- Provocative Acts and Censorial RevisionsThe Many Antagonisms of Amal Kenawy's The Silence of Lambs
By the time I saw Amal Kenawy's video The Silence of Lambs in Queens, New York, at the MOMA PSi exhibition "Zero Tolerance" (October 26, 2014-April 13, 2015), the work and the performance it documented were already infamous among the artists, art critics, and historians that made up Cairo's contemporary art community. In 2009, Kenawy (1974-2012), an Egyptian artist who frequently worked in performance and video, hired a band of day laborers to take part in what Alfred Gell would have termed an "art-like situation" (Gell 1998:13). During the height of midday traffic in downtown Cairo, the artist directed the workers to crawl on hands and knees across the busy intersection of Champollion Road and Mahmoud Bassiouny Street. In addition to Cairene pedestrians and drivers who happened to be passing the scene at the time of the performance, The Silence of Lambs was also viewed and recorded by a crowd of Egyptian and international arts professionals who had come downtown for the event. While the initial reaction to the act was stunned silence, soon a group of bystanders confronted Kenawy and her hired performers, demanding to know why she was humiliating these men and, by extension, Egypt itself before an audience of international elites. The confrontation intensified to the point of violence and eventually the police arrived, arresting Kenawy and a number of her collaborators.
I was not present for the performance, having left Egypt some months before to return to the United States. But the fallout from The Silence of Lambs reached me through numerous written accounts and critical discussions published on the Internet. By the time I returned to Cairo to conduct field research for my dissertation in 2012, the controversy resulting from the initial action had settled into public consciousness as an unfortunate misfire of artistic experimentation that missed its mark of institutional critique and deeply offended the local population of downtown Cairo. However, even if the work had firmly passed into memory, discussions surrounding the ethics of the piece still inspired passionate response from both defenders and critics of Kenawy's intervention. That Kenawy had converted visual documentation of the performance into a video work and presented it at the 2010 Cairo Biennale only exacerbated these retrospective accounts and appraisals of The Silence of Lambs (Figs. 1-5). The research that led to this article became part of this collective conversation as I began to piece together firsthand accounts of the performance and its eventual transformation into video. What follows is an attempt, through a compilation of witness recollections and an excavation of the performance's initial critical response, to historicize Kenawy's work as both a performance and a video work. Finally, I explore the slippages and metamorphosis that The Silence of Lambs underwent during its shift in artistic medium, examining the strange and often problematic politics that inhere in the re-presentation of performance documentation as art in itself. By engaging with an artwork that passes through traditional medium boundaries while also traveling between local audiences, foreign exhibition settings, and the context of international biennials, I hope to provide a model that could prove useful in analyzing similarly peripatetic African artworks that navigate multiple mediums and presentation formats.
When Kenawy began producing solo work in the early 2000s, she created ingenious combinations of video, performance, and installation, enclosing the viewer in a multimedia ecology of often-conflicting material sensualities. The Room, exhibited in 2002 at the Townhouse Gallery, was her first solo work and consisted of a video and a live performance. The video showed a young bride in her wedding dress, ensconced in a white bathtub where she sews textile ornaments into a beating heart. While the video played behind her, projected onto a large screen, Kenawy [End Page 24] mirrored the actions of the bride, sewing beads onto a real heart of an unidentified animal. In her artist statement for the project, Kenawy wrote, "When I searched within myself I began to perceive my self as an independent existence that retains a set of laws that rule...