CAIRO — Basim Magdy’s giddy futurism, absurd aphorsims, and cautious optimism are lauded all over the world. In the exhibition Two Ghosts Discuss Invisibility in Front of a Mirror, Magdy, alongside his father, Magdy El Gohary, present a hauntingly prescient read on the “age of the anthropocene” to an Egyptian audience. Basim Magdy is an illusionist; with fantasy as its starting point, the work in the exhibition occupies a unique logic, and offers a liberating interpretation of our highly simulated reality. Through his father’s paintings, it becomes clear where Magdy gets many of his signature qualities: his fixation with color, his wild perception of the future, his preoccupation with history, and his romantic obsession with nature. It is the first time the work of this father and son are shown together.
In a vulnerable intergenerational play on shared global anxieties, the works in the exhibition point to the ways what can be described as utopian and what might be ominous coexist. In his film No Shooting Stars, Magdy delves into uncertain territory in an abstract exploration of the history and symbolic weight of the sea. The series “Someone Tried to Lock Up Time” includes the historical Fayoum portraits, a cyborg bird, an alien fetus, and a wooden robot. Despite tackling mammoth subjects in abstract ways, Magdy’s work remains accessible, appropriate both in the most renowned museums in the world and on instagram, where he invites his followers to engage with his work using different tags. The heavily treated films and photographs in the exhibition maintain a certain level of universality, situated in no particular place or time, attempting to grasp the vastness of everything all at once. In his work, past, present, and future seem to collapse onto one another, indiscernible in a world unconstrained by time or space.
Walking through the exhibition together, Magdy directs me to one of his father’s paintings, “Tenderness” (1968) sharing that “This one’s my favorite. I shouldn’t have sold it.” The painting depicts a woman whose extended form recalls Pharaonic and Coptic painting, surrounded by a landscape of pastels and multicolored trees. Magdy talks to me about the colors in his father’s work with wide eyed enthusiasm: “The trees are incredible, you know my dad went through Cairo documenting all of the tree genera in the form of immaculate and exact sketches.”
Magdy El Gohary studied at the Faculty of Agriculture in Assiut, where he was commended for his immaculate drawings of different plant genera. He went on to do many botanical illustrations, drawing different classifications with an exactitude that seems almost impossible when looking at works like ““Tenderness” and “The High Dam Series,” (1965) full of surreal forms and faint, dreamlike landscapes. His work is deeply romantic, reminiscent of a time when romanticism was nationalism’s lingua franca. When I ask what the different birds in his work symbolize, he says, “Birds just affect me, it is the movement itself of the bird that agitates me inside, not more than that. My first solo show was mostly birds.”
Despite the uncanny similarities in their work, Magdy says “I never thought of my work as an obvious extension of my father’s work. We both grew up and lived extensively in the same city — even in the same building — but under different circumstances. At least to me, there are clear traces in my work and personality of the years I spent watching my father painting, creating delicate watercolor drawings, and making the most intricate, beautiful and scientifically accurate, black and white botanical illustrations. Most of my father’s works that are included in Two Ghosts Discuss Invisibility in Front of a Mirror hung on our walls at home for years as I was growing up. Now it is clear to me that it was my father’s imagination that fascinated me the most.”
Both El Gohary and Magdy’s imaginations stretch the bounds of empirical reality. They seem to both occupy a singular parallel universe, one that they each simultaneously imbibe, but depict in different ways. Speaking to both of them, it becomes evident that they both have a fantastical cognitive process, approaching something like synesthesia. In this parallel universe, time is not linear, space is not defined, and humans, cyborgs, statues, and trees all speak to each other in a shared language of color. When Magdy was ten, he read the short stories his father wrote before he was born. “There was one line about a man who carried a ruler in his pocket to measure the passing of time,” he tells Hyperallergic. “Six years later, I was attempting to measure imaginary masses of air using a ruler in a classroom full of confused, entertained, but dismissive 16 year olds.” Years later, Magdy is still playfully measuring the incalculable. Contrasting the flush pink walls of the exhibition, two deep-set Fayoum portrait eyes are accompanied by a quote written in neon green: “Someone Tried To Lock Up Time Inside the Eyes of Lovers / You Can’t Even Put Time on a Ruler / You Can’t Even Get the Ruler to Live Forever.”
In Egypt, it often feels like future-thinking is reserved for a certain few. In the profound intimacy of this exhibition, celebrating the five year anniversary of the Gypsum Gallery in Garden City, it seems Magdy and his father are hijacking the future. Magdy says, “There are many similarities between Nasser’s Egypt and today’s Egypt.” Indeed, Sisi’s multi-billion dollar mega projects posit one vision of the future, not dissimilar to Gamal Abd El Nasser’s High Dam project. What Magdy terms “the grandest Egyptian project since Djozer’s revolutionary Step Pyramid, the Sosostris channel, or the Suez Canal.” Coming of age under the rule of Gamal Abd El Nasser, El Gohary talks about a communal sense of nationalist pride that was then prevalent. “When I traveled in 1966 to the High Dam, it was remarkable what I saw. People worked day and night, and everyone had taken this as the nation, nobody was questioning it, and nobody was criticizing it at that stage. Every engineer immediately graduated and worked at the high dam. You felt that it influenced all of Egypt, from the agricultural production to the water consumption, and energy.” Today’s Egypt isn’t characterized by the same sense of romanticism. Magdy says, “The grand projects of “The New Egypt” don’t exist in a bubble of greatness and immaculacy. It’s not just a dream.” Of his father, he continues to say, “he captured the many layers of that time, its delusion, chaos, accomplishments, and failures.”
That unlikely palimpsest of emotions seeps into into Magdy’s work. The hyperrealism of his videos and photographs are marred by a process of analog filtration, which he terms “pickling.” This process is entirely reflected in the thematic underpinnings of his work. “I always think of my films as fiction about reality…Sometimes I wish I could create narratives about a completely otherworldly future full of details and names and references that only exist in my head — a sort of Hieronymus Bosch world or the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini.” Already, the world of Two Ghosts Discuss Invisibility in Front of a Mirror feels Bosch-like in its colorful chaos and inter-referential mazes. For Magdy, not only is present intertwined with fiction, but history becomes intertwined with myth, and the future is filled with cyborgs. I asked him what he plans to do when the cyborgs take over. His response, “I will lead two parallel lives, one as a cyborg collaborator. The other, as a resistance fighter. In my free time, I’ll focus on self love.”
Two Ghosts Discuss Invisibility in Front of a Mirror is on view at Gypsum Gallery (5 Ibrahim Naguib, Qasr an Nile, Cairo Governorate) through February 20th.