Hidden strengths: ‘The Cachette’ presents female artists’ perspectives on womanhood

Hidden strengths: ‘The Cachette’ presents female artists’ perspectives on womanhood
Self-portrait by Butheina Shalan. Part of The Cachette exhibition.
Updated 27 May 2018

Hidden strengths: ‘The Cachette’ presents female artists’ perspectives on womanhood

Hidden strengths: ‘The Cachette’ presents female artists’ perspectives on womanhood

CAIRO: “She peers through a crystal ball trying to work out the future,” said Egyptian photographer and artist Butheina Shalan of one of her photographs currently on show at “The Cachette” group exhibition. “The Cachette,” which translates from French to English as ‘the hiding place,’ opened on May 13 and occupies two floors at Darb 1718, one of Cairo’s major cultural centers. Women’s unique powers and their ubiquitous energy, which exist in perfect harmony with their surroundings, form a leitmotif that runs through Shalan’s exhibited work.

The show is the outcome of a workshop conceptualized and brought to fruition by artist and exhibition curator Salwa Rashad. As well as Rashad and Shalan, the exhibition showcases works by artists Aliaa Elgready, Noha Nagui (the subject of the photograph Shalan mentioned), Hemat Rayan and Yasmine Hussein. Works on display span different art mediums including drawing, photography and multi-dimensional works. Artist Marianne Fahmy also contributes with a trailer of her upcoming film on global warming in Egypt. Earlier phases of “The Cachette” were exhibited in Alexandria.

The works on display are a brusque and piercing critique of the alienation women have experienced in recent decades. Fueling this artistic endeavor is a profound disenchantment with social, political and religious concepts, which, together with hyper-consumerist affinities, have worked to threaten women’s relationship with themselves and with other forces. “The Cachette” responds by looking beyond these obstacles. As Rashad wrote in the exhibition flyer, the project is “an attempt to discard the accumulating calcifications so we can see a different picture of the female presence in its diversity and the scope of its response to, and interaction with, the surrounding environment.”

Each of the participating artists approaches the female presence differently. Rashad meditates on women’s multiple roles, characterized as they are by a candid sensitivity towards both society and Mother Nature. Hers is a testimony to women’s ability to cultivate legends, a reminder of how they constantly reinvent themselves, even beyond death. Nagui, meanwhile zooms into the space between Mother Nature and alternative nature(s). As the latter surfaced, Nagui demonstrates, the ancient relationship between Mother Nature, mother and infant was subverted, if not painfully mutated. In that regard, breastfeeding emerges as an intermediary, or as Nagui put it in the exhibition flyer, “a medium of instruction between Mother Nature and the Alternative Nature.” This severed relationship between mankind and Mother Nature lies at the heart of ElGready’s work — she is exasperated by, and proceeds to trace, man’s altered bond with animals and nature, its shift from amicable rapport to detachment and hierarchy.

It is Hussein who broaches the subject of memory. She is preoccupied with how today’s female resembles ancient Egyptian goddesses. Hers is an attempt to trace how the goddesses’ imagination and experiences with nature may have fashioned women’s present relationship with it. The personal unconscious also crops up in Hussein’s work. She ponders how it both affects and is affected by the magnitude of women’s relationships.

For her part, Rayan plumbs the depths of memory to uncover the triad of history, reminiscences and personal recollections. Snippets from a life gone by — photographs, letters and other recollections — are merged together laying bare traces of pain and hinting at the inexpressible.

The workshop-turned-exhibition began roughly a year ago. Together, artists read and discussed selections from two books: “Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” by award-winning American poet and Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and “The Mystery of Ashtar” by Syrian writer Firas Al Sawah. All six artists then got down to work, taking inspiration from, among other concepts, the archetypal female and the Grand Goddess. The result, as a stroll around the exhibition swiftly confirms, is a rich profusion of intimate artistic renderings that offer new meaning to femininity, nature and everything in between.  

The title, as Shalan noted, is as an enunciation of “some of the things that were cloistered within us.” In more ways than one, “The Cachette” presents a powerful testimony to the strength of women.