Just before Marcel Duchamp turned to readymades, he painted Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). While the work is obviously influenced by cubism, it could also be read in terms of the artist’s rejection of the movement’s increasingly formulaic approach to pictorial deconstruction – as much a comment on the way avant-garde ingenuity can quickly turn into aesthetic doctrine as it is a nod to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Duchamp’s iconic work has preoccupied Raafat Ishak for 25 years; although he uses a range of media, his work is steeped in the avant-garde traditions of painting.
Emigrating as a teenager in 1982 from Cairo to Melbourne, following the death of his parents, Ishak – like many who have lived in radically different cultures at different stages of their lives – could be said to have adopted an ‘identity of in-betweenness’, which might also explain his attraction to such enigmatic figures as Duchamp and Kazimir Malevich. Although much of his work provokes consideration of identity, it is difficult to pin down, often raising the question of his Egyptian-Australian heritage only to avoid shedding light on how these two cultures have fundamentally shaped his outlook. His interest in architecture has also manifested itself in numerous ways throughout his career, from his paintings on MDF board – more typically used as a construction material – to his studies of sports stadiums and use of the architectural language of ‘proposals’ and ‘plans’. In 2003, he co-founded the artist-run gallery and collective Ocular Lab, which ran for seven years and which was marketed less as an exhibition space than as a forum for promoting debate.
For his show ‘Congratulatory Notes on Ubiquity and Debacle’ at Melbourne’s Sutton Gallery in 2011, Ishak translated Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 into nine pastel-coloured paintings on unprimed canvas. Titled after soft-fleshed tropical fruits, works such as Guava and Papaya (both 2011) transform Duchamp’s nude into geometric representations of couples having sex, posed in front of fragmented architectural motifs and Australian vegetation. Here, the artist alludes to issues of nature, public space and cultural identity only to have them appear subordinate to the more design-driven aspects of the series; moving between abstraction and representation, the sumptuous colours and beautiful geometric configurations confound simple socio-political readings. Similarly, for his project Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments (2006–09), Ishak sent a letter to 194 governments requesting citizenship and then composed a series of 194 semi-abstracted paintings depicting a version of each country’s flag with an abridged Arabic transcript of their response – or lack thereof – to his request.
For Organisation for Future Good Steps (2008), the public sculpture he created for a narrow lane in central Melbourne, Ishak focused less on the nude and more on the staircase in Duchamp’s famous work. An absurd white steel set of stairs installed between two buildings, its faulty construction – missing steps, a railing and a landing – evokes a pathos that lends itself to anthropomorphic interpretations; for me, it represents a flawed human. It recalls ‘Metro-Net’ (1993–97), Martin Kippenberger’s series of non-functional subway entries – both artists giving their staged failures an existential spin, as if fashioning an anti-romantic form of romanticism.
In light of the so-called Arab Spring, the recent trial of ex-president Mohamed Morsi and controversial presidential elections scheduled for the end of May, Egyptian culture has become a point of interest over the last few years, particularly for those keen to gain a greater understanding about the country’s fragile political situation. Ishak’s own response to these events can be seen in Nomination for the Presidency of the New Egypt (2012), which comprises a manifesto in the form of a long scroll made from mdf board. Its top half is attached to the wall while its bottom half folds out into the gallery space where it rests on a deconstructed Malevichian black cube, much like the artist’s similar treatment of Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. Written in cursive Arabic text with a scarab beetle as its logo (an ancient Egyptian symbol of hope and restoration), Ishak’s ‘manifesto’ details how allowing the River Nile to flood (prevented since 1970 by the Aswan High Dam) would serve to alleviate the major social upheavals Egypt has faced in recent years. He asserts that it would ‘revive the fluctuation between work, leisure, life and death that the country enjoyed for thousands of years until the late 20th century. It would be an act of cleansing, literally and figuratively. It would initiate massive reconstruction and innovation and revitalize the country economically and spiritually. But nothing like this would ever happen.’ Whether the sentiment in the work is sincere or disingenuous, the formal aspects of the sculpture walk the same line between austerity and farce.
In Proposition for a banner march and a black cube hot air balloon (2003–ongoing) – a collaboration with the artist Tom Nicholson – Ishak connects Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ paintings, made between 1915 and the early 1930s, with the black cuboid construction of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. From its inception, the project has entailed a series of discussions and interviews, presentations, performances, events and installations, none of which involves the actual launch of a black cube hot air balloon or a banner march but, rather, centre on the idea that this event might, one day, happen. Ishak is currently working on a more elaborate manifestation of the project for the National Gallery of Victoria, comprising paintings, drawings, sculpture and video documentation of an event staged in a Melbourne sports stadium.
Malevich’s fusion of Russian spiritualism and modernism appeals to Ishak’s preoccupation with opposing forces, connecting the avant-garde to Islamic beliefs in order to accentuate the ways in which politics, materials and metaphysics can converge. His work embodies his search for a sense of complexity and humour that can motivate action: not to bring about some form of resolution but, rather, to keep his ideas in motion.