‘Portmanteau’, an artist’s lens into social and political issues
BEIRUT - A screw eyelet serving as a replacement of the lost handle of a pair of scissors, a spoon used as the crossbar of a door latch, some numbers handwritten on the wall complete a shattered clock and an iron turned upside down serves to heat a coffee percolator. The odd combinations that are often mocked inspired “Portmanteau,” Egyptian artist Ahmed Badry’s first solo exhibition at Letitia Gallery in Beirut.
The show, which is the sequel to Badry’s “The Provisionary that Lasts,” explores the way people look at and relate to everyday objects and their functionality. The unusually combined objects, or hybrids as Badry defines them, are “temporary solutions” that last and are meant to perform a function and regain usefulness.
“I grew up surrounded by hybrid objects. I was fascinated by the way people relate to daily life objects in the area where I was living in Cairo,” Badry said. “I am attracted to these hybrids, which may look weird to many but I see them in the city all the time.”
“The manipulation of objects enhances some functions while removing others, transforming the consumer into a producer and the hybrid object into a full-fledged product,” he added.
The artist spent time during his childhood observing the many tricks Egyptians adopt to overcome mechanical problems and everyday malfunctions but the trigger for his works came many years later when he moved to Switzerland.
Used to repairing malfunctions autonomously, Badry said he was astounded by the presence of specialised technicians appointed to fix domestic devices and objects.
“It is a completely different approach in Switzerland because it does follow a code, which is an international code, which is static,” he said. “There, every person is specialised in fixing certain objects, which is not the case at all in Egypt and many other places.”
The “code” states that an iron is used for ironing clothes not for heating a percolator and a spoon for eating instead of locking a door. To Badry, these manipulations are not low-class botches but rather acts of resistance and a lens through which to observe social and political issues.
“In places like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, southern Italy, the south of Spain, India, Pakistan, Brazil, people have generally the same approach towards objects. They break the international code. The improvisation with objects is linked to a certain class and it is mainly dictated by need. For me, it is more than improvisation; it is rather creativity inspired by the need for survival,” Badry said.
The exhibition includes 55 blue-lined drawings and pure white, big sculptures made with layers of cardboard of some of the awkward designs. The plainness and immaculate aesthetic of the works create an aseptic environment and enhance the absurdity of the objects, making the atmosphere surreal.
Objects ranged from a can opener mounted on a drill to a coat hanger equipped with two wired light bulbs at opposite ends used as a chandelier. The sculpture of an oversize pair of over-ear headphones was hung on the wall. A small in-ear headphone replaced the missing left part of the headphone creating a comical and clumsy imbalance between the two parts.
In the main hall, stood a sculpture depicting two 4-metre-tall valves, a reproduction of what Badry saw in his hotel room in Algeria. Disregarding the standard distance to allow them to turn freely, the valves of the shower were installed too close preventing the use of hot and cold water at the same time.
What names can be given to these hybrid objects? Badry asked. When in front of these objects, one can certainly recognise the different components but there is doubt about how to call the final, entangled product.
How to call a tin can opener entangled with a drill or a percolator heating on back of an iron? “When I started exploring possible names, I worked with linguists and semioticians whom I showed pictures of the hybrid objects asking them to propose names or definitions,” Badry said.
The exhibition’s name “Portmanteau,” a word that is a linguistic blend, was carefully chosen to recall the combination of the hybrid objects, Badry added.
Among the drawings adorning the immaculate white walls of the gallery hall is one depicting a door blocked by the staircase built right in front of it. In another, a landing fails to join two sets of stairs as the top of the lower is stuck under the bottom of the higher one.
The unusual and non-codified objects destabilise the established order or code and are the token for alternative narratives. Badry appropriates and recreates the neglected objects, which are by no means perceived as artistic, and transforms them into aesthetic expressions.
Badry’s solo exhibitions include “Made in China” in 2009 in Basel, Switzerland; and Al Qahira in 2007 in Cairo. He has participated in group exhibitions including “Open House,” London (2017); “Contemporary Artistic Revolutions: An Institutional Perspective,” Beirut (2017); and “Kunst (Zeug)”, Zurich, Switzerland (2015).
“Portmanteau” runs until June 16 at the Letitia Art Gallery in Beirut.