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At Artellewa, an artist confronts religious extremism

Alaa Abd al-Hamid is in a fight with gravity. He sees humanity in a tight spot and, through sculpture, seeks to express, “a liberated body…free from any influences that might control it, even the force of gravity.”

Ascendance against gravity is a recurring theme in the work of the young artist and novelist. However, in his latest exhibition, "The solution is the solution," which opened last week at Artellewa, gravity embodies what he sees as the limiting force of religious extremism.

Abd al-Hamid has been frustrated with the ways religion is being interweaved into all aspects of public life. But it was in March with the constitutional referendum that the idea for this exhibition first began to form, as religion was explicitly used in political campaigning. “Some Islamic groups linked the ‘yes’ vote to piety,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Religion is personal – it can neither fix political nor scientific problems,” he added. Hence he chose "The Solution is the Solution" as the title of his installation, referencing the famous slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood and several Islamist groups, “Islam is the solution.”

Abd al-Hamid developed his project during his residency at Artellewa. He made colorful sculptures of bizarre creatures out of scrap metal and hung them against the gallery’s walls as if they are drifting toward the sky. Abd al-Hamid has been working with metal for just under a year – a process which he compares to recycling.

In contrast to the floating sculptures is a black stencil of an abstracted human face in the left corner of the gallery. With its long, pointy, mustache-less beard, bald head and dark prayer mark on the forehead, the stencil is meant to represent Salafi Muslims. “I put the face on the wall like gravity. It symbolizes the problems that the figures are trying to be free from,” Abd al-Hamid explained.

“I know some Salafis, and as I talk to them, I notice that they have their own set of beliefs and do not want to listen to different ideas. So I made this exhibition to show them and others my point of view,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

In addition to hosting his residency, Artellewa provided a perfect exhibition space for "The solution is the solution." The gallery space is well-integrated into the street, located on the ground floor in a populous thoroughfare in the informal neighborhood of Ard al-Lewa. Its front wall is replaced with a gate, which is open when exhibitions are on, so the artwork is visible and welcoming to passersby.

“I put the work in Artellewa because I think it is a public space,” Abd al-Hamid said. The exhibition, thus, has the potential of reaching beyond typical gallery visitors.

The installation is best viewed from outside the gallery, where it can be seen as a whole. The floating sculptures and the tiny black head come together in a complete composition. It is a simple picture to be taken in all at once.

The artist hopes that his installation will directly confront the ideology he sees problematic. So far, he’s been getting mixed responses from people. Those who discuss the artwork with Abd al-Hamid often respond positively. “Most people in Ard al-Lewa who see the work and talk to me agree with my proposition,” Abd al-Hamid said.

The visual representation of rising extremism in Abd al-Hamid’s work, however, tends to be too straightforward and simplistic. Salafism is literally presented as a blemish on what could be a beautiful humanity. The non-subtlety of the work is part of why it attracts attention and quickly triggers a conversation. But it is easy for such conversations to drift away from the physical objects on display. The sculptures are far more interesting as objects than the Salafi icon on which the discussions focus.

Though the icon has a menacing presence in the installation, the sculptures are able to defy its presence. When Abd al-Hamid speaks of his work, he focuses on the limiting forces that his sculptures are trying to escape but his vision of humanity is positive at its core. His emphasis on the negativity of certain societal forces as external from humanity speaks to the idea that ultimately people are good. This utopian vision is visible in the lightness and playfulness of his work.

The creatures he represents in his sculptures are freed from the specificities of the human form, freed from the ground and freed from the heaviness of the material from which they were constructed. These metallic human forms are comical too. With spindly tubes for legs, fat cylindrical bodies, and tiny heads, all painted in light blues, greens and greys, they bring to mind the Tin Man from the film, "The Wizard of Oz."

In "The solution is the solution," Abd al-Hamid bravely steps into a complex political and cultural terrain. He does it with beautiful and inventive work.

"The solution is the solution" can be seen until 27 May at Artellewa, 19 Mohamed Ali Eleseiry St., Ard al-Lewa

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