Mahmoud Khaled: I want you to know that I am hiding something from youby Shehab Awad
HELENA ANRATHER GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 14 – NOVEMBER 4, 2018
Mahmoud Khaled’s debut U.S. exhibition at Helena Anthrather Gallery is littered with personal confessions hiding in plain sight. This contradictory tension, between what is revealed and concealed, is a key theme throughout Khaled’s multidisciplinary practice, and in this show in particular. It is also inseparable from his identity as an artist (bravely) making queer-themed work while coming from a country where the recent raising of a rainbow flag triggered nation-wide rage and a wave of police arrests. But is that tension relatable to a New York art-going audience that is largely unshaken by displays of queerness in a gallery space? Will they even notice it? Or is prior knowledge of the social and political realities that shape Khaled’s practice necessary to fully engage with and relate to the work?
I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, which showcases work from the past decade of Khaled’s career, begins with a version of the installation As If You Weren’t in Your Own Home (2008–2018) reconceived specifically for the exhibition. For the piece, the gallery’s east wall is painted to look like a single slab of marble, in front of which is a concrete bench with an iPhone sitting on its surface. Visitors are encouraged to sit in this out-of-context staging zone and scroll through the phone, unlocked to display an album in the Photos app. The album contains nearly two hundred images of public spaces, which Khaled shot in Cairo back in 2008. No further specifics are given, but I immediately recognize the sites of downtown Cairo: images of the infamous Mogamma (Cairo’s centralized administrative complex and a national emblem of bureaucracy), Tahrir Square, and the monuments and bridges surrounding it. Dispersed throughout the photographs are poetic statements in black text on gray backgrounds, which seem almost like captions: “There you will perform yourself,” reads an early one. As you keep scrolling, however, the statements begin to contradict themselves. “There you will not perform yourself,” says another, evoking the sort of reluctant nostalgia you feel about a place with which you have a love/hate relationship. In this work, familiarity with the sites is irrelevant, as the contradictory nature and confessional tone of the interwoven texts reflect the various frictions, between the hidden and the exposed, that are at play in this exhibition.
The last image reads: “There you will be aware of where, when and how others look at you,” a phrase that continues to resound when encountering Do You Have Work Tomorrow (2013), an installation of thirty-two wooden frames encasing screenshots of a staged Grindr conversation between two men trying to hookup at the wrong time. The general tumultuousness of the moment in which they’re chatting is evident from their dialog. At one point one man asks the other to come meet him, but to carry something that looks like a weapon so that his presence on the streets incites no suspicion. What Khaled leaves out, perhaps purposely, is that this is all occurring in the period following the Day of Rage—the fourth of Egypt’s eighteen-day revolution—during which police forces retreated and the prison system simultaneously broke down. Thousands of inmates were released in what was perceived as a state-authored strategy to worsen instability in the country. Taking matters into their own hands, neighborhoods began forming security committees to protect their streets. One end of Khaled’s conversation is on one such committee, while the other is at home enjoying the luxury of being protected by a hired professional security team. They acknowledge the moment’s bad timing and the difficulty of meeting, but indulge in a little sexting anyway.
To rid the images of their digital aesthetic, Khaled transformed the screenshots into black-and-white photographs, rendering the Grindr interface barely recognizable even to users of the popular dating app. The screenshots are thus decontextualized—a tactic Khaled deploys again and again throughout the show, and which may have developed as a safety measure to avoid attracting unwanted attention to himself and his work. (When I first saw this series in Cairo, I remember thinking how risky it was for him to be showing such explicitly queer work, even if it was exhibited at Nile Sunset Annex, an artist-run apartment gallery with appointment-only visiting hours.)
A similar forbidden desire seeps out of Splashed Memory of a Night Out (2010–2018), a series of twenty framed photographs developed with the same technique used in Do You Have Work Tomorrow, and hanging on the opposite wall. The images depict male erotic dancers, muscular as they come, at various stages of a show. This time, developing the images in black-and-white was an attempt to render the photos timeless. As the exhibition guide reveals, the images were taken during a night at Splash, and commemorate both the now-defunct gay club, which the artist visited during his first trip to New York City in 2013, and a night that the artist has trouble remembering. Would these images carry the same—or any—meaning without the addition of a cathartic confession of how black-out drunk he was that night, or without the knowledge that these were taken on his first visit to New York?
A similar about-last-night inclination appears again in Still Life (Notes on Justice) (2016). Two archival pigment prints display an arrangement of seemingly random and captioned objects—marble vases, a ceramic teapot, photographs, an iPad—staged in beautiful compositions and suspended against a high-contrast, bright-blue backdrop. In one of the prints, an iPhone screen displays a paused video of what looks like two men talking. Its caption reveals that the still is from Douglas Sirk’s 1954 Magnificent Obsession—a film about a selfish playboy who eventually develops a conscience—and describes the scene as a man receiving advice from a well-respected philosopher while suffering from a hangover after a night of heavy drinking. Although the caption appears to be describing the scene from the film still, its foregrounding of yet another wild night, with the added knowledge that the objects in the two studies are connected via personal associations, makes it seem like another confession; this time hiding behind the character of a film.
It’s difficult to decontextualize an artwork when its author’s identity is inextricably tied to its analysis. Lustful photographs of semi-nude men aren’t really shocking or necessarily exciting on their own. It is Khaled’s gaze; his camera’s lens zooming in on the dancer’s bulges, and the dollar bills bunched up in their waistbands, that makes the reading of these images more nuanced than they would have otherwise been. Maybe the subtle balance of the personal and public, hidden and revealed in Khaled’s work don’t have to translate to a U.S. audience on a personal level. Perhaps the artist’s work, at least the more explicitly queer work on display, provides catharsis both for him, and to those who recognize it. After all, a desire for cathartic confession is made clear in the title of the exhibition (borrowed from A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes), as well as in many of the artwork titles.
So, what then, is the artist confessing? His queerness is already out on the table for anyone who’s familiar with some of his past work, or from the images and text lining the gallery walls. But what may seem plain to some is also hidden from many, a tension the artist will probably live with no matter where he’s based and that his work will always carry—there will always be something to confess. It’s just that some confessions occur in places where more is at stake. And for that reason, Khaled’s exhibition might not have a lot to tell some viewers; but for others, who have familiarity with the context or with one like it, it says a lot. When you know, you know.
SHEHAB AWAD is a curator based in New York.