Stranger than fiction: how Egyptian artist Heba Amin uses history's overlooked stories
'It’s not enough to dig through archives, we need to rewrite histories in ways that are understandable', says the artist, who has a solo show in London
In the mid-19th century, French geographer Francois Roudaire suggested draining the Mediterranean Sea – as if it were a giant bathtub needing to be cleaned. The water would be diverted into the Sahara to make an inland sea, and by pushing the Arabs and Berbers further south, it would open North Africa to trade with the French. The idea was far-fetched, but has company in its outlandishness.
Throughout the 20th century, numerous leaders and engineers have suggested geoengineering projects to alter the landscape of North Africa to suit trade and national dominance. In the 1930s, German architect Herman Sorgel proposed lowering the Mediterranean Sea to converge Africa and Europe into one continent. In the same decade, Italian leader Benito Mussolini declared he would “make the desert bloom” by recolonising North Africa. In the 1950s, the CIA issued a plan to divert the sea into the Qattara Depression, in north-west Egypt, to change the climate of the Sahara as a solution to peace in the Middle East. (“It would be spectacular,” the CIA documents said.)
In her ongoing mixed media work Operation Sunken Sea, started in 2018, Egyptian artist Heba Amin resurrects this strange history. Grasping its absurdity, she turns the idea back on itself. In a performance and installation of the history of the project, Amin also proposes draining the Mediterranean and incorporating it into the African continent as a “solution”, as she puts it, to the migrant crisis.
The work is on show as part of Amin’s solo exhibition, Heba Y. Amin: When I See the Future, I Close My Eyes, on view at The Mosaic Rooms in London until March. The gallery describes the show as an investigation into how “the elusive narratives of regional politics in the Middle East relate to global concerns”.
It brings together three of Amin’s research projects: the aforementioned Operation Sunken Sea; The General’s Stork (2016-ongoing), about British colonial rule in Egypt; and Project Speak2Tweet (2011-ongoing), which began during the Egyptian Revolution. The works integrate film, photography and digital technology.
Amin first made the case for her migrant crisis solution in a performance speech she gave in Malta in 2018 – a video of which is now part of Operation Sunken Sea. If the project were to be accomplished, it would be the first land-bridge to Africa. Dressed in a high-buttoned dark blouse with martial padded shoulders, she appears in the video as a strongman leader, rhetorically converting nationalist sentiments into reasoning for her plot. “We must make sure that the life of the nation, of resources, cannot in the future be strangled at any moment by some interruption to the free passage of the sea,” she says. “We therefore must take control and move the sea within the African continent.”
The verisimilitude of her performance is unsurprising: the phrases were drawn from addresses by Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president of Egypt; Anthony Eden, former foreign secretary for the UK; Dwight Eisenhower, former US president; Italy’s Mussolini and others. Copying their words and their visual language, Amin says she seeks to “overtake their narrative” and to connect it to the present.
“It’s not enough to dig through archives,” she says. “We need to rewrite histories in ways that are understandable. I plagiarised all these historical speeches to reveal the ways in which these problematic colonial ideologies still very much exist today, and that even the rhetoric has not changed, particularly when we are talking about geoengineering and techno-utopian projects. Our imagination about technology has also not changed in over 150 years. These projects are implemented to serve a very limited number of people. They serve to implement power structures.”
The second piece on view, The General’s Stork, is an artwork related to her book on aerial warfare of the same name. For the project, she collaborated with the exhibition’s curator, Anthony Downey, who is also a professor of visual culture in the Middle East and North Africa at the Birmingham School of Art.
The artwork features a series of images showing Edmund Allenby, the British high commissioner for Egypt from 1919 to 1925, as he entertains friends in his Cairo garden in the 1920s. Prominent among the group is his rather surprising pet: a long-legged Marabou stork. Amin laid a pink filter over the casual photos, leaving only the stork in black and white, giving them a tone of jocular peculiarity: a nice evocation of the low-level tension associated with images of that period, when colonial power structures were often muted by the genial expressions of those pictured.
In order to present this affability, Amin asked for the gallery’s walls to be painted soft pink – a lullaby colour for lullaby-like images. Meanwhile, a video in the corner connects storks to the history of aerial surveillance and warfare. Archival footage shows how Allenby, who in 1917 led Britain’s takeover of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, was inspired by a Biblical prophecy around birds. Slowly, Amin coaxes shades of violence out of this bizarre companionship between the colonialist and the stork.
“We need to complicate narratives, bring in nuance, and there is all this wonderful imagery that helps do that,” she says. “The stork piques your interest. You want to know more about this guy because of this portrait? Well, here you go … What I’ve discovered I can do, as an artist, is connect the dots and present them in a way that is different – ideally with humour – and is hopefully more engaging.”
We need to rewrite histories in ways that are understandable. I plagiarised all these historical speeches to reveal the ways in which these problematic colonial ideologies still very much exist today
Artist Heba Amin
Amin has also used satire in previous works. She is perhaps best known for her intervention in TV series Homeland in 2015. The drama, which ran from 2011 until this year, features a CIA agent on assignment in the Middle East and South Asia, and was broadly criticised for its inaccurate portrayals of the Muslim world. Amin was one of the set designers employed to dress a scene set in a fictional Syrian refugee camp, which involved painting Arabic graffiti on the wall. She and her collaborators, Caram Kapp and Stone, scrawled: “Homeland is racist,” as well as “Homeland is a joke, and it did not make us laugh” and “#blacklivesmatter.” The show was broadcast with the graffiti unedited.
“That was a huge surprise,” she recalls. “We did not even expect it to air. We thought, if anything, it was just inconveniencing them. They did not care what we were writing because ultimately they do not care about doing right by our language and our culture – it is just set decoration. We never imagined in a million years that they did not have a single person in their production team who spoke Arabic, when the entire show takes place in the Middle East.”
If Operation Sunken Sea mixes history with fiction, and The General’s Stork mixes history with allusion, Project Speak2Tweet is all about documentary.
At start of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, when the internet was shut down for a few days that January, a group of programmers found a way to circumvent this information blackout. They created a service whereby people could call a phone number and leave messages, which were automatically posted to Twitter as linked audio files.
Amin, who came across the platform, was struck by the tone in these messages. They were not political, but raw and emotional, and full of agony and hope. She downloaded the sound files to preserve them and today, to her knowledge, she is their sole conservator. Project Speak2Tweet comprises eight videos of archival footage of Cairo, overlaid with these audio clips.
The work, installed across metal scaffolding inside the Victorian town house of The Mosaic Rooms, has a liminal feel: the display evokes construction, but the dilapidated architecture of the archival footage suggests that the scaffolding might indicate disrepair instead.
What distinguishes Amin’s three bodies of work is that they are based on real stories; history remains the artist’s chief material. However, her investigative and sometimes satirical approach is thought-provoking, highlighting to the viewer the prejudices and suppositions that often go unspoken or that have predominantly been overlooked.
“Change is a very long process,” Amin says. “Maybe that will not happen in my life. I am not particularly optimistic. But this is why I do the work that I do. This is the only way I can cope with it.”
Heba Y. Amin: When I See the Future, I Close My Eyes is at The Mosaic Rooms in London until March 28. For more information, visit mosaicrooms.org
Updated: October 8, 2020 06:19 PM