Not reconciled, is a series by Judith Barry that explores the construction of subjectivity, history and identity in countries and cultures around the world. In her latest rendition of that series…Cairo Stories, which was on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in April, Barry presents interviews with Cairene women from varying backgrounds. The stories the women tell focus on the negotiations they must make due to Cairo’s social, cultural and economic life. Conducted between 2003 and 2011, the interviews demonstrate the complex systems, allegiances and political stratas that Cairene women must navigate on a daily basis. Sometimes their stories feel un-relatable, as when Ayousha describes how “my husband died, and they wanted his brother to take me as another wife.” Other times their observations hit closer to home, as when Layla remarks, “We all have our shares in life, God willing…You got dealt your. I got mine. My sisters theirs…Everyone gets their share…But you got to make it what you can.” Either way, the more stories a viewer hears the more intimate a connection she feels toward these women, despite their diverse backgrounds.
Presented in both Arabic and English, by actors rather than the actual interviewees, there is something unsettling and poignant about watching the interviews, particularly in doing so within a pristine gallery setting. In listening to these women’s experiences notions of representation, allegiance, class, family history and subjectivity are brought to the fore. One cannot help but compare these women’s journeys to one’s own. The presence of the actors emphasizes the idea that a story, if it’s a good one, no matter how it’s told, can be highly emotionally impactful.
Though you missed the show at Bergamont Station three of Barry’s works are currently on view as part of the Hammer Museum’s exhibition Take It Or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology through May 18, 2014. Or you can read ArtBlitz LA’s interview with Barry below.
In 2000 I visited Cairo for the first time as I was representing the US in the Cairo Biennial in 2001. While I was there, I met with a number of women in a very informal way, and as we were talking some of them revealed very personal things about their lives to me. In discussing this with friends in Cairo I realized that they were telling me these things because I was not from Cairo, and because as a stranger I would react to them differently than if I lived in Cairo, and because as a stranger I had a very different point of view. In a way the stories found me. In 2003 I was invited by Scott Bailey, the curator at the gallery at American University in Cairo to propose a project, and so I proposed …Cairo stories as the project. I had previously also met William Wells of Townhouse Gallery, also located near the AUC campus in downtown Cairo. He agreed to also act as a sponsor of the project.
I officially began the project in March of 2003, and a few days after I arrived in Cairo, the US began bombing Iraq. As I had checked in with the Embassy, and as I was interviewing women on the street, they were concerned about my safety as the students at the AUC, where I was also having a small exhibition, had begun to riot. One night at about 2 am in the morning, 2 army soldiers knocked on my hotel room door, and I was told to pack immediately. Later that night I was put on a plane and sent back to the US. This temporarily ended the project as the war continued, and a bit later Scott left Cairo. When he left, the new director did not seem to have much interest in my project. But luckily, William Wells from Townhouse Gallery, was still interested in sponsoring my project, and over the ensuing 8 years I made many trips to Cairo.
The project took a long time because I wanted to use the stories to create a portrait of the women in Cairo. And to do that I needed to get out into the many neighborhoods of Cairo. I began interviewing within the artworld and within academia. And very gradually, as my network of acquaintances grew, I was able to interview women from many social classes and from many different neighborhoods, and create a much more nuanced portrait of women’s lives in Cairo than I would have been able to do had I stayed among women I knew. But to do this did take a long time and it required building trust within these communities.
I also very early on realized the importance of the translators, and we evolved a methodology where during the interview process the entire conversation was simultaneously translated so that all of us could understand one another. Then when the interview was over, I would also discuss the interview with the interviewee as well as with a group of women that became my interlocutors. As we began to develop the project further into stories, we again went back to the women who were interviewed to get their feedback about the stories that we were putting together.
I don’t know if I have an ideal audience, but I do think children’s reaction to stories is often very telling. There is one story in this current series of …Cairo stories that is directly about children’s love of storytelling as stories transport you to somewhere else, they take you somewhere. And, in fact, it is often the stories we imagine for ourselves that aid us in getting from the place where we currently are to the place where we want to be. The social anthropologist Arjun Appadarui describes the importance of this process as ‘the work of the imagination’ and it is this on-going practice of storytelling and imagining where we might want to be that ultimately forges the path that will ultimately take us somewhere else.
When …Cairo stories is projected in unexpected sites such as in markets or in areas where you are not expecting to find a story, I am always very happy to find women caught up in the stories watching them or sometimes writing them down, or sometimes even videotaping them as happen in Sharjah, UAE where the work premiered in March of 2011.
My favorite part is the dialogue that the work sparks with gallery visitors. Since …Cairo stories has been in LA, I have had some wonderful conversations about the work and I learn a lot from these conversations.
After the Hammer show closes on May 18th, …Cairo stories will next be seen at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia fromSeptember 5 – October 15, 2014. As we did at both the Hammer Museum and also at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, we are planning a number of public programs around the issues that …Cairo stories raises. There are also plans for …Cairo stories to be shown in London, Boston, Texas, and somewhere in NYC in the coming months.
* All images courtesy of Rosamund Felsen Gallery & the artist