Cairo Year One: Nermine Hammam at The Mosaic Rooms, London

At first glance Nermine Hammam's work looks like beautiful Japanese prints hung on the lower floor of The Mosaic Rooms, a renovated Victorian townhouse that is now an art gallery in West London. But if you step closer and really study the images, hidden behind the blossoming flowers and birds are images of military brutality on the streets of Egypt during the revolution.

I recognize one in particular of a girl lying helpless, surrounded by soldiers, with her top pulled up to reveal her blue underwear. In fact many of these images are familiar as they were taken from news agencies and the Internet before being partly hidden behind the Japanese landscapes.

"The whole idea is that we've stopped seeing," Nermine tells me. "We're always bombarded twenty four seven with images. You go to the pub there's television there, there's people being murdered. The amount of images we consume all the time, we become de-sensitised."

An Egyptian artist who is living and working in Cairo, Nermine is interested in looking at what we really see. She draws my attention to a policeman who is pointing a silver gun in one of the pictures. I realise how long I have been looking at the image without processing the reality of the weapon, I see guns so often on television after all. "We don't realise the details that are really quite scary," she reminds me.

Upstairs is the Upekkha (With No Prejudice) series and there's something quite unsettling about the images. Unlike Unfolding where most of the pictures are small, these are on a much bigger scale. On one depiction, beautiful white mountains and green fields form the background. At the front Egyptian policemen are smoking and reading between the flowers, perhaps dreaming of escaping to a more peaceful place.

The utopian like backgrounds are actually postcards that Nermine has collected, and the photographs some of 70,000 images she has taken. The most unsettling part is to see human faces attached to the policemen. On some of the pictures they stare at the camera curiously, one or two wave. Standing from far away, she tells me, the gun can make you think these people are powerful. But when you're close you realise that this is just a boy. 

It is clear how passionate about these young men Nermine is. Later she tells me, "for me seeing these boys it's heart wrenching. You see them breaking down, you see them crying... they're human... what the hell are we doing throwing these boys there?" The theme of humanity in Nermine's work stretches beyond Egypt, these images could be of a young man or woman in any part of the world. "There's a universal message here. You cannot have kids go to the army."

As I am about to leave I explain that these images will probably stay in my head for a long time, I've never seen anything quite like it. Yes, she agreed.

"It's as if you're playing tricks on people to make them see things." 

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor