Dr. Anneke Schulenberg is Assistant Professor in Contemporary Art at the Open University in the Netherlands. In 2015, she obtained her doctorate at the Radboud University Nijmegen with a dissertation on the work of four contemporary, female artists of Middle Eastern descent, who in their work reflect on their experiences of migration and their familiarity with multiple cultures, and awareness of various views on notions as identity, gender and the home. Between 2008 and 2015, she worked as an Adjunct Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Radboud University Nijmegen.


Lost in Translation? Video art by Egyptian female artists

A beam of golden light is reflected on the water. The camera alternatively blurs and sharpens the image of the light. From the upper right corner, a big circle of light slowly comes into view. The reflection of the sunlight on the water results in seemingly abstract golden stripes. This is the opening scene from Gold Light Across (2014), a video by the Egyptian artist Rania Khalil. During the 5’13” minutes, the poetic video seems to show the beauty of the water, of nature.
Khalil’s work is part of the project Over View that brings together contemporary video art from around the world: Brazil, Costa Rica, Egypt, Hong Kong, Mali, the Netherlands, U.S.A., and Australia. The works were chosen by curators living in the participating places, whose selection gives an insight in the divergent topics which are relevant for and of interest to the artists in those countries.
At first sight, Khalil’s video seems to be homage to nature. Knowing the above stated aim of Over View, there must be another topic the artist aims to discuss. This article analyses not only Khalil’s work, but focuses on the works from the Egyptian artists in this project. The curator who selected the works is Nini Ayach. She is a French-American artist and curator, who is based in Cairo, Egypt. She selected six works from six artists, including herself, who are all female: Dina El-Hawary, Sondos Shabayek, Rania Khalil, Nini Ayach, Sarah Amir, and Alia Ayman. As women, these artists often deal with gender stereotypes and patriarchal structures. These issues are a theme in the majority of the six selected works.

To complicate matters, the works by these artists from Egypt, but also the artworks from Brazil, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Mali, the Netherlands, U.S.A., and Australia, were exhibited all across the world, in the capitals and other cities of these countries. People from different cultures were introduced to topics relevant in, for instance, Egypt. The question arises how viewers from a different cultural context perceive works from other cultures. The works can, for instance, not only make people aware of certain prejudices about other cultures, but also undermine these prejudices. The artworks in this project may also confront viewers with topics, ideas or concepts that are unfamiliar to them. Can viewers in a different context understand the work and the sometimes specific cultural, political, social or ideological issues addressed in the work? This article focuses on the works by the Egyptian artists to address the complexity of cross-cultural interpretation.


Cultural Translation

To understand the problems of interpreting art from a different, non-Western country, the metaphor or model of (cultural) translation will be used. Originally, translation derived from the literary and linguistic practice, where it is the process of transposing a text, statement, phrase or word from one language to another. Translation is nowadays also employed by other disciplines, such as art history, cultural studies and philosophy. According to Mieke Bal and Joanna Morra, these different disciplines use translation as a conceptual trope or metaphor to explore the translation’s potential of generating multiple meanings. [1] Cultural translation is such an employment, used to describe an act that involves a translator and two cultures.
The potential of producing multiple meanings through translation is an important aspect. In more conventional views on the processes of linguistic translation, it was often stated that translation goes hand in hand with a certain loss as translations can never be perfect, because denotative and connotative meanings of languages do not always correspond. As a result, meanings tend to change or are left out in the new form. [2] It can be said, however, that something is also gained through translation, namely new meanings. This characteristic of translation was addressed by theorist Sarat Maharaj in his influential essay “Perfidious Fidelity: the Untranslatability of the Other,” on translation and cultural differences, in which he writes:

Meaning is not a readymade portable thing that can be “carried over” the divide. The translator is obliged to construct meaning in the source language and then to figure and fashion it a second time round in the materials of the language into which he or she is rendering it. [3]

In his article, Maharaj recognizes the limits of translation, the untranslatability of meaning from one language to another. It is a construction by the translator, whose interpretation of the meaning in the original language cannot be fully rendered in the translation, as systems of language usually do not completely correspond. What does get translated, according to Maharaj, is “something different, something hybrid,”[4] which is both the success and the failure of translation. In his view, this is a constant process, which is shaped by “optimism and pessimism, the opaque and the crystal-clear.”[5] It is therefore an “open-ended” process.[6]


The idea of cultural translation as an open-ended process can be appropriated in relation to Khalil’s video Gold Light Across. The beauty of the landscape that is visualized results in a work that does not offer a coherent narrative or fixed meaning to the viewer. The viewer is able to give meaning to the work. The translation can be seen as an open-ended process, where many meanings can be given to the video. Different people can have different associations with the work, bringing in their own histories and experiences. The associations of the viewer do not only depend on their experiences and history, but they also depend on their cultural baggage, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and so on.
The landscape in Gold Light Across is, however, not just a landscape. On Khalil’s website, the video is not called Gold Light Across, but Sinai, Gold Light Across. [7] Why Khalil changed the title for Over View to Gold Light Across is unknown to me. Contrary to Gold Light Across, the title Sinai, Gold Light Across identifies the place and indicates that the video is not just a portrayal of a beautiful landscape. The Sinai is a peninsula of Egypt bordered on the east by Israel and the Gulf of Aqabe and the west by the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez. The Sinai has been the scene of fierce fighting in the past, for instance during the Suez crisis in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. [8] Also at the present day, the area has to deal with attacks. Thus, the portrayed landscape is not as innocent and pure as it appears. It is a place of conflict, a place with memories.
Gold Light Across illustrates the issues of interpreting artworks that have moved across borders. This kind of translation can lead to possibilities of multiple associations, but the artwork is made in a certain context. To be able to understand the work in its context, additional information is often needed, such as biographical information, artist’s intentions, and references to past texts and artworks that have preceded the artwork and affected the artist. This is not just a problem for the interpretation of art from non-Western countries, but for many artworks. What makes the situation more complex is the question of how much of the context needs to be given to the viewer. These works were produced outside of the conventional notions of the European-North American art historical canon. Viewers from a Euro-North American perspective, like me, may not decipher all Egyptian references. Western viewers of non-Western artworks therefore often need to be provided with a context to understand the work. If the artworks, however, are loaded with meaning and interpretation, it can deprive the viewer from actually looking at the work and its aesthetic. The artwork then becomes an object with a certain political and ideological interpretation.

All of these issues are also of importance in relation to the other five works in the project. In her video On Questions, Sarah Amir discusses her questions about human existence: Where do we come from? From a place? Or from life? Or from love? In the video, Amir is driving a car, filming the streets, tunnels and surroundings while posing these questions from a religious, practical and scientific point of view. Sometimes the images of the street and lights are overlaid with other images, such as glasses or a face, or images of, for instance, a woman doing laundry are edited between images filmed from the car. At the end of the video, Amir states that the answers to her questions are infinite. The questions Amir poses are universal questions, questions many people can have who are from different cultures, classes, ages and so on. Thus, although Amir may discuss themes that are relevant for the Egyptian society, they are also universal themes. 
While Amir’s work examines life from a macro perspective, four other works have a more micro perspective. These works study identity issues in the Egyptian society; the construction of (female) identity, the search for identity and roles of women. In A Good Looking Woman is Required for Employment by Dina El-Hawary, several women pose for the camera against a black background. Across the screen, quotes from shop owners are shown, stating what they search for in a female employer. For instance, they should not wear a hijab or agabe and they should not have a dark skin or be fat. The qualities of the women do not seem to matter, as only their outward appearance is of issue. This video illustrates how women and their qualities are perceived.

The perception of women in Cairo is also a theme in Sondos Shabayek’s work Girl, although not in relation to employment, but on the street. In this video, an unveiled woman walks down the streets of Cairo and receives a lot of responses she gets from men, women and children on the street. A veiled woman, for instance, asks her if she is a Muslim and states that her blouse should be longer to cover her body. Another woman says to her that if women knew their worth, they would not need men. A man calls her gorgeous. Other men approach her with more sexual bias, saying, for instance, ‘I want to stick it in.’ Children approach her for money, saying ‘may you find a husband.’ When she does not give them money or a sandwich, they say ‘may you never find a husband.’ At the end of the video, various women remove their earphones and continue to walk down the street.
Another gender role in the Egyptian society is examined in Nini Ayach’s video El Arosa (The Bride / Puppet / Doll). Two women are dressed in a tight outfit. At first, their heads and arms are connected to each other. When they are disconnected, one of the women receives from the other woman a sort of mask made of loofahs, which she puts over her head, covering her face. Then, a bridal veil is placed over her to which miniature pieces connected to the domestic space, such as chairs and pans, are attached. The bride starts to walk around, while the other woman carries her bridal veil, as if they are walking down the aisle.  
The fourth video on female identity is by Alia Ayman. In Catharsis: a self-portrait, Ayman, as the title indicates, makes a self-portrait. She films herself to portray her identity crisis. She was raised in a very conservative, traditional and religious family. Ayman tries to free herself from this environment, wanting to be a ‘modern’ and more ‘western’ woman. She, for instance, has short hair, smokes (which her mother finds vulgar), studies at a university and does not wear a veil. In the video she describes how she is perceived as different in Egypt and how she tries to live her life in a society with different thoughts about female identity, female gender roles and taboos in the Egyptian society. Her crisis partly stems from the fact that she often resides in New York, as a result of which she becomes even more aware of the perceptions on and roles of women in different cultures.
The status and circumstances of women in a society reveal a lot about the political ideology in a country. Especially in an Islamic society, where the female body has historically often been a battleground. These four videos examine female identity and women’s roles in the Egyptian society. When shown in a Western country, these videos may subvert Western prejudices and stereotypical thoughts about women in an Islamic society. These videos illustrate that some women are critical of these issues or are trying to free themselves from a certain discourse.

How these works are translated, perceived and interpreted by viewers can vary from viewer to viewer. Cultural, economic, social, ideological and political issues play a role in both the production and reception of an artwork. They contribute to the meaning, status and value that are ascribed to an artwork. These can vary from place to place, and can vary due to ideological and political differences between cultures. Not only differences in cultures, but also differences between individuals can be a barrier for communication. Some elements will be translated, other elements will get lost in translation, and new associations may result in new meanings.
In their videos’, the artists discussed in this article, but also the works from other participating artists in this project, raise questions about themes relevant for their society, but they refrain from offering answers. Their works leave room for other associations and meaning, which depend on viewers’ experiences, life history, cultural background and so on. These viewings add an extra layer to the meaning of the work, but the context in which these works were made should be taken into consideration when viewing and translating the work from one culture to another. In this sense, cultural translation can become a tool for mutual understanding.[9]



[1] This issue of Journal of Visual Culture is entirely dedicated to the debate of translation in visual and cultural practices. Bal and Morra indicate that Walter Benjamin’s work on translation was important for the development of the idea of the translation’s potential to generate new meanings. 

[2] Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, Themes of Contemporary Art. Visual Art after 1980 (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 186.

[3] Sarat Maharaj, "Perfidious Fidelity. The Untranslatability of the Other," in Art of the Twentieth Century. A Reader, ed. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood, New Haven [etc.]: Yale University Press, in association with The Open University, 2003), 301.

[4] Ibid., 299.


[6] Ibid.

[8] Elizabeth Thompson and Paul S. Rowe, “Sinai Peninsula,” in Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East & North Africa, ed. Philip Mattar, Detroit [etc.]: Thomson Gale, 2004, 2067-8.

[9] The project Over View also aims to contribute to mutual understanding between cultures by selecting works from different cultures and exhibiting these works around the world. http://www.over-view.org/About.html [accessed on November 2, 2016].


©2016 Anneke Schulenberg