Susan Hefuna’s exhibition ToGather, presents an array of works spanning a twenty-year period presented within the Whitworth’s three central galleries that interweave minimalist and serialist methodologies with urban design practices specific to Cairo, the artist’s birthplace. The artist has German and Egyptian heritage and qualities of betweenness and displacement recur throughout the exhibition. For example, the mashrabiya, a carved wooden screen seen in many buildings in Cairo that filters both air and light and allows women to sit inside and look out whilst being protected from view, is the subject of a series of documentary photographs ‘Cityscape’ (2000) that reflect on the gendering of architecture.
A similar interweaving of usefulness and lived experience is evident in ‘Afaz’ (2014-17), which translates from Arabic as cage. The work comprises human scale cubes made of roughly chopped strips of palmwood tied together in grids and then assembled into three-dimensional units, with three units stacked on top of each other presented in thirteen positions within a long cuboid gallery. The work explores grids, cubes, and modular repetition in a similar manner to Sol le Witt’s early installations, except for the basic palmwood construction, inspired by containers used in Cairo market places. This production quality speaks to a basic register of provisional functionality, which complements the informal distribution of units within the gallery. Walking between the stacks associations with warehouses, shipping containers, and high rise residential blocks come immediately come to mind. But there is also an anthropomorphic element to consider; the title, the human-scale, and the windows in the centre of each side of every cube brings the suggestion that they literally might be cages. The work’s strength is this capacity to sustain references to the abstractions of minimalism, yet associate with diverse functional applications.
The schematic references to grids also recur within the groups of drawings in the gallery to the left. ‘Infinity’ is a series of five drawings from 1999 that fill the page right to its edges with a repeatedly drawn figure like an ampersand. On the opposite wall, there is a series of hand drawn grids, made in 2015, from which Hefuna has erased sections to form words. Two of the drawings read ‘BE LEAVE’, and ‘BE CAUSE’. We see two words, which merge into another one when we read them. The series explores the fragile interconnection of material and structure, as well as the mutability of interpretation. These themes also continue in the adjacent series ‘Anagram’ (2007) and ‘Mensch’ (2016) in which grids stretch, morph and crumple into architectonic forms. Seen together these groups suggest an endless oscillation between structuring and de-structuring.
The right-hand galleries feature ‘Vitrines of Afaf’ (2007), a work that stages an interplay between artistic, mercantile, and domestic display. Carts housing glass display cases, like those used by Cairo street vendors, exhibit the possessions of the families of workers at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Everyday items, such as flowers, books, and family photographs become readymades within these miniature portable galleries. The work analyses how context shapes the significance of everyday items, whose poignancy is supplemented by an exhibition value within the vitrines. This work condenses the key concerns of the exhibition, which oscillate between an examination of abstract geometries and the particularities of urban life within Cairo. ToGather’s core strength is to consistently demonstrate how these concerns intersect.
ToGather, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
30 June – 3 September 2017.
Andy Broadey is an artist based in Manchester and lecturer in Contemporary Art, History and Theory at University of Central Lancashire.