in August, aged 38.

Hailed as an artistic risk-taker, the artist imbued most of her body of work with macabre tones.

Kenawy remained dedicated to narratives of death and hardship up until the end of her life, as evidenced by her more recent works, inspired by the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Her focus on morbid images encourages the viewer of “You Will Be Killed” to wonder if the death and decay reflect her own fear of dying.

The work opens with video footage taken inside a barren military hospital. The stark concrete walls reveal nothing of the bloody work that once went on there, or the post-trauma terrors its patients internally endured.

“To me war is the easiest way to depict violence,” the artist wrote upon completing the work in 2006. “My aim was to depict that violence in a circle of imagination far from war itself, and to show how it affects one’s self and his surroundings.”

Through animation, her piece intends to strip the sterile and unfeeling reality of the hospital’s concrete interior to reveal the gruesome terrors it once housed.

Death overtakes everything. The hospital morphs from the place where the subject dreamed nightmares to an active instrument of death: turning from an empty room to a morgue with a cadaver at its center and then to a series of hooks holding bloody heads, babies and vermin.

As part of the animation Kenawy sketched an incongruent nod to the iconic Renaissance painting “The Birth of Venus,” by Sandro Botticelli, in which the goddess Venus arrives at seashore in a giant clamshell.

For those familiar with the painting, the reference invokes its colorful brightness and Venus’ virginal beauty. “You Will Be Killed,” however, tarnishes and corrupts the rendering of Venus, a near-cliche symbol of purity and brightness. The work corrupts similar symbols of vitality and life – a tree, an infant, a woman’s body, long hair, light and leaves.

Kenawy’s work intends to highlight modern political and social decay. That criticism is not literal, but reflected in the subject’s mental torture resulting from violence.

“In the last works she created before her death, Kenawy made a departure in form,” explains a press release from the exhibit, “elevating from the more personal to connect with much larger issues of global and human strife.

Regardless of the political message, Kenawy’s depiction of death is no doubt a self-portrait of sorts.

Indeed the subject of the work is a picture of the artist, photographed, traced, painted and drawn throughout the animation in different degrees of clarity. Kenawy as a subject is dowsed in blood, eaten by illustrated rats, decapitated, put on a spike, stripped naked and hung from a chandelier.

Emerging from the heavy darkness of the exhibit into the blinding morning sun seems an intentional part of the movie’s effect and leaves a lingering sense of the surreal.

“You Will Be Killed” is running at Q Contemporary in Downtown Beirut until Oct. 6. For more information visit the gallery’s website at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 12.




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