Not Seeing What You Get: Basim Magdy’s First Day of Mischief Training

Not Seeing What You Get: Basim Magdy’s First Day of Mischief Training

Egyptian artist Basim Magdy (Assiut, 1977) has a knack of defying expectations on a multitude of levels. In his drawings, paintings, videos and photographs, he catapults us in a world of the absurd, sci-fi, fictitious civilisations, conspiracies, and other unlikely musings on power relations. He creates a sphere where fiction and reality meet, and where truth becomes a variable. The role of the artist is one of a trickster, of someone who leads you towards a certain path, and then makes you stray from it, again and again. No answers are to be found en route, only more confusing questions: what you see is definitely not what you get.

In his photo series First Day of Mischief Training (2006) we see an image of the artist wearing a gorilla mask, standing triumphantly next to a small plane, in a meadowy airfield. Plane + Other + the intention of mischief immediately conjures a reference to 9/11. However, this reference is a soft reference. Magdy’s image throws us off kilter because it scrambles and plays with a variety of associations, never quite pledging allegiance to one in particular. One the one hand the composition is reminiscent of a tourist snapshot, wherein one would pose demonstratively next to a tourist site or monument, yet on the other hand it recalls war photography where military pilots would pose before or after combat. Tourism and war both involve spectacle.

First Day of Mischief Training is more humorous than threatening; the landscape too picturesque and peaceful to sound alarm bells going off; the identity of the protagonist too muddled to take a definitive stance on what we are seeing. Nevertheless, there is the intent of “mischief”. Whether that is a terrorist attack, whether the plane is carrying out a rendition flight carrying enemy combatants to so-called black sites, or whether the whole thing is just a prank, we do not know.

If 9/11 heralded a climate of “us” against “them”, then Magdy does an excellent job at confusing identities, and obfuscating who “we” and “they” are. He wears a mask after all, defying identification. This playful refusal to be pigeonholed is a trait feeding through Magdy’s oeuvre. Rather than being stereotyped as an “Arab artist” catering to certain expectations – orientalist or not – of what contemporary art of the Arab world should be, he confronts us with the shortcomings of our own – and his – conceptual and interpretative frameworks.

In a larger context Magdy’s practice voices a concern that is increasingly ringing stronger across segments of the Arab world. Namely, not to be judged in the West or in their own societies according to labels of ethnicity, ideology, religion, or gender, but to have the freedom to chose their own paths.

Nat Muller