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Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin questions colonial narratives in new Berlin exhibition

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, was detonated on December 27. A photograph of the latter, showing two rows of dummies propped up against the forthcoming blast, caught the eye of the artist Heba Y. Amin.

A miniature reconstruction of that image is at the heart of the Egyptian artist’s new solo exhibition. Confronting the painful topic of France’s nuclear experiments in Algeria, “Atom Elegy” emerged from a poem of the same name by Yvan Goll, which Amin discovered at the Center for Persecuted Arts in Solingen, Germany. “(It) was a sort of love poem to atomic energy, but written before we understood the full devastation of what an atomic bomb could do,” she says.

Artist Heba Y. Amin confronts acts of imperial violence through her art. (Supplied)

It was never published in its original form, but when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War it was rewritten and edited by Goll. “I was interested in this shift of perception around what we deem to be progressive technologies, and the ways in which we aren’t trained or accustomed to questioning them. The image on which my work is based does the same thing for me. It captures a very specific moment in time before the atomic bomb test is conducted, so you see these dummies propped up in strangely surreal detail and are somehow suspended in this moment.”

It was through the photograph’s reconstruction that Amin “better understood how cynical and disturbing this image is” and the extent to which the dummies were be made to look like humans. “There’s this kind of violence and gore that one imagines would have been the aftermath of the bombing at that site. It’s that one moment in between that I’m interested in, which was what was also somehow captured with Yvan Goll’s poem.”

Amin confronts other acts of imperial violence, too. 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 sort of turning point in the World War Two narrative.” She researched an area that was “dubbed the ‘devil’s garden’ by (German field marshal) Erwin Rommel because his forces implanted millions of landmines in the region. To this day the region remains the most landmine-infested territory in the world.” The pyramid is a reconstruction of one erected by the Nazis in the area 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 show features a selection of new and ongoing work, including “Windows on the West” (2019) and an interview with the German singer and actor Roberto Blanco. The former is a hand-woven reconstruction of the first documented photograph taken on the African continent, while the latter questions Blanco’s role in “Der Stern von Afrika,” a biopic of Marseille.

First launched at the Mosaic Rooms in London in 2020, the second iteration of “When I see the future, I close my eyes” reflects on technology’s role in shaping what Amin refers to as “Western visuality.” In particular, the technologies of image-making and how they “emerged out of a colonial agenda.” She also investigates “the way in which that colonial narrative is inscribed within the tools of image-making.”

“As a person from the Global South, I’m hyper-aware of the structures that have been imposed through a colonial context,” she says. “So I’m interested in relaying the ways in which science and technology are often immediately associated with progress and in fact are imbedded with disparities in power and hierarchy.”

Heba Y. Amin, ‘Windows of the West.’ (Supplied)

She also questions “our techno-optimism” and the ways in which “we’ve been sort of ‘trained’ to use technology to solve problems” without thinking of the long-term consequences.

The nature and scale of Amin’s work, with its extensively researched examinations of ways in which contemporary society engages with technology, often necessitates collaboration. For “When I see the future…,” she worked with academic and researcher Anthony Downey.

“Collaboration is integral to my work,” she says. “I can’t 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 have an understanding of the content that I’m dealing with.”

For this exhibition, Amin and Downey looked at the ways in which their methodologies can bring different kinds of knowledge to the fore. She previously stated that the exhibition was being used as a “tool through which we produce knowledge with others”.

Why is this production of knowledge so important? “Because ultimately we’re dealing with systems of power, systems of oppression,” replies Amin. “But it’s also a process by which I try to understand the constructs of what we’re living today. Oftentimes when we’re dealing with global politics and the media, the contextualization of these narratives only goes so far, so I’m interested in looking at these systemic issues and looking at them historically, but through a lived experience, or an embodied experience. In that sense, the production of knowledge is important because it’s not just about observation or raising questions, it’s 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 of complicate a contemporary narrative.”

Born and raised in Cairo, Amin is currently a professor of digital and time-based art at ABK Stuttgart. She is also the co-founder of the Black Athena Collective, curator of visual art for the Arab American journal Mizna, and sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Digital War. She is arguably best known for her hacking of the US TV series “Homeland,” which saw her, Caram Kapp and Don Karl (known collectively as the Arabian Street Artists) pepper the show’s set with graffiti that criticized the show’s depiction of the Muslim world.

Hired to add authenticity to street scenes for the second episode of the fifth season, the artists instead wrote phrases such as “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is not a series” and “#blacklivesmatter,” leading to an international media storm. The graffiti project was designed, says Amin, to reveal the ways in which Hollywood “dominates through cultural soft power”, and how the narratives of its popular films and series “impact international politics and political discourse.”

“My intervention in the ‘Homeland’ series was simply to poke holes in the way in which a show that is being produced in collaboration with the CIA obviously has an agenda, and I needed to make that agenda clear. I never imagined that the intervention would work as well as it did and, more importantly, aside from people being fascinated with how I pulled it off, I was more interested in the way the critique I was making made it into major news outlets and it became a sort of global conversation,” she says.

“And that’s kind of the intention behind a lot of my work: How do we bring forward these very difficult narratives to have a conversation about them?”

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