On ‘Naoum’s Cache’ by Mohamed Adel Dessouki.
Written by Rania Atef. Published on 10 January 2022.
This text is a mix of an intervention and a reflection on the artist’s work as opposed to a critique. It tries to shed light on the void left by formal archives by looking into ‘Naoum’s Cache’, a multimedia artwork presented by artist Mohamed Adel Dessouki. It opens a space of imagination and examines the effect of those archives on collective memory. How can we imagine parallel archives or archival art practices that fill the gaps in existing ones? And is it possible for these imagined ones to open a wider space for questioning and thinking? Can they constitute a form of resistance to what is imposed?
We are at a dimly lit hall in the exhibition space of MASS Alexandria in 2019. The art space, founded in 2010 by the artist Wael Shawky in the basement of a residential building, is located in the east-Alexandrian neighborhood of Miami. It provides opportunities for independent research, study, and display for artists in Egypt. There is a rectangular vitrine in the middle and a silent video screen on the left. The vitrine displays a variety of drawings, photos, texts, and personal belongings.
In the video, two persons appear, their features are not visible. They are wearing blue suits, like those of lab workers, and glasses and gloves, like those of biological hazard workers. The video gives you a sense of secrecy and mystery, but also of extreme caution. At a certain point, the vitrine appears in the video, behind which the two people carefully stack its contents in slow motion. I hesitated to watch the video in full or to verify the contents of the vitrine and decided to check the vitrine so that I could understand what was behind the secrecy, ambiguity, and sensitivity in the video.
When I looked closely at the drawings inside the vitrine, my eyes could distinguish an archival photo of the Cairo Tower building, which has always been and still is a symbol of the city of Cairo. Amidst a variety of other architectural drawings that I could not identify or relate to, I found personal belongings such as a pipe, a set of pens, and a personal eyeglass. I could see the architectural background of the artist Mohamed Adel Dessouki shining through the nature of the drawings and images in ‘Naoum’s Cache’, the title of the artwork.
With ‘Naoum’s Cache’, the artist focuses on the archive of the architect Naoum Chebib, who designed the Cairo Tower. He is considered one of the main Egyptian architects of his time. The image of the tower formed the beginning of the thread which I started to follow while reading the artist’s work. I do not know whether it was Dessouki’s intention for this picture to play the role of grabbing attention or not. Later, my observations and thoughts became part of my conversation with Mohamed Adel Dessouki, which took place in person and through audio messages.
I grew up in Cairo and I remember going to the Cairo Tower for the first time on a trip with relatives when I was nearly six years old and then again on a school trip several years later. Afterward, I would see the building every day on my way to university for nearly five years, as well as in advertisements, newspapers, and books. Before coming across Dessouki’s project ‘Naoum’s Cache’, I never asked myself who the architect of this tower was, nor did I remember learning this during my guided visits to the building. There seems to be a kind of negligence – whether intentional or not – in local media and other circles.
Dessouki’s project is based on the disappearance of Naoum Chebib’s archives from the official archives of Egypt after his departure from the country in the early seventies. Dessouki said in one of our conversations, that “even his scribbles did not exist.” He is completely ignored in local media and formal archives and there is a lack of documents that bear his signature or the drawings he made. Naoum Chebib seems to have left without leaving a trace. While some hypotheses state that he left Egypt because of his religion under the political rule of Abdel Nasser, Dessouki told me that Naoum was neither a Jew nor did he leave Egypt during the rule of Abdel Nasser. Rather, he explained, Naoum was an icon at the time. As one of the most famous architects in Egypt, there is little reason for someone like him to leave the country so suddenly.
I was not sure whether the objects in the vitrine really belonged to Naoum Chebib or whether they were simply placed there by the artist to tell a story and to fill the void. I began to wonder how the official and unofficial archives impacted a collective memory and my personal knowledge unconsciously. Why had I never asked which architect had built this tower? I asked myself, how can we look at buildings as a kind of archive? An archive does not have to be a pile of papers or a collection of files.
This disappearance or the “enigma” – as Dessouki described it – was the point of departure for him to build a fictional archive for Naoum that focuses on the period after he left Egypt. My eyes started moving between the image of the tower and the other sketches and texts. The image of the tower acts as a key to the work. My eyes moved between it and other sketches and texts and then were caught by another building. As part of his artistic research, Dessouki began to imagine a project called ‘A Monument to the Truth’, which Naoum might have worked on after his departure. Dessouki himself developed the drawings for this imaginary project that never existed. The way that Dessouki meanders between known architectural features and his imagination he successfully creates a kind of familiarity that haunted me and provoked further interest.
Part of it is a mystery which is in line with Dessouki’s use of video and performance as mediums. The elements and esthetics that exaggerate the secrecy implications such as the way the artist and the other participants move in the direction of going down towards the basement to transport things. The intention of not showing their personal features in the video and the use of blue suits and gadgets to dramatically convey something fragile and precious seems a bit humorous but still mysterious. And the process of transferring items from the bag to be placed in the vitrine sparks my curiosity. The two modes of video and performance serve as temporal modes of movement and sequence within the artwork.
For me, Dessouki’s project was confusing yet opened doors to questions about archives, their value, and their existence as effective tools that can form, play, investigate and direct. It also exposed a ‘blind spot’ in me, which made me want to visit the Cairo Tower while carrying within me Dessouki’s fictional archive on Naoum. This time I decided to go looking for Naoum, but with different memories and questions.
I made the decision to visit the tower in the middle of the week. This time, I went to search for Naoum, for his traces in this place, and for his official circulating archive as well. The tower appears clearly when you approach the city center, a cylindrical building with geometric lines that intersect with each other, and its top ends in a conical shape which hosts two floors: one is a restaurant, and the other floor is for sightseeing. From the tower, you can see landmarks of Cairo, such as the Nile River, the Pyramids, the Citadel, some famous bridges in the city center, and some historical and well-known buildings.
At the entrance to the tower, I found on the left a frame with a picture of Naoum and some information written on it, but I was too confused to get close enough to read it. I felt that no one else was looking for him there. Perhaps I even felt frightened by Dessouki’s talk about the mystery of his disappearance. I went up to the tower and completed my visit. After coming down, I found another sign bearing information about the Cairo Tower, including that it was built by Naoum Chebib, who, the sign explained, designed several famous buildings and facilities in Egypt and beyond. It also included information on how the tower was constructed. I waited until the main entrance was empty of visitors and asked one of the employees, “Do you know who built this tower?” She replied, “Naoum Chebib” and pointed to the sign with information about him.
I headed to the panel with the same feeling of confusion inside me, a feeling that is informed by an accumulation of complex political and historical circumstances concerning the idea of questioning. The panel contained information about his date of birth and death, educational certificates, and the date of his immigration to Canada, nothing else. I completed my mission and left while retrieving Dessouki’s work of pictures, drawings, and video in my mind all the way back home. ‘Naoum’s Cache’ echoed with void that I experienced.
While looking into the ‘Naoum’s Cache’ project, I did not expect to find myself confused between a lost archive and a fictional one that Dessouki made. I don’t think that many artworks can play this role of fusion between the viewer and the work. I found myself involved, so to speak, in research and questioning.
In the absence of Naoum’s archive, Dessouki found an opportunity and a wide space for imagination. He was no longer interested in researching Chebib’s reason for leaving but rather became interested in the period after his departure and how he could imagine this period of his life and work. But I was led to solve the mystery of his departure or find out the reason for his sudden disappearance.
The ‘Monument to the Truth’ came to be a fictional work inside a fictive archive, based on Dessouki’s analysis of Naoum’s previous projects. Then his role as an artist seemed to be a “detective role” – as he described it – and the work became as if it was revealing a secret or telling a narrative that was not within reach before. Perhaps I can say that the work filled a gap in history, or, in a more accurate sense, a gap in the archives that puzzled me, and inspired furthering action. For me, the intersection between archives, history, institutions, and fiction created questions about accessibility and how it dictates the known and unknown, which led to revisiting what’s reality, and what shapes it.