Images shot of the pre-trial machinations of the Tora Courthouse in Egypt greet the viewer upon entering Jasmina Metwaly’s exhibition, We Are Not Worried in the Least. The brief video focusses on the preparations for the entrance of the judges, the attitudes and rituals enacted by the officers of the court. The law is both fetishised and mocked in dictatorial political regimes. Law is rendered as ritual without content, an atheist’s mass, or a conman’s income tax return. When the justices finally do appear, they seem dwarfed by their setting, and perhaps this is fitting as the rule of law is itself a veneer in the Egypt of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As Metwaly’s collaborator on the pre-trial video, the journalist, Mostafa Bahgat, notes in another work in the exhibition, the role of the judge in a society where branches of government have no meaningful equality is at best functional and at worst craven. Though the video lasts only a bit under a minute and a half, I found myself returning to this piece, in a sprawling exhibition that attempts to come to grips with the massive political ructions that have taken place in Egypt since the longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was deposed in 2011. The eerie repetition of the looped video seemed to reinforce the performativity and futility the work hints at. I confess to being reminded of another work about justices, Georges Rouault’s 1936 painting “Les Trois Juges”. Completed at time when legal processes seemed as increasingly unequal to the power dynamics of their time as they do in our new age of authoritarians, Rouault’s judges are as forlorn and troubled as Metwaly and Baghat’s are prim and professional. Rouault’s famous statement about the painting “I betrayed the anguish I feel at the sight of a human being who has to pass judgment on other men,” could just as easily be applied to the Egyptian justices featured. The anguish one feels is as much for the judged as the judges, however, as other works in the exhibition demonstrate the painful truth that judges oversee a legal system, not a justice system. “Tool-Mobile Phone” (2018) offers another bleak example of this dynamic. It exists as a kind of meta-exercise documenting the creation of a work about an employee of a starch and glucose factory near Cairo who documented the slow theft of the components of his place of work. Presented to a court, his photographic and video evidence was ruled inadmissible. The work touches on a number of the anxieties of the present moment: what is the value of mere factuality in the face of power? What is the meaning of an image in a world where images proliferate infinitely? What is the current state of the metaphysical clash between subjectivity and objectivity in relation to the construction of reality? Any answers, the work suggests, are not reassuring.
We Are Not Worried in the Least uses the somewhat idiosyncratic dimensions of Savvy’s geography to particularly strong effect. The side rooms and corridors of the space allow the works to breathe, and, while there is considerable overspill as works nudge up against one another visually or sonically, there is no sense of works shouting over each other. Indeed, there is a strong narrative quality to the positioning of the works, as themes and voices weave in and out of each other across the individual pieces. No exhibition could hope to encompass the totality of the experience of contemporary Egyptian politics, but Metwaly’s works, as well as her included collaborations with Baghat and the performer, Alaa Abdulatif, offer a powerful glimpse of the evolving political identities available to and imposed upon contemporary Egyptians. What it means to be an activist, an artist, or a journalist has never seemed more open to definition, We Are Not Worried in the Least poses the urgent question of on whose terms these matters will be settled.
We Are Not Worried in the Least
Images: Raisa Galofre. Courtesy of Savvy Contemporary