The mountain

The Egyptian pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2017 in Venice features Moataz Nasr’s video fable. Shot in a village in the Egyptian countryside, it tells of the fear that inhibits action, an experience common to humanity. #BiennaleArte2017

Moataz Nasr, The mountain, still from video. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana
The act of entering the Egyptian pavilion, when the day outside is brilliant with sunshine, is an experience in itself. The entrance is a vernacular mud architecture accessed through a black curtain.
The smell is the first thing that strikes you in the dark interior: the odour of manure and dirt, common in the sun-baked Egyptian countryside, like all the regions lying on the shores of the Mediterranean. Immediately recognisable, it takes the viewer into the scenes that unfold in the five-screen projection. Probably the smell would suffice: the whole structure seems unnecessary. Moataz Nasr is so good he hardly needs scenography to be convincing.


Nasr’s fable The Mountain lasts 12 minutes, and if it’s true that video works are a time-based art, here the time is well spent. We find ourselves in a farming village – the smell draws us in – where life moves slowly, little seems to happen in the daytime, and at night the houses are all closed up. No one walks in the streets. You sense there is something unspoken.

A change of scene: two women seated side by side on a bus. One of them stands out from the others. She has the air of a city dweller. Her neighbour recognises her: she is Zein, the little girl who left the village to continue her studies.

Flashback: a little girl plays in the village streets with a boy from her peer group. She wants to go to school. Her mother defends her choice, but the girl will have to cut off her braid. She has to renounce her femininity, or perhaps her childhood, her hair, or even make a gift of it to the demons that infest the village.

Moataz Nasr, The mountain, 2017, still from video. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana
Moataz Nasr, The mountain, 2017, still from video. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana

A woman embodies freedom. Freedom at a price, because it means going away and leaving parts of herself in order to find others.

But now she has returned, bringing with her a different vision. She has the courage to break the fear. She speaks of her intention to change things and defy the mountain demon. She declares her intentions bareheaded, asserting her modernity, before the men gathered together with her father to celebrate her return. The men disapprove. Her father finds himself marginalised. Once again her mother defends her.

Night. Zein takes her father’s staff, the symbol of authority in the family, and her mother’s veil and goes outside. She challenges all conventions and all fears. Her childhood friend follows her. Then doors open and the whole village comes out into the night.

Forcefully she plants the staff in the heart of the mountain and falls to the ground. Her friend asks, “Is she dead?” And her father, “Is she alive?” The fable ends here.

As you leave, with your eyes accustomed to the semi-darkness, you see the small sculpture of an ear embedded in the wall.

The fear Nasr speaks of is certainly the universal one that inhibits action, a psychological experience common to us all. But when it becomes a collective feeling, it becomes as hard as the mountain and turns to prejudice. This is what Moataz Nasr’s fable seems to say. His work has always mingled an anthropological vision with sociology, but perhaps there is even more to this.

Who is listening? Whose are the ears that appear again in the video? Are they demons? Or “Big Brother’s”? Or the ears of a police state that endorses modernisation but crushes freedom of thought?

until 26 November 2017
Moataz Nasr – The Mountain
Egypt Pavilion
57. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte
Giardini della Biennale

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