Hamdi Attia, Daisies 2010, Mixed Media on Panel, 122 x 205 cm. Image courtesy of Al Masar Gallery
CAIRO, EGYPT—What is the role of the artist in society? This is a question many scholars have tried to find answers to for decades. While some art historians say that the role of the artist in society is to record and document events, others contend that artists should be concerned only with creating beautiful works that will nourish the soul. Far apart as the ideas are, both elements can be found in a work of art. A work of art can be beautiful even as it documents events in the society. Hamdi Attia’s paintings provide veritable examples. Attia’s paintings are high in aesthetics and also document historical events.
From 2009 through 2010 , Attia began investigating the visual impact and subtext of images that made headline in newspapers and online networks. That investigation led to several paintings in which the artist unravels hidden meanings in the images he studied. With this idea, Attia notes: “I tried to rethink the language of photojournalism through the conventional medium of painting. The work aims to call attention to photojournalism’s impressive aesthetic vocabulary and at the same time aspires to offer a critical exploration of the mass-mediated culture of depicting mass destruction.”
Jet in Blue is one of the paintings in the body of works that emerged from Attia’s investigation of photojournalism. This piece was inspired by the catastrophic earthquake that killed thousands of people and caused massive destruction in Haiti in 2010. Assistance purred in from around the globe in order to help Haitians deal with the unprecedented catastrophe. Help came from everywhere including the skies. Due to the enormous destruction that made roads impassable, humanitarian aid was airdrop into Port-au-Prince, the heart of the disaster. That airdrop inspired Just in Blue. Over a dominantly blue background, Attia depicts silhouette of parachutes dropping food and essential amenities. Disappearing into the distance, just above the parachutes, is the Hercules airplane that brought the aid. Created from several images, the artist notes that“each image was examined to create each overlapping layer of the painting.” Jet in Blue seems to acknowledge the messianic complex of the superior West in its heroic attempt to save the mediocre third world. The hegemonic relationship, which is the subtext of this cinematic painting, is cleverly achieved as it is mimetic of war movies in which the glorious West army rescuers a ravaged third world nation.
In The British are Coming, Attia illustrates how the dramatic presentation of images of disasters by photojournalists can shape the perception of that disaster. Attia’s reference in this piece, however, transcends the image. He is also concerned about captions and headlines, and how they can distort a viewers understanding of events. In this landscape painting dominated by different shades of green, Attia examines how the obsession with Paul Revere’s cry of “The British are Coming” helped distort the historical reality of 1775, when effort was made to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams and other patriots about the coming of the British. According to some accounts, after the British discovered where the colonialists were hiding their animation, they hatched a plan to attack and destroy the arms deport. Unfortunate for the British, their secret plan was exposed. In order to inform the colonialists that the British were coming, Paul Revere raced through the street on his horse, announcing that “The British are Coming.” This account which gives sole credit to Paul Revere as the only person that rode through the streets announcing the coming of the British, has been dismissed by many scholars, who have described it as factually inaccurate. Historians have shown that the transfixion on Paul Revere’s cry that “The British are Coming,” has allowed for the misrepresentation of what is a major historical event. What is often lost in all the conversation, historians have noted, is the fact that other town criers participated in the dissemination of information about the impending British attack. The account of the tragedy that followed is also often missing from the narrative.
In another piece, Attia’s examines the images of Split Burton, a controversial modern art sculpture that caused a lot of uproar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Created by Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish sculptor renowned for creating oversize sculptures of everyday objects, the sculpture was located at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon after it was installed in front of Van Pelt Library on June 18, 1981, the $100,000 sculpture became a major point of heated debate. Many students complained that the piece was not only intrusive but also unsuitable for the College Green, a beautiful area of the campus with an amazing collection of art. While the controversy surrounding the button was adequately reported in the newspapers, none of the images captured the intense dispute that almost led the destruction of the sculpture.
In contrast to the majority of photos in the Newspaper, Attia’s depiction of the controversy surrounding The Button illuminates the divergent views and cacophonic discourse. There is visualization of the toxic debate that almost led to the removal of the sculpture from the center of the University. Borrowing from an architectural ruin, Attia draws attention to the damages caused by the rancorous discussion to the aura of the sculpture. In the center of the mixed media painting is an abstract depiction of the Split Button. Sprouting around and piecing the button are sticks of various colors. The sticks effective reference not just the different sides of the controversy but also how it played out in the academic environment represented by the skyscrapers in the distance.
The massive dramatic depiction of natural disasters in newspapers and other media raises a fundamental question about the perception of these calamities. Do people become anesthetized by the continual viewing of these images? In her book On Photography, Suzan Sontag examined the impact of dramatic and aestheticized images of disasters on people. Her conclusion was that the persistent viewing of these dramatic and highly aestheticized images in the media can anesthetize people to those disasters.
Attia’s investigating of the visual impact and subtext of images that made headline in newspapers and online networks show the limitation of photojournalism and the fact that photographs have hidden meaning. But more importantly that the discourse generated by the visual language of photography is not always innocent. With his examination and depiction of the of events in history, Attia joins other great artists like Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali, Ai Weiwei, Norman Calberg, Susan Crile and many others, who used their work to document and expressing their thoughts about wars and disaster. Born in Assiut, Egypt in 1964, Hamdi Attia studied at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo, before attending the Egyptian Academy of Fine Arts in Rome for advanced studies in painting and sculpture. Attia also received an MFA in sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. He has represented Egypt at many international art events, including Venice Biennial in 1995, Cairo Biennial in 1997 and the Canaries Biennial in 2006. His works can be found in important collections across the globe.