Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nancy Spero, Queen

Nancy Spero installation at the Cairo Biennial, 1998, photo by Barry Iverson; all images, unless otherwise noted, are by the author

Two friends just sent me the link to the NY Times' obituary of Nancy Spero, which I had missed, here in my move "cocoon".

Nancy was an inspiration to me for two reasons.

As a young curator working at MoMA, I went with a colleague from Prints & Illustrated Books over to meet Nancy. Of course I knew her work and was thrilled for the strong visual world she created through her collages. Despite her fame within the downtown arts community, she was kind and gracious and spoke frankly about the work, which tells not only abut the past but about our collective feminist future.

Many years later, in 1997, I approached Nancy to propose her work for the 1998 Cairo Biennial, and Nancy's work was chosen. My first trip to Cairo was shocking--I had a haunting, almost out-of-the-body experience after seeing the pyramids (remind me to tell you about the Winchester house "incident"). There was something about that place that I felt in my bones, despite being Northern European stock.

Nancy's installation was deceptively simple: her three assistants were to stamp images directly onto the walls of the Palace of Arts in Cairo. However, because the building was still in litigation, four years after its completion, we had to find a quick solution to not mar the walls with the paint. The Egyptians I worked with were both proud of Nancy's use of mythic symbols from Egypt's Pharonic past, but also somewhat defensive that a Westerner would "borrow" these forms.

The day of the Biennial's opening in Cairo was the day we bombed Iraq in the first war. The official opening the day's events attacked Nancy as the American representative--shocking, given Nancy's history and politics. Luckily, the first person to speak on our panel about Nancy's work couldn't be bothered to listen to the translation of this official's rant--she went blithely on about pattern & decoration in the work of Nancy Spero. In any case, my experiences in Cairo were transformative, thanks to Nancy.

Marwan Rechmaoui's work at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, 2008

In addition to visiting one of the most glorious countries on earth, I came to work with many great artists from Egypt and the region, and indeed, I have worked, traveled and written about contemporary art in the area for a decade (the last article, on Beirut's "Home Works IV", was published in Art Papers last spring). And my work at F.A.R. (Future Arts Research) @ ASU, on desert aesthetics, was rooted in my reading, writing and finding ways to travel to the region.

Ghada Amer, Untitled (Milwaukee Love), 1998, photo courtesy the author

I commissioned works from Ghada Amer in 1998, Lara Baladi in 2004, and most recently, Ahmet Ogut, in 2008. Other artists whose work I supported include Mona Marzouk, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Halil Altindere, and Khaled Hafez. Scott Bailey, with whom I co-founded a curatorial practice program in Cairo in 1998, was a great inspiration and friend in negotiating the complex social issues of Cairo.

Work by Khaled Hafez, courtesy the artist

I had three dreams when I was a child: sky diving (are you crazy?), scuba diving and living in Africa. Because of Nancy Spero, I did one (Red Sea) and had close encounters with another. Nancy was not just a global leader in a radical, political, visual feminism, she was a personal inspiration to many women of her own generation, and mine.

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