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Issue 241

Mahmoud Khaled Takes Aim at Egyptian Vanity Projects

At Gypsum, Cairo, the artist’s new series shows the ease with which art is turned into a decorative commodity

BY Yasmine El Rashidi in Exhibition Reviews | 05 JAN 24

‘The Beautiful Captive’ – Alexandria-born Mahmoud Khaled’s solo exhibition at Gypsum in Cairo – borrows its title from a 1931 painting by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, in which a canvas standing on an easel depicts the extended idyllic scene of its backdrop. This play on perspective – of where the painting ends and reality begins – is transposed quite literally in Khaled’s eponymous 12-part series that forms the heart of the show. The artist has photoshopped images of Alexandria’s state-owned zoo onto photographs of luxury homes to form a wallpaper of sorts. By transforming the faded architectural grandeur of the zoo into wall decor for decadent marble bathrooms and state-of-the-art home cinema rooms, he shows the ease with which art is turned into a decorative commodity.

Mahmoud Khaled, ‘The Beautiful Captive’, 2023, exhibition view, Gypsum Gallery, Cairo

Bookending this series are mirror images of a dishevelled lionkeeper in an empty den pasted directly onto opposite walls (The Wallpaper, all works 2023). Hanging nearby is The Wall – a grainy, black and white photograph of a surviving segment of the ancient fortification wall of Alexandria, which was relocated from its original site to a tailor-made mini amphitheatre and turned into a tourist attraction by the government in 1991. Facing the image of this wall-turned-spectacle stands Home Theatre, a sculptural marble fireplace, its firebox clad in mirrors, with two goldfish in an aquarium bowl at its base. Atop the mantlepiece stands a vase filled with bird-of-paradise flowers, backdropped by a red velvet curtain.

Mahmoud Khaled, The Home Theater, 2023, marble, red velvet, mirror, glass, water, goldfish, bird of paradise flower, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Gypsum Gallery, Cairo

Khaled’s multifaceted installation needs to be understood in the context of Egypt’s currently flailing political and economic state as well as its rapidly evolving contemporary art scene. What used to be a small set of DIY art spaces showing boundary-pushing artists has burgeoned over the past few years into a PR-centric extravaganza of public art commissions at the foot of the Pyramids, in the Grand Egyptian Museum and on the grounds of the historic, silver-domed Citadel. Commanding corporate sponsorship and glamourous opening events, these projects stand in stark contrast to the cost-of-living crisis affecting many Egyptians who have been crippled by the country’s soaring inflation, which has caused them to rethink simple things like how much sugar they can afford to put in their tea.

Mahmoud Khaled, The Beautiful Captive, 2023, inkjet print, 80 × 103 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gypsum Gallery, Cairo

Yet, despite the country facing its most severe economic challenges in modern history, the market is booming for suburban, gated-community villas with price tags starting at US$1 million, as is demand for interior designers who furnish such houses with all the right Italian brands and art to match. Against this backdrop, Khaled’s Home Theatre, with its goldfish and infinity mirror, becomes a parable for the decadence and theatricality of these well-curated domestic lives. Egypt’s spiralling debt comes on the back of its own excessive spending on seductive projects including the world’s longest monorail, tallest skyscraper and largest mosque. The zoo, with its grand empty cages and lone guard with nothing to watch over, becomes an apt metaphor for this bankrupt nation.

Mahmoud Khaled, A Structure for a Sunset View, 2023, aluminum, wood, mirrored glass, mobile phone, video on loop, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Gypsum Gallery, Cairo

But I suspect that Khaled – who grew up near the then-flourishing Alexandria Zoo – is also probing his own sense of confinement and restriction as an Egyptian artist making work that is increasingly at odds with such a context. The show’s final piece, A Structure for a Sunset View, is installed outside in the garden of the gallery. A replica of the aluminium guardhouses routinely found outside suburban gated compounds, it contains a pedestal atop which sits a mobile phone. Playing a looped video of a sunset, it serves as a final nod to Magrittean dream states severed from reality, and to the desire for escape.

Mahmoud Khaled’s ‘The Beautiful Captive’ is on view at Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, until 7 February

Main image: Mahmoud Khaled, The Beautiful Captive, 2023, inkjet print, 80 × 103 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gypsum Gallery, Cairo

Yasmine El Rashidi is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt, and an editor of Bidoun.