A few years ago in academic circles, it seemed like one could not go anywhere, including art galleries, without hearing the name Mikhael Bakhtin.
Bakhtin, a turn-of-the-century Russian philosopher who died in 1975, was rediscovered in the 60s shortly before his death. What was most distinctive about his work, particularly where the art market is concerned, was his fascination with the “carnival” and the “grotesque” (it was Bakhtin who coined the term “carvinalesque”), elements of the human spirit that exist in the margins of society and possess their own reality.
This month at the Townhouse Gallery, a curious exhibit entitled “Mister President’s Circus” by photographer John Perkins in collaboration with documentary journalist Mona Abouissa speaks to these ideas. Capturing images of the Egyptian circus between the years 2007-2010, the exhibit chronicles the stories, legacies and bizarre icons of the two rival families still involved in this offbeat art form.
Without directly invoking Bakhtin, “Mister President’s Circus” captures the extremity of everyday circus life. Tracing the lineage of Egypt’s most prominent circus families from the year 1890 to the present, the exhibit contemplates human fault lines: internal family feuding which led to the dissolve of one company into two, a longing to leave the circus but feeling loyal to it, a love of audience and the thrill of attention despite a general lack of acknowledgment and severe funding cuts under ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
And then it also speaks to the recently dissolved former regime. Bakhtin vividly charts the tumultuous politics that led to the fall of the Egyptian circus: From being one of the top five best circuses in the world under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser to its marginalization during Sadat’s open-door epoch and its final transformation into a negligible art-form under Mubarak’s reign.
As the last of these photos were taken in 2010, the images occasionally predate their placards, offering commentary on the January 25 Revolution, contextualizing them into the present and adding meaning to the exhibit’s somewhat elusive name.
Despite their subject matter, the black and white photos of “Mister President’s Circus” are pensive. They tell stories of resignation to the substandard, mixed with a bit of tarnished glamour, traces of past glory. Fashioned as a series of medium sized portraits accompanied by placards, the combination of this text and imagery is even at times informative: We learn from them that a lion must drink milk to cleanse its stomach, that it must eat between eight to ten kilos of meat per day, and that the least healthy of these meats is donkeys’.
The placards tell stories far more intricate and compelling than the photos alone can convey, thus the exhibit balances two levels — something between photojournalism and visual storytelling — where the combination of the two surpasses the weaknesses of either, speaking to the creative possibilities of this particular combination of media.
Through the exhibit, we come to possess a different look on this current regime change, the results of its past neglect, the more unexpected bearers of its corruption. As Bakhtin highlighted so long ago, we get a look into the strange hierarchies that exist within the circus itself, transcendent in a way of space and time; the supreme status of the lion tamers over the acrobats, family obligations and the suffering of clowns, all highlighted within the nonchalant commentary of the placards: “Anyone can be a clown” says a man in white face paint “but not someone who loves it.”
Under these photos of big tents, lions and the babies born into circus life are more melancholic truisms. “You spend four years learning a trick that you perform in eight minutes,” says performer Abu Leila Ahmed Yassin, but then nothing can compare with this feeling of being onstage where “1,300 people are watching you do something no one else can do.”
“Mister Presidents Circus” is ongoing until June 15, Townhouse Gallery: 10 El-Nabarawy St.,
Downtown, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2576 8086.
Despite their subject matter, the black and white photos of “Mister President’s Circus” are pensive.