Jasmina Metwaly, Anbar (Badrawi’s atelier), 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 19 minutes 10 seconds. Installation view, 2020.

Jasmina Metwaly, Anbar (Badrawi’s atelier), 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 19 minutes 10 seconds. Installation view, 2020.

Jasmina Metwaly

Fabric is many things: It has been covering our naked skin for millennia and can serve as an important conduit for the transmission of cultural memory. Today, it is mostly a commodity, one so common and available that, from the comfort of our innocence (or ignorance), we have allowed the conditions of its production to simply fade from view. In the twenty-first century, those who sew clothing, primarily women and children, are soldiers on the front lines of global production, trade, power, and violence; their labor is deliberately concealed, locked away in wretched sweatshops for popular chains that feed the glitter and glamour of the fashion industry by flooding the markets with more goods than can be consumed. In the four video works presented in her exhibition “Anbar: Exercises in Mimicry,” Polish Egyptian artist Jasmina Metwaly envisaged clothing’s site of production under the designation anbar. Importantly, anbar is a word with two meanings: In contemporary Persian, it denotes a shop or warehouse, a place where commodities are stored; in Arabic, it refers to a prison cell. Thus, this project situated the meaning of its production space as both a place of isolation and a space of exchange.

Let the stories told by the protagonists of the four videos serve as their personal camouflage, and each of them speaks—often from off screen, so that their faces can’t be seen—about disguise and mimicry. In her 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity, literary scholar Mary Russo wrote that the body is “a recyclable trompe l’oeil.” Everyday clothing performs a similar function as it manifests or masks our identities, placing us ever so precisely in a given social structure. These are the exercises in mimicry—protective and defensive fitting—offered by one’s wardrobe.

The protagonist of Anbar (Badrawi’s atelier) (all works cited, 2019) is a tailor whose workshop in Cairo has been filling orders for the Egyptian army and political dignitaries for several decades. In Anbar (Marta’s studio), we are introduced to a Polish set and costume designer, with whom Metwaly collaborated to produce designs that link activism, social control systems, and political engagement with the aesthetic of street camouflage. Her prototypes—among them a warm, nonflammable woolen skirt that the artist says reminds her of the wintry days of protest in Tahrir Square in 2011—were exhibited next to the video works, placed on a wire fence that set the stage for the exhibition.

Metwaly has invented a very personal and original formal language with which to speak about topical matters. Hers is what I call an art of the imperative—not in the sense of calling for direct action on the streets, but in that her practice takes an urgent tone, demanding that we become more sensitive and aware of exploitation, insult, and social injustice. For her protagonists, who cannot publicly manifest their otherness, identity, or engagement in political movements, Metwaly constructs a liberating disguise that offers protection—just like a warm, nonflammable woolen skirt designed for street activists—while insisting on her subjects’ right to have their voices heard.