Among the impressive array of works at the Twelfth International Cairo Biennale was one by Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez, a series of darkened rooms decorated with symbolic images, ending in a hyperreal burial chamber. We look at this most involving work of modern art.

Visual artist Khaled Hafez was born Cairo in 1963. He still lives and works in the city of his birth, yet his creative output has a very definite international appeal, as evidenced by his recent success in Spain, where he appeared in Manifesta 8:  The European Biennale of Contemporary Art. Hafez has achieved worldwide recognition unlike any other contemporary artist from the Arab world, due in part to his association with contemporary popular culture and such cutting-edge concepts as ‘counter-culture history’ and ‘social controversy’.  He is also credited with coining cutting edge terms of his own, such as ‘Hyperreal Pop’ and ‘Hybrid Vernacular’.

A sketch by the artist showing the layout of his work.

We caught up with Hafez back on home soil, at the Twelfth International Cairo Biennale in Egypt, which ran from 12 December 2010 through to 12 February 2011. Biennale director, Ehab El-Laban came up with the curatorial concept of ‘The Diversity of All and Everything Possible’. It was a concept that gave significant freedom in terms of subject matter and approach, opening up a world of possibilities. More than eighty artists from around the world were selected to put on view whatever they were producing at the time of invitation. The only rule was that everything had to be quite new, never having been shown before.

Hafez’s contribution started out life as the construction of a tomb on the exterior of the Palace of the Arts building in the grounds of the Opera House. For the Cairo Beinnale, this was transformed and expanded into a three-room remake of an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Hafez’s work – named ‘Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements (and Overture)’ – involved the construction of a journey into his own ancient history, combined with his own military and national histories, as well as his universal history. The Sonata is an amalgam of visual rhythms built in three phases. Hafez approached his installation as he does his video projects, editing the moving images with toned nodes of audio material.

The entrance of the exhibit acts as an initial ‘breaking moment’, like that experienced at a historical monument; the viewer is required to become detached from the current physical location, from ordinary space and time. The entrance is the division between being in the Palace of the Arts and that of being inside a tomb – a space of ill-defined time, only the suggestion of approximate eras. Hafez’s work narrates, in utmost detail, a walk through such a tomb.

Room 1: The First Movement: Canvas – First Temple of Flight, 2010. Mixed media, 750 x 250 cm

Hafez sums up the purpose of his work thus, ‘Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements (and Overture) is a project that explores and proposes a series of concepts that I explored for the past seven years. I am constantly attempting to hybridize visual language accessible to both Eastern and Western audiences, break barriers between past and present, a language that transcends geography and – at another level – time’. Hafez has constructed an alternative space, a tomb that transports the viewer from the ‘real’ state to a ‘hyperreal’ state, reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard’s work on simulation and simulacra. The constructed space takes as a reference the ancient Egyptian tomb, which acts as a tool for documentation and recounting the times and lives of certain societies. There is also the suggestion of the significance of death as a phase in an eternal life.

Hafez provides his own account of the images seen on the walls of the multi-chamber tomb, ‘A visual assemblage of silhouettes derived from media-propagated imagery of war, violence, as well as contemporary advertising iconography counts on the visual memory of the viewer to draw juxtaposition with ancient Egyptian ideograms, pictographs and petroglyphs. The selected silhouettes are extracted from images of military strife and struggle for wealth and power that shattered the Middle East region for decades’.

Music and Movement

While there are three tombs in Hafez’s work, there are in fact four rooms in total, taking into account the Overture entrance area. Here below are the four areas, along with their distinct contents and purposes:

The Overture

Simulating getting in and out of an archeological site, the small entrance takes the viewer from normal light to ultraviolet ‘black light’ – from the outside to the inside. The Overture is inspired by Samuel Barber’s seminal work Adagio for Strings, which, through a repeated melody motif, poses more questions than it provides answers. The short passage of almost total darkness choreographs the viewer on to the first movement: Canvas.

Room 1: The First Movement: Canvas, installation view. Painting on left: First Temple of Flight, 2010 (mixed media, 750 x 250 cm). Stainless steel and black light.

The First Movement: Canvas

In Canvas, large paintings show human figures in combat gear and in combat positions, life-size and minute, with humans and animals migrating from one side of the wall to the other – in the manner of flat ancient painting – to escape from the canvas to the wall and into the second room. To me, this consistently horizontal movement represents forced migration, and consequently shifting identities. The room is pitch black, and the black ultraviolet light renders only the white surfaces visible, in a way that demolishes the aesthetics of painting, allowing the viewer to see only the information: codes and symbols.

Room 2: The Second Movement: Phosphorus. Stainless steel and black light.

The Second Movement: Phosphorus

In Phosphorus (another completely dark room lit by black light) various large and small flat forms of tanks, snipers and combatants glow in the dark. The silhouettes assume the same horizontal movement. The movement represents mass-induced fear, collective conscience, the killer and the killed. The selected forms and their arrangement are inspired by ancient alphabets.

Room 3: The Third Movement: Metal. Stainless steel, grass, red bricks and black light.

The Third Movement: Metal

In Metal, we find hieroglyph-like alphabets cut in polished stainless steel, arranged on three of the four walls in an interrupted manner. Metal represents war machines, industrialization, the writing of history as dictated by the victor; the defeated have no place on these permanent walls. This finale, situated in a burial chamber, proposes the sacred elements of life and death. 


All images are courtesy of the artist. Project sponsored by CAI: Cairo Arts Initiative. Note: ‘Hyperreal Pop’ and ‘Hybrid Vernacular’ are terms coined by Khaled Hafez for his research in his MFA thesis submitted to Danube Universty Crems, Austria and Transart Institute New York and supervised by Carolyn Gurtin, Professor of Film and Media, University of Texas.


This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 2, 2011