Years ago, I was living on a houseboat moored on the Nile riverbank, in western Cairo. Nearby was an enigmatic, shrouded structure. In daylight, it appeared part-tent and partauditorium. But late at night it glowed neon, and shadowy figures sidled down the waterfront to disappear within.
One moonlit midnight, I headed there and found a rough concrete dance floor occupied by work-soiled Cairene men, many in gallabiyas. Suddenly, a shout of recognition. The security guard of our boat jumped out at me, still in his khaki uniform. Beaming with pleasure, he dragged us under the lights. Now the music started up, and everyone whirled. I found myself giving in to the dance.
That half-submerged memory came flooding back this week, on a lunchtime visit with my sons to Bodega, the courtyard café attached to the Sunaparanta arts centre in Panaji. Climbing the curving outdoor staircase, I heard the unmistakable strains of Egyptian ‘shaabi’ pop music. Hunger forgotten, we chased the sound.
On a large screen in a darkened room, there were flickering points of luminous blue, revealed as the lures of fast-finning anglerfish, then crystallised to lights on a speaker. Music crescendoed.
The camera pulled back to reveal two men dancing, together and yet apart. It was impossible to look away. Minutes later, I was still breathless with excitement.
This was my first, unforgettable viewing of Jewel (2010), a short, six-and-a-half-minute video artwork by Hassan Khan, the fast-emerging global star from Egypt.
At this year’s Venice Biennale, he won the Silver Lion for most promising young artist (he was born in 1975).
Writing in the Middle Eastern art magazine Bidoun, the critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie exulted about Jewel’s place in the New Museum’s 2012 Triennial that, “with its driving soundtrack, mesmerizing choreography and riddle refusing to be solved, [it] was by far the most magnetic piece in the exhibition”.
In Goa, Jewel is one-fourth of a stunning exhibition of video artworks on display for the first time in India, on loan from the collection of Kutch-based businessman Anurag Khanna and his wife Payal, both aged 41.
Each video in Longing — open till October 30 and sensitively curated by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi — is a standout work by an exceptional artist.
Alpsee (1995) by Matthias Müller of Germany is a hauntingly measured evocation of the turbulent emotions that underlie ‘normal’ childhood.
Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010) by Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, depicts an exchange of text messages playing out on a clacking typewriter, each line brilliantly paced to rachet up tension.
In the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection is Alejandro Cesarco’s Methodology (2011), which portrays an aching, discursive conversation failing to communicate even through a torrent of words.
Given the blinkered lack of imagination of the Indian art herd, with its non-stop focus on brand-name mediocrity, it’s nigh unbelievable that these gems all belong to one collection, quietly amassed by a young Indian far from the country’s major cities.
Via email, Anurag Khanna described his remarkable journey in autodidactic connoisseurship.
“I started to travel abroad just for art. Long walks within museums in Europe just to educate my eye, helped to broaden my mind and develop my vision,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to pull out good artists from our region, and some works from the West, and let there be a dialogue between the two.”
Like his collection, the show in Goa is a labour of love.
“All four of these artists are of such great international repute, I had to make them comfortable about the idea of showing in a space like this,” he says, “as most of these works are screened in the finest museums in the world and have a superb exhibition history.”
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder and curator of the Goa Arts and Literature festival)
Anurag Khanna (above right) and his wife Payal have amassed a stunning collection of video art works, among them Hassan Khan’s Jewel (see still above).