In the spring of 2011, months after a popular revolution in Egypt had toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian artist Shady El Noshokaty was making enemies. El Noshokaty had been chosen by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture to organize the Egyptian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, and he had selected a piece by Ahmed Basiony, a former protégé of his whose conceptual work bucked the trends of previous Egyptian entries. In the past, ministry officials had chosen more traditional artists whose work tended to depict Egyptian culture in traditional media, painting or sculpture.
But Egypt was in a dramatic transition, and Basiony—who was shot and killed by Egyptian police on January 28, 2011, while protesting in Tahrir Square—was a poignant reminder of that. He was also, in El Noshokaty’s opinion, a singular talent. “If we had a fair selection of who should go to Venice to represent Egypt, it should have been” Basiony, El Noshokaty told me when we met in Cairo late last year. “He should have been there a long time before.”
El Noshokaty picked 30 Days of Running in the Place, a video piece in which the young artist, wearing what looks like a plastic space suit complete with a cellophane diving bell, runs in place for an hour, once a day for thirty days, outside Cairo’s Palace of Arts. The suit measures his levels of physical exertion, generating data that are then projected on a multicolored screen. 30 Days of Running in the Place can be seen as a piece about Egypt’s stagnation under Mubarak, who came to power in 1981, when Basiony was still a child. He probably thought, like the majority of Egyptians, that Mubarak would die in office. His piece is about Egypt’s paralyzed politics and future; it is not about the country’s revolution.
Nevertheless, Basiony’s work was displayed in Venice beside videos he had filmed of two days of Tahrir protests. It was a dramatic juxtaposition—the unrestrained emotion of the protests beside the slick manipulation of the art—and it was well received at the Biennale. But back in Cairo, El Noshokaty’s peers, for the most part, found it appalling. They accused him of reducing Basiony’s work to a cipher of the revolution, which erupted nearly a year after the artist made 30 Days of Running in the Place and which, tragically, he had barely witnessed. They worried that El Noshokaty, in his grief, was exploiting the revolution for the posthumous exposure it offered Basiony. “They are concerned about Basiony’s participation in Venice because it’s presenting his art relative to the revolution more than his own practice,” El Noshokaty told me. “Of course I understand that.” They also bristled at the involvement of the Ministry of Culture, which they suspected of grasping for revolutionary credibility through Basiony’s piece.
But the Ministry of Culture wasn’t happy with El Noshokaty either. In the months since the revolution began, it had undergone a dramatic reshuffling, cycling through three ministers before the opening of the Biennale. One minister was forced to resign on suspicion of having colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood. The new minister was keen to establish his fidelity to the revolution through the Biennale, but not as eager to spotlight the “martyr” element of Basiony’s death. In the promotional materials, Basiony’s name was removed from the cover. This infuriated El Noshokaty, and he spoke out in the Egyptian media against the choice: “I suddenly found [the minister of culture] talking about Basiony’s project like it was about the revolution, like [the minister] was always with the revolution.”