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REVIEW REHAB ELSADEK Gasworks Gallery London The first place Egyptian artist Rehab el Sadek wanted to visit when she arrived in London was the British Museum. She came to London in summer 1998 for a three-month residency atthe Gasworks Studios, as the first participant in a collaboration between Gasworks and UNESCOSarvath el Hassan Bursaries for Culture and Art. El Sadek was drawn to the museum by its reputation for housing some of the mostimportant works of art from ancient Egypt. Her expectations were raised by descriptions of the widely celebrated collection , but the reality shattered her excitement . "At first I couldn't believe it. I felt angry and sad. The artefacts had no spirit" she observed. The British Museum had robbed the objects of their meaning, leaving only what she describes as 'empty shapes'. El Sadek's response was to create Empty Shapes, an installation that represents her reaction to the cultural violence of imperialism as reflected in the objects at the museum. "I wanted people to know that what I saw atthe British Museum hurt me," she said. The narrative for her work is the ancient myth of Osiris, the King of the Earth. In the story, Seth seizes control of the kingdom by murdering his brother Osiris. After drowning him, Seth cuts the corpse into pieces which he scatters across the land to prevent Osiris's wife from retrieving his body so as to salvage his spirit, el Sadek uses the myth as a metaphor for the displays at the British Museum where artifacts acquired through colonial conquest are scattered like the limbs of a mutilated culture; material culture without spirit. Her installation is an attempt to reverse power relations by questioning the viewer's assumption about the nature of such displays. She transformed a room into a white cube by painting the walls and the floor and by wallpapering over the windows . Inside she builtstructures akin to conventional British dwellings, conscious of the evocative power of 'home' to a British audience. Empty and bare on their precarious frames E m p t y S h a p e s , 1998, mixed media installation. made of thin sticks bound with worn cloth, the houses appear fragile. The fabric covering are inscribed with Arabic characters, thus removing them furtherfrom a familiar context. The arrangement of the structures conveys the notion of a haphazard display. Stripped of their traditional value or associations, the peculiar shape of the houses are the only reminder of their original meaning or place in British life. Even then, el Sadek's inscriptions contain a deeper message. They are taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, an ancient funereal text which guides the deceased into afterlife. By inscribing passages from the text on cloth that is worn, ripped and frayed, she evokes the nature of forgotten history and points to the manner in which colonial greed and power cast aside the teachings of history. At the same time, her inscriptions are meant to symbolize regeneration and the possibility of learning from the past in order to inform the future. The Book of the Dead is central to many of el Sadek's works. For a previous 'Untitled' installation in Egypt, she built wooden school benches which she then wrapped with thin cloth bearing script from the ancienttext. The bound benches, evocative of present displays of Egyptian mummies, are symbolic of the 'dead cultures' associated with or promoted by institutions be they museums or schools. Similar to the houses in Empty Spaces, the benches are placed in isolation. El Sadek does not attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the classroom; in a gallery space they look out of place, stripped of their context, just a series of objects. For el Sadek, school history lessons teach the past merely as a string of facts, and failing to locate it in the present or the future, in true contrast to the timelessness of the Book of the Dead with its power to impart life to the dead and make them eternal. The bold script on el Sadek's benches is a lesson in history , the lesson being that mummies in museums have little relevance if we are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2152-7792
Print ISSN
1075-7163
Pages
p. 72
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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