Nourhan Maayouf’s ‘The Sea is Closed: Shallow Waters’ is a personal and sensitive show. The artist’s statement breaks down the evocative title: ‘The Sea is Closed’ part represents the relationship ‘between one’s home and individual’s independence.’ While ‘Shallow Waters’ reflects on personal emotions and struggles experienced during a first ever period of travelling to another country, a ‘period of displacement.’
Maayouf won the Barclays ABSA L’Atelier competition, which includes a six-month residency prize at Cité Internationale des Arts, and this show at the ABSA Gallery in Johannesburg is the result. In the exhibition, Maayouf recounts her journey from Cairo to Paris and back, finding herself in-between both experiences.
Experience is an everyday process. John Dewey, an early 20th Century American philosopher, described experience as occurring continuously: it ‘is involved in the very process of living.’ Dewey believed that the vital sense of experience can be defined by those situations and episodes that we spontaneously refer to as being ‘real experiences’. This is when we say in recalling them, ‘that was an experience’, explaining how aspects of the self and the world come to be, thus, qualifying experience with emotions and ideas – in life or art.
Maayouf says she dealt with three emotions, while in Cairo and during her time in Paris, that she treats as predominant themes in the exhibition: anxiety, loneliness and attachment. Her emotions are connected to events and objects that are not isolated to the artist or the person viewing the artwork; there is a direction to organisations of a greater experience of a community or family. Maayouf’s emotions function and collectively become present existence with the values of past experiences, an intimate union to the features of emotional and physical balance.
In the photography series, The Nest, Maayouf explores the feminine and symbolic human attachment to objects like a cooling fan, vacuum cleaner, eggs and a man’s suit. In another, there is a photo frame with a married couple on a chair, a frame, bowl, kettle and eggs place on a wooden table and a closed suitcase next to clothes on the floor. These objects have simply been around for a long time and hold significance to the everyday life of a person. Even more suggestive, they speak to the idea of home and taking care of home. She explains, ‘This photo series is taken while in Cairo. I took some domestic elements from home. I wanted to tie everything that is connecting me to home and this way I am going to be free, physically free, move out and be independent.’
Maayouf clarifies how coming from a middle-class conservative Egyptian family, women cannot reside alone until they are married. Independence has been a desire, and she now finds herself in Paris, where she has freedom to self-express. She is in a new place, a new situation and opportunity. On her own, Maayouf is in a different atmosphere, a space where she can explore her own state of mind. This becomes evident in the four videos: I smell Cairo, Sunday in Paris, Eczema and Did You Sleep Well. In them, we encounter a figure who is either cut out of the frame, having her back to the viewer or her eyes covered. We do not know her or she does not want to be known since her face remains unknown but an important subject in these works.
However, she appears lonely and in what looks like an imposed state of imprisonment, a rather understated celebration of independence. It seems, that rather than representing the freedom desired, Paris has become a foreign environment. Maayouf sets up stories that express her state of loneliness, solitude and isolation. In her act of expression, she is not in complete physical existence: her emotions impede on her not enjoying the moment in Paris, as she remembers home, staying grounded and trying to finding stability.
In I smell Cairo and Sunday in Paris loneliness persists. What happens when what the body desires is the mind’s limits? The figure performs with a rope on her body. She loosely ties her torso in the middle of what looks like isolated places – a forest, church and lake deck. In spite of the live performative nature, the feeling of suicide and death lingers. I cannot help but think of how the mind and body has both desires and limits.
At times, there is no real meaning to what is an experience other than an emotional imbalance. I am not suggesting that Maayouf is a victim to such imbalance: she does not seek to disturb her viewer but rather lets us in. She shows us how emotions have a lot to do with our everyday experiences. Nonetheless, if experience is ‘indeed’ a process of living, as described by Dewey, then what use is it to a person who seems partly in existence.