Amal Kenawy (1974-2012)

Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy died August 19 of leukemia. She was 38.

Kenawy was one of Africa's really compelling contemporary artists, and a leading voice in the thriving Cairo art scene. Her work captured the simmering individual and collective anxieties in Egypt and anticipated the 2011 revolt at Tahrir Square. Silence of the Sheep (2009), a performance piece presented by the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, exemplifies this. In that work, Kenawy, dressed in overalls led a group of men (including her artist-brother and frequent collaborator Abdel Ghany, and several hired day workers) crawling on all fours along the street. But the sight of "sheepified," and humiliated Egyptian men led by a woman in a hyper-patriarchal society was too much for the public. And its indictment of a populace held in thrall by an oppressive regime was not loss on her audience. The performance ended in a melee; Kenawy and her collaborators were arrested, but later released. The public response to Silence of the Sheep had much to do with its apparent attempt to rupture already tense and fraying boundaries of gender, patriotism, and the social imaginary -- especially in an Egypt riven by religious anxieties and political oppression.

Amal Kenawy, The Room, 2003 (all images courtesy of the artist's estate)

Amal Kenawy, The Room, 2003

Amal Kenawy, The Room, 2003

But if Silence of the Sheep carried a frontal political charge, Kenawy's other work tended to be more contemplative, metaphysical, and melancholic: In The Room (2004), she, in performance, mends and later incinerates a mounted bridal gown while in an adjacent video projection two hands in bridal gloves suture and attach a paper rose onto a still-beating heart; and in her video animation You Will Be Killed (2006), set in a colonial-era military hospital, her body, stained in purple blood, goes through sequential, surreal encounters with changing environments, building plans, bloodsucking animals, corpses, cobwebs, etc. The body, in these works, is at once a site of violence, desire, memory, transcendence; it is a metaphysical, anxious, beautiful, violated object. Looking at Kenawy's career, Okwui Enwezor, an early advocate for Kenawy's work, remarked that:

Her work became increasingly fearless, engaged, radical, and formally beautiful. Amal struck a complete independent path from her recent Egyptian contemporaries and it is a shame that some of her pioneering works in performance, video, and installation (amongst the best and most rigorous of her generation) are yet to be fully appreciated.

Amal Kenawy, Booby-Trapped Heaven, 2006

Amal Kenawy, Non-Stop Conversation, 2007

Kenawy's work commanded considerable notice in Cairo and beyond: She won the UNESCO Grand Prize at the 7th Cairo International Biennale (1998); the 23rd Alexandria Biennial Golden Prize (2005); the 12th Cairo International Biennale grand prize, for Silence of the Sheep (2006); and The Sharjah International Biennial award (2010). She also participated in Dakar Biennale (2004, 2006), Singapore Biennale (2006), the 2nd Moscow Biennale (2007), and was included in the blockbuster show Africa Remix (2004), and in the ongoing Arab Express show at the Mori Art Museum.

Amal Kenawy, The Journey, 2004

Amal Kenawy, The Journey, 2004

Many who knew Kenawy often speak of her quiet generosity. Salah M. Hassan recalls her selfless commitment to teaching video art techniques and processes to young Sudanese women in Khartoum, during a 2008 workshop organized by Hassan through Cornell University's Institute of Comparative Modernities. This verse, written moments after I received the news of her death, is my tribute to a terrific artist and an incredible human being.

* * * *

For Amal

It does not matter
If the Nile weeps blood
Or the Aswan disgorges
Broken limbs of pharaohs
And Egypt drowns in flood

But there is calm
In the precincts of Tahrir
And the howls of Spring
And the din of cavalry
Tug our memory's wing

It does not matter now
That a crowd of elders
Hulls our child into the abyss
At the rite of renewal
At the rite of coming
.................and going

© Chika Okeke-Agulu