By Aida El Torie

Nermine Hammam reminisces on the making of Ma’at and Metanoia as she explores the influential roles of women through her own search for inspiration and provocation.

In the heroine of sainthood, the patron of magnificence, the Star of the East and in the uncompromising nature of Frida, Nermine Hammam accurately captures a series of sequences in the lives of ‘idealized women’. Ma’at, a name, which originally refers to the ancient Egyptian Goddess of Order, Balance, Justice and Truth, her empowerments control the cosmos and the lands from an ever-changing morality of life.

Hammam’s offered perception, and her sedation from further questioning the roles women play, answers their authority of ‘Gender’ not as a ruling embodiment to feminism, but only its syntactic association to their feminine existence. On a color-print surface, Hammam captures the glistening and aged wallpaper, the symmetries of al-Nefary’s spiritualism as a backdrop, Helen Keller’s forced impediments – her speech, vision and sound lie in the blunt truth that is protected from the blatant illusion where all her captured figures have then turned into case studies: Reality’s loss, and humanity’s imprisonment.

Strong and eternal, Um Kulthum is the archetypal woman, a larger than life composite of images, sourced from the subterranean nooks and crannies of the collective subconscious; a harmonious blend of the earthly and the spiritual, of male and female, in a single perfect whole; a totality reaching beyond the sum of its parts.

In the context of a psychiatric compound, Hammam captures her compassion attached to those moments sought during her weekly visits, in her work Metanoia. A work dominated by female presence, she had already grasped the portrayal of a state-defined insanity, from the disintegrated human reasoning by incorporating herself into the compounds of a mental hospital. Hammam develops a binding relationship with the plurality of estranged women, and grasps the bravery of infirmity shackled by social detainment. The women at the hospital became heroines of frailty. Creatures embodied in familiar forms and poses that can only be described as vulnerable and unsound. They created their own world. A new world filled with characters and sounds in an image distorted by the emotion the artist experiences in that room during that moment of taking that snapshot. The women become a choice of what to include and what to eradicate in that mindset of a planetoid sphere of four walls, hospital beds, a garden, and nothing else. They had an energy that empowered their space and their understandings of ‘life’ as they knew it.

You found yourself with people who are forcibly imprisoned but also carry a fighting condition, a desire to live and a desire to share their experiences in an unconditioned manner. But, they are also completely estranged from you. Shackled by state-sponsored labels, they have become disguised by a garden, a yellow fence that appears to be filled with joy on the outside, but it is not. Their context is an inconvenient expression away from the mundane realities of life. These women sought a reality that was intended to hide from judgement and restraint – they are the crusades that lobby humanity in its most ethereal state. Existing, but not seen. Heard of, spoken about, but not experienced. Photographed, unidentified, Metanoia is the amusing conundrum that questions the problem, without an answer.

A new appearance returns with the divinity of the female presence in Hammam’s Ma’at, as she re-places her figures into monumental consequences of sainthood and socially defied empowerments. All seven figures wear a dress, in the same shape, torn in the same places: Ravaged and consumed, they renounce the frailty captured by the instability of the imprisoned, except they are also the icons. Ma’at is the demolished sainthood and sustained splendor of life. The outspread wings of a sun-disc reincarnated from the god of light, war and protection, the falcon Horus is the preservation of Ma’at’s justified balance. He is the protector, the all-seer, all-knower of truth and harmony, and he resides above the Kings and Queens of mortality.

The goddess, without arms, adopts the submissive posture of Christ, the cross behind her head, her Geisha-like attire and the male symbols of power radiating beneath her feet, a statement on the power of acquiescence.

Centered female heroines with their halos glistening above their heads, in various motifs extracted from Islamic designs, a hairdo, a ceramic plate, a paper-cut design or even a tablecloth fragment, they are grounded at the feet with actual roots, falcon wings or even a moon that lifts their presence into that confined ‘space’ as mothers, daughters, sisters, bearers. The women are preserved by their responsibilities first and foremost, then by the political and socio-cultural references hind- and end-most. The warrior holds the rifle, a fighter plane, with an elegant hairdo, occupied by her rugged knees, juxtaposed by a well-dressed milieu – Ma’at also carries an unnatural disability. In her missing appearances, missing sleeves, and a missing heart under a starry night in the East wind –she is the storyteller and the story-maker all at once. Captured, amputated and restrained all at once, the women are archetypes to that perfect and unreal balance. These are all the women Hammam had once idealized and wanted to become, or never accepted. Her sufferings are dilute, inherited and bare. Her orient is diverse and warm, yet confused and cumbersome.

Hammam has provided a mystification of power and susceptibility of decrepitude for a series of women who can be related to and disregarded – loved and harnessed, congruous but also condemned.

All images are courtesy of the artist.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 3, 2011