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Art for the psyche: The work of Sama Waly

Sadly, Sama Waly’s video installation in Photo Cairo 5 was removed before the show came to an end due to technical problems, but the eeriness it left those who got to see it persisted long after it had gone.

A looped video of Waly sitting with a friend in the hallway of her flat scratching the webs of each other's thumbs while having an informal chat, “Somewhere between 1998 and 2001” is both discomforting and mind boggling.

The two young women appear dressed in white on the screen installed between two walls to create the illusion of the hallway in the video. Their background both in the video and the created hallway at the exhibition space was also white. Everything is minimal and deceivingly soothing in the beginning, until the viewer gets to follow more closely what it is the two women are doing.

In the video, Waly speaks of a game she played in school with her friends where each would slowly scratch the skin of the other’s hand until it bruised. But, along with her friend, she does it peacefully — as if the process involves no pain — which is partly what makes it so discomforting. As we follow their conversation, we notice the unease Waly’s friend feels in the process. Nevertheless, she follows through as if hypnotized.

To the viewer, the experience is also hypnotizing. The scratching seems endless. One has to make a conscious decision to get up and leave after the video loops a few times.

Twenty-two year old Waly is among the fresh voices that have emerged on the local art scene over the past year. Her body of work is varied in form. But it always appeals to viewers’ psyche, often taking them into a hypnotic experience, and so is difficult to dismiss.

I first experienced her work as part of “The Parallel Visions” group exhibit held at Darb 1718 in March. Showcasing the work of dozens of fresh graduates from the American University in Cairo’s art program, Waly’s work was among those that stood out.

A screen affixed to the top corner of a room showed a video of Waly as she psychedelically dunks her head into a bucket of water. Viewers end up being almost out of breath themselves just watching “Sur,” and inner feelings of distress become overwhelming.

A few months down the line, Waly took part in “The Pick 5” exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery. Again, her contribution to the show “Nia kam” or “Ma kain,” as the label read in Arabic lured in those who saw and experienced it.

An all-encompassing white architectural structure, acting like an enclosure with its walls and edges changing at angles, “Nia kam” almost glowed as light from a projector in the ceiling reflected upon it, and triggered overwhelming emotions amongst viewers of being in a surreal space. The artwork reshaped a room on the gallery’s first floor, redefining the space so strongly that it left no traces of previous memories or associations to interfere with the experience. Waly meant to express the continuous change that she has undergone over the past year or so, but also wanted gallery visitors to have their own experience. That’s why she chose such an obscure title for the work.

Around the same time, she took part in “The Supermarket” exhibition at the Gezira Art Center. The looped video titled “A Jar of Jam” was very different from “Nia kam,” yet almost as stimulating. Against a white backdrop and a soundtrack developed by fellow artist Nada el Shazly, children’s feet and fists try to escape the surface, almost leaving the screen in a hallucinatory fashion. The work was inspired by a story by French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre about children being turned into profitable monsters by their torturers.

Throughout the past year, Waly has been constantly experimenting with her work, trying to learn from every opportunity that has come her way. She is interested in creative productions spanning film, performance and visual arts and has taken up different temporary jobs and internships in those fields. Enrolling in the Photo Cairo 5 mentorship program led by visual artist Doa Aly was yet another learning experiment for Waly. For her, her it contested much of what she was exposed to through her university education.

For now she wants to slow down a bit, reflect some more on the many experiences she has undergone over the past year, work on her own — not with an exhibition in mind, and then return stronger than ever to the scene.

This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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