Amal Kenawy (1974–2012)

Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Lambs, 2009. Performance view, Cairo, December 16, 2009. Photo: Nikki Columbus.

ON NEW YEAR’S DAY three years ago, the writer Nikki Columbus emailed me a photograph she’d taken a few weeks earlier of an explosive street performance in Cairo by the Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy. Columbus had curated a rumbling show on theatricality and spectatorship for the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, featuring works by Cyprien Gaillard, David Levine, Jill Magid, Enrique Metinides, and Walid Raad, among others. Kenawy’s piece was meant to be performed twice to mark the opening and closing of the exhibition. The first time proved so volatile that the work, titled Silence of the Lambs, was never shown in its original form again. Columbus’s picture captures in a single image the entire drama—vexed, complicated, queasy—that erupted when Kenawy made fifteen people cross through the chaos of Downtown Cairo on their hands and knees.

We see traffic stopped and an enormous public bus stilled within inches of the performers’ crawling bodies. We see crowds of people curious, perplexed, and enraged. We see Abdel Ghany, the artist’s brother and frequent collaborator, enacting his sister’s script. There are a dozen day laborers behind him, hanging their heads and hiding their faces from an onslaught of cameras. In the middle of this maelstrom is the artist, in coveralls with bed-head hair and bug-eyed sunglasses—none of which hid her beauty—orchestrating the movements around her. And then we see her adversary, a man dressed like a pool shark (black shirt, sharp blue blazer), facing her with a look that spells out everything that is about to come: a brutal argument, insults slung back and forth, police intervention, a night in jail for the performers, and acrimony all around.

A few days before that photograph was taken, Kenawy told me for the first time that she was dying. We met at a café in Zamalek. I arrived to find her son, Yassin, set up on his own, playing computer games. Kenawy was sitting at another table, endlessly stirring a cup of coffee. When she looked up, tears like marbles fell from her eyes and rolled down her face. They continued like that, for an hour or more, as she explained, voice shaking, that she was sick and it was serious and it would be over soon. It wasn’t the first time she’d been ill. That I knew. When we were introduced five years earlier, she had such a wild sense of style that it took me a while to realize she was veiled. When I asked her about it, as insensitive journalists will do, she told me she wore a headscarf not for religious but for medical reasons, which I took to mean cancer and chemotherapy. She nodded yes and then changed the subject.

For years, Kenawy was in remission and thrived. The physical heft of the early works she made with Abdel Ghany and the gothic accent of the videos, performances, and installations clustered around The Room, 2003—with its iconic footage of Kenawy’s lace-gloved hands stitching fake flowers into a beating heart—gradually gave way to more delicate drawings, accumulative animations, and the elegant simplicity of her intimate public gestures.

In 2007, Kenawy spent a day and a night sewing pink quilted blankets around a crumbling structure on the edge of the arts district in Sharjah, as if folding the building into a warm embrace. She revived The Room on the grounds of an old Byzantine Church in Amman, and torched a white wedding dress as her fiery grand finale. She made ethereal videos delving into the interpretations of her dreams, such as The Purple Artificial Forest, 2005, and You Will Be Killed, 2006, and both of those works seem like eerie chronicles of a death foretold.

The day I met Kenawy in the café, I was expecting a loose and elastic studio visit, or a few hours of catching up with recent projects over an artist’s battered laptop. We had a much more serious conversation as she sketched out her plans for a future she would never know. She wanted to set up a foundation to look after her work and, more importantly, to provide for her son. She wanted my advice, and maybe my help. I was neither the first nor the last person to have this talk with Kenawy. Five months after her death at the age of thirty-seven, the hardest thing to deal with is that none of us did enough. None of us really did anything. There is no foundation. Even the retrospective that Kenawy was working on during her last days has been indefinitely postponed, out of pettiness among the living.

In December, Columbus and I looked at that photograph again. “It captures a moment I will never forget,” she said. “When Cairo stood still, and silence fell over the street.” I always wondered then, but could never articulate until now, how much of Kenawy’s fearlessness was down to the fact that she knew she was dying. Was she willing to risk so much—getting arrested or worse, shutting down the gallery or the show, losing friends or even her family—because she knew she had so little time left? Because she actually had more time left than any of us imagined. Her illness was a secret, but it was an open secret, and it faded into the background as Kenawy lived a full and healthy life for another few years. We gradually forgot that her presence among us was so thin. But when it happened, her health collapsed, and by the end of August she was gone.

Kenawy always dodged the term feminism in favor of a deeper, earthier, and less theoretical reading of her art, one that understood fear, desire, and violence as fundamentally human concerns, and the body as a vessel that would break no matter what its gender was. But for those of us who had the privilege to see her performances in person, we knew we were witnessing moments of real historical weight. We knew this was work to be documented and saved for later study, whether via the lineage of feminist art practice or not. The work made us uncomfortable and it made us question. But our encounter with it was a bond we shared, and share still, as members of an audience both known and unknown. Is it for us to tend to that foundation, that retrospective, the legacy of Kenawy’s work and its place in the history of ideas? I think we owe her that much, and maybe a lot more.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer living in Beirut.