November 18, 2011

Egypt: The nude, the male, art and crime

A lot has been written about what is hash tagged as #NudePhotoRevolutionary on twitter. When it became known that an Egyptian woman blogger had posted a nude photo of herself on her blog all hell broke loose in Egypt with conservative forces lashing out at her just as hefty as liberals and leftist. While the latter feared that the good name of the #jan25 revolution could be tarnished by what they regarded shameful nudity, the conservatives of all shades once again saw the end of the world draw near, imminent so to speak, to be expected within hours.

The discussions both on twitter and facebook were of an unusual emotional force and often no insult was spared to make sure the blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy got the message that she had done the worst thing anyone could do - show  the naked woman body to the world. The Coalition of Islamic law graduates even went so far as to file charges against her with the General Prosecutor accusing her of everything in the book - first of all insulting Islam, for - take note - the naked body exposed is - in their eyes - an insult to Islam. Besides that the charges were "inciting indecency", "violating morals" and even corruption, with the Islamic Coalition arguing that the indecent exposure of the nude woman body was corrupting the country. From the point of law a quite new angel at defining the crime of corruption that so far had been more associated with monetary gains. But who cares about the subtleness of languages. Corruption then, so be it.

While it seems that everything has been said on the topic both in the negative as the positive - as there were a few positive comments at least hailing Aliaa for her bravery - not all has indeed been touched upon.

The male nude in Egypt goes unnoticed

For one it is beyond me that the blogpost - which has now seen more than 2.7 million page views - has ignited a firestorm about the showing of a naked female body - while just underneath it is the photo of a naked man (full frontal) sitting on a chair holding a guitar. No one however lashed out at him or even made it a topic that a man was showing of his naked body including genitals. Is that nothing to be frowned upon in a traditionally orientated conservative society? Amazing. Fact is that the Coalition of Islamic law graduates accused Aliaa of all sorts of terrible things for exposing herself and even went so far as to file criminal charges against her - but never mentioned the naked man on the chair with one word. - What am I missing?

Either, dear Egypt, the exposure of the naked body is shameful, indecent, corrupt, insulting (please add ad lib) - or it is not. But it surely can't be all that in the case of a woman and not worth talking about in the case of a man? Is nudity of men in Egypt then in proper order with culture and tradition and not disturbing you at all? One should have thought the critics would have found that just as irritating if not even more. For depicting the male nude must be an insult to all heroic, brave, upright standing men that would never dare to wear shorts let it alone pull them down.

Then why is the naked man underneath Aliaa's photo totally ignored while all comments lashing out at her argue as if her naked body was the only one to be seen on the blog? - Think about how ridiculous and hypocritical that is. Either you accept the exposure of both bodies - or of none. But you do have to make up your mind.

May art be ugly?

What I found just as irritating was the fact that people in their comments reacted as if the nude female body was an invention of decadence born in November 2011. While many argued that the photo was "shitty", had "bad light", was "not even artistic" - the many discussions showed that these arguments only covered up the greater problem of not being able to deal with the exposure of the blogger's body. Aliaa had clearly argued that she was showing her body to retain her freedom in a male dominated society that harasses and fences women in. In taking off her clothes she was protesting against any form of interference and restriction of her freedom. Doing this with a seemingly black-and-white photo in which only her shoes and a flower in her hair were brightly coloured, she clearly showed an artistic expression that should have been both noticed and respected. But every argument was good enough for those protesting to say that her photo was "ugly" - and therefore not art. - Interesting. Since when was art defined by whether we find it ugly or not?

Think about her photo as you will. Define it for yourself to accommodate your uneasiness with what she did. But you will have to accept the fact that art is in the eye of the beholder and nothing that can be defined by whether we like the picture or not. Art's sole job is to express the artist and evoke in the viewer the urge to contemplate, discuss, be provoked or stimulated, captured or turned off. Art's job is not to please you. And in fact great famous art often hasn't been anything you would call beautiful and pleasing. But it was always expressive and alive, controversial - even revolutionary in the true sense of the word - and innovative and experimental. It never fitted in with mainstream society, it never wanted to please and pleasure. For this in the past centuries people had wallpaper. For something alive and worth discussing people had art.

Kirchner did it before

It is not without irony after the storm that went through Egypt these last days and almost with a twinkle in the eye of Apollo, the god of arts, that today the German Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on the world famous Frankfurter Städel Museum. The museum has just seen a considerable reconstruction, is currently boasting impressive exhibitions of modern art and with no little pride shows off it's own treasures of art of the 20th century.

One of these famous paintings the museum owns was depicted in the paper, with a young woman standing in front and looking at it with interest. It was the famous "Standing nude with hat" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The artist from Germany at the beginning of the last century was one of the founding members of the art school "Brücke" that had set out to radically alter the perception of colour and perspective in art. The results were stunning, irritating to society - and are today considered great art.

The "Standing nude with hat" was painted by Kirchner in 1911 - exactly 100 years before blogger Aliaa decided to depict herself as the "Standing nude without hat". The similarities of these two pictures - the famous painting by Kirchner 1911 and the photo by Aliaa 2011 - are stunning. In both cases the nude woman body is shown plainly, without any exaggeration or eroticism. And in both cases the nude woman wears bright read shoes and is using a chair as a prop.

I do not know if blogger Aliaa ever saw this painting and felt inspired by it. But I know that if Kirchner's "Standing nude with hat" is and was art - despite the irritation it must have caused the very conservative society at that time - you will have great pains in explaining to me why the "Standing nude without hat" by Aliaa is not art - but ugly, shitty, indecent, insulting - yes even a crime.

100 years behind

The only crime that can be seen in all this is that for far too long Egypt has been tyrannized into thinking that women are evil and their naked body as such a tempting crime. It is art's job to confront society with this mistake that in the essence of the reactions is demeaning, hurtful and disrespectful to the woman of Egypt and the world. If Aliaa managed to ignite this with her photo you can call her not only a blogger and revolutionary but an artist in the true sense of the word. For if society cries foul in the eye of controversial art it is only proving one thing - that it was high time for some artist to pull the plug.

Aliaa did this and is now facing dangers that might even touch on her life. But she wanted to do what she did and she knew what she did when she did it. Just like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1911. Only that he in the 20th century never had to face death threats as she has to in Egypt in the 21st century now.

Egypt, you are trailing 100 years behind. But worse - with death threats you behave as if it were 500. Let go of the medieval and embrace what is commonly known to be modern times. That then indeed would be a revolution worth talking about.



  1. One of the best pieces I read in this debate. It's sad how both conservatives and liberal are denouncing Aliaa alike.

    I'm glad you responded to the "this is not art" argument. I am sick of hearing people say that. Who are they to define art?! Thanks for putting it well.

  2. Nice job, Jon. I found it interesting that so many of the comments centered on her "exploiting herself" or men's sexual arousal when the photo was not erotic and true pornography is readily available everywhere. The comments therefore seemed far more reflective of the issuers than of the subject. IMHO more people ought to read Freud...

  3. Jon, great piece as usual, like it a lot. i found the pic artisitic & super expressive and i salue her courage and your essay. well done bro! 2imen

  4. You're right that public outlash has come out almost entirely against Alia, but there actually has been a lawsuit filed against the man, Karim, as well. There's more info here:

    Solid coverage of the issue. Nicely done.

  5. Yes, but that again too is hypocritical and nonsense because the nude man depicted on the blog is not Kareem but someone else. They are trying to implicate him for something he did not do, which just shows the foul intention behind it.

  6. Very well written and a point well made! Nobody cared to point at the nude man featured on the blog. It's a shame, art is not understood and respected. However, I do hope this leads to at least an open discussion if not change in the society.