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Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin interrogates colonial narratives in a new exhibition in Berlin
LONDON: In the early 1960s, France conducted a series of nuclear tests near Reggane in central Algeria. The first, called Gerboise Bleue, took place on the morning of February 13, 1960 and was four times more powerful than Hiroshima. A second, named Gerboise Blanche, followed nearly two months later, while a third, Gerboise Rouge, exploded on December 27. A photograph of the latter, showing two rows of mannequins leaning against the coming blast, caught the artist’s attention. Heba Y. Amin.
A miniature reconstruction of this image is at the heart of the Egyptian artist’s new solo exhibition. Confronting the sore subject of France’s nuclear experiments in Algeria, “Atom Elegy” grew out of a poem of the same name by Yvan Goll, which Amin discovered at the Persecuted Arts Center in Solingen, Germany. “(It was) a kind of atomic energy love poem, but written before we understood the complete devastation of what an atomic bomb could do,” she says.
It was never published in its original form, but when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, it was rewritten and edited by Goll. “I was interested in this shift in perception around what we consider progressive technologies, and how we’re not trained or used to questioning them. The image my work is based on does the same for me. It captures a very precise moment in time before the atomic bomb test was carried out, so you see these mannequins propped up in eerily surreal detail and are sort of hanging in the moment.
It was through the reconstruction of the photograph that Amin “got a better understanding of how cynical and disturbing this image is” and how much the models must have looked like humans. “There’s this kind of violence and gore that you imagine was the aftermath of the bombing on this site. It’s that moment in between that interests me, which was also kind of captured with Yvan Goll’s poem.
Amin also faces other acts of imperial violence. With “The Devil’s Garden – Marseille’s Pyramid”, she focuses on a “region in northern Egypt where the battle of El Alamein took place – a kind of turning point in the narrative of the Second World War”. She researched an area that was “dubbed the ‘Devil’s Garden’ by (German Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel because his forces planted millions of landmines in the area. To this day, the region remains the most landmine-infested territory in the world. The pyramid is a reconstruction of the one erected by the Nazis in the region in memory of fighter pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille.
Both works are part of Amin’s exhibition “When I See the Future, I Close My Eyes: Chapter II”, which runs at the Zilberman Gallery in Berlin until July 30. An exploration of the technologies of colonization, the solo exhibition features a selection of new and ongoing work, including “Windows on the West” (2019) and an interview with German singer and actor Roberto Blanco. The first is a hand-woven reconstruction of the first documented photograph taken on the African continent, while the second questions Blanco’s role in “Der Stern von Afrika”, a biopic about Marseille.
First released at London’s Mosaic Rooms in 2020, the second version of “When I See the Future I Close My Eyes” reflects on the role of technology in shaping what Amin calls “visuality western”. In particular, image-making technologies and how they “emerged from a colonial agenda”. She also studies “the way in which this colonial narrative fits into the tools for creating images”.
“As a person from the Global South, I am hyper aware of the structures that were imposed in a colonial context,” she says. “So I’m interested in how science and technology are often immediately associated with progress and are in fact rooted in disparities of power and hierarchy.”
She also questions “our techno-optimism” and how “we’ve been kind of ‘trained’ to use technology to solve problems” without thinking about the long-term consequences.
The nature and scale of Amin’s work, with his in-depth examinations of the ways contemporary society engages with technology, often requires collaboration. For “When I see the future…”, she worked with academic and researcher Anthony Downey.
“Collaboration is an integral part of my job,” she says. “I cannot acquire knowledge without collaborating with others. So I do a lot of fieldwork – gathering material, gathering content, taking video footage, doing interviews… and it’s really important for me to understand the content that I’m dealing with.
For this exhibition, Amin and Downey examined how their methodologies can bring to light different types of knowledge. She previously said the exhibition was used as a “tool through which we produce knowledge with others”.
Why is this production of knowledge so important? “Because ultimately we are dealing with systems of power, systems of oppression,” Amin replies. “But it’s also a process by which I try to understand the constructions of what we live today. Often when we’re dealing with global politics and media, contextualizing those narratives doesn’t go very far, so I’m interested in looking at those systemic issues and looking at them historically, but through lived experience or embodied experience. In this sense, knowledge production is important because it is not just about observing or asking questions, it is about revealing and presenting untold stories, unheard voices – different historical narratives that have not been addressed in the archives – and as a way to sort out complicate a contemporary narrative.
Born and raised in Cairo, Amin is currently Professor of Digital and Temporal Art at ABK Stuttgart. She is also co-founder of the Black Athena Collective, curator of visual arts for the Arab-American journal Mizna, and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Digital War. She is arguably best known for her hack of the American TV series ‘Homeland’, which saw her, Caram Kapp and Don Karl (known collectively as the Arabian Street Artists) dotting the show’s set with graffiti. criticizing the show’s portrayal of the Muslim world. .
Hired to add authenticity to the street scenes for the second episode of the fifth season, the artists instead penned phrases such as “Homeland is racist”, “Homeland is not a show” and “#blacklivesmatter “, causing an international media storm. The graffiti project was designed, Amin says, to reveal how Hollywood “dominates through cultural soft power”, and how the narratives of its popular movies and series “impact international politics and political discourse”.
“My intervention in the series ‘Homeland’ was simply to poke holes in the way that a program which is produced in collaboration with the CIA obviously has an agenda, and I needed to clarify this agenda. I never would have imagined that the intervention would work as well as it did and more importantly other than people being fascinated with how I did it I was more interested in how the criticism I was doing was being aired in major news outlets and it became a kind of global conversation,” she says.
“And that’s kind of the intent behind a lot of my work: how do we present these very difficult narratives to have a conversation about them?”