The Muslim women in Marwa Adel's photographs are shadows, repressed by custom, religion, marriage and regret. While nude, the figures are obscured by sepia scrims, scrawled upon with stifling words — as if their true selves may never be known.
Like their creator, a single mother edging at the bounds of artistic freedom in a patriarchal society, the images are at once vulnerable and defiant. A man from the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's dominant political force, which is infusing Islam into a once-secular government, scolded her at a recent exhibition.
"He had a long beard and he stood up and told me, 'How could you do something like this? You are a Muslim.' He said women should be veiled and covered. His kind wants us to cover our minds, our issues. I told him, 'Don't worry about me. I know my God very well.'"
She touches a computer screen. A woman, face in hands, surrounded by cages, seeps to life. She touches the screen again. And again. (...)
"The ultraconservatives say I'm an atheist," she said, adding with a piercing dig at the opposite sex, "but if you argue with a man, you argue with God."
The political rise of the Brotherhood and more extremist Salafis scares Egyptian artists, writers, satirists and journalists. Brotherhood leaders engulfed by political unrest and economic turmoil have not, at least at this point, shifted significant attention toward galleries and museums.
The ArtTalks gallery in Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood is prone to works that touch upon the revolution: Wailing mothers holding the hearts of fallen sons; an imam and a priest, sitting side by side with pensive expressions; a family portrait as if painted from the 1940s — before a stricter Islam was imported from the Persian Gulf — with unveiled women and men in western suits. One of the most striking paintings is a half-male, half-female nude, kneeling, the face covered by a veil, the body part of a cross. The image crystallizes the crises of religion, civil rights and identity radiating through the Middle East.