The Revolution stripped bare

By taking off her clothes, did a young Cairo blogger prove that the Egyptian revolution was also nak

About a month ago Alia Magda Elmahdy, a 20 year old student from Cairo, posted a photo of herself online. In the full-length black and white image she appears naked apart from a pair of stockings. Her shoes and a bow in her hair are highlighted in red. In the context of the internet, a medium notoriously replete with naked female flesh, there's nothing especially remarkable about the image, even allowing for her nationality. But Elmahdy chose to display her body as an avowedly political gesture. She has described her action as a protest against sexism in Egyptian society and a demand for artistic and sexual freedom. Here's what she wrote on the blog:

Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

According to the New York Times, "it is hard to overstate the shock at an Egyptian woman's posting nude photographs of herself on the Internet in a conservative religious country where a vast majority of Muslim women are veiled and even men seldom bare their knees in public."

That may be an exaggeration. But certainly everything about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy seems calculated to annoy Egypt's increasingly powerful Islamists -- and embarrass moderate secularists. Not only is she unafraid to break taboos by posing naked, she describes herself as an atheist and lives openly with a boyfriend who himself was imprisoned for writing things critical of both Islam and the former president, Hosni Mubarak. In an interview with CNN this weekend she defended gay rights, spoke openly about her sex life and called for a "social revolution", declaring that "women under Islam will always be objects to use at home."

If provocation was her aim then she has succeeded, though at considerable personal cost. Her blog post -- which also displays several other images, including a full-frontal shot of a naked man -- has received well over three million hits. While many comments have been supportive, others accused her of confusing freedom with "degradation and prostitution". A group of Islamic law graduates have launched a legal action against Elmahdy and her boyfriend, accusing the pair of "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam."

She hasn't had much support from liberals, either, many of whom fear that actions like hers play into the hands of Islamist social conservatives who favour the imposition of Saudi-style restrictions on women in the country. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied reports that she a member by asserting that "We are conservative youths, and we always encourage our members to be role models as far as ethics are concerned . . . How can we have accepted the membership of a girl who behaves like this?"

"Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world?" was Elmahdy's response to that remark. "They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions."

By exposing herself, Aliaa Elmahy may also have exposed the shortcomings of a political revolution that is certainly unfinished and may turn out to be stillborn. In the CNN interview she described sexism in Egypt as "unreal" and suggested that many women wore the veil "just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets." There's little evidence that events since January have improved that situation. The alliance of convenience between secular liberals and Islamists seen in both Egypt and Tunisia has temporarily masked deeper tensions about the nature of society. And it is on the bodies of women that these debates so often seem to play out.

Her gesture also poses a challenge to Western liberals. Her very existence as a young, sexually-active, atheist feminist questions widely-held assumptions about the fundamentally conservative nature of Islamic societies. Perhaps, for that very reason, she is likely to provoke more embarrassed shuffling of feet than open support. And some may consider her methods questionable, not merely because she thereby puts herself in danger.

For there's something curiously old-fashioned about Elmahy's action. It seems like a harking back to that brief moment (approximately between the Lady Chatterley and the Oz trials in the UK) when sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics. We've moved on from that. Today, displays of naked (especially female) flesh no longer look politically radical. Instead they tend to be deplored on the Left as sexualising and objectifying, symptoms on the one hand of crass commercialism and, on the other, as merely the exploitation of vulnerable women for male delectation. It's a view that (for different reasons) our own religious conservatives are happy to endorse.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.