Month: January 2011

Art is Life

On art and life: Biennale winner speaks out

Amal Kenawy.

By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla/ Special to Daily News Egypt January 7, 2011, 6:17 pm
T here’s something about Amal Kenawy. Intriguing, warm but with a hint of coolness, open yet reserved, Amal Kenawy is like her living room which inspires wonder the moment one enters. It’s a clearly unique space, with her multi-faceted personality asserting its identity. It’s colorful and playful, a room which draws you in, and encourages you to touch, imbibe the sensory experience, feel.Born in 1974, this award-winning Egyptian artist says that since she was a child, she knew what path her life would take. She studied Fashion Design and Fine Arts, but was not impressed by the mediocrity of the classes. “I was inspired by my older brother, an artist, who taught me what to learn and what to leave,” she explains. 

Inspiration is the core of what Kenawy believes it takes to be an artist. “If you can inspire others through what you do, be it cooking or writing, and if you do it with love, then you are an artist,” she exhorts.

“Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?” is the oft-asked question. For Kenawy, art is life. She rejects the clichéd portrayal of misunderstood artists filled with angst, wanting to live in creative isolation. “The media has created a kitsch, unrefined image of artists. Art is about expressing life, and connecting with life through the audience,” she says.

Kenawy did just that for her performance art piece ‘Silence of the Lambs’ which won her the Grand Prize in the Cairo 12th Biennale this year. In 1998 the Biennale had awarded her the UNESCO Grand Prize. Her piece was interactive and multi-sensory; a living room and kitchen decorated for Christmas, live cooking, a video playing.
Kenawy feels the need to bridge the gap between artist and audience, and to merge life and art. She took to the street for the video installation in her piece. In downtown Cairo, she, together with a group of actors and her 10-year-old son, engaged with people, drawing them into the performance. Her work was a social statement on the condition of Egyptians. The lambs are people, silenced by their feelings of powerlessness. And in the voicing of daily frustrations, there’s only noise.

The silent performance was more potent. She ‘shepherded’ a group of workers, as they crossed the road on their knees. This particular act was met with alarming hostility. One bystander protested, and others followed blindly, accusing her of humiliating Egyptians. The social attitude is that of self-censorship. National Security was called, and Kenawy was arrested, thus exemplifying an artist suffering for their work.

“It was difficult explaining performance art to the police,” she recalls. “They didn’t understand it, and thus didn’t see it as real art.”

Kenawy is visibly shaken recollecting her night in prison. “They wanted to humiliate me too, so I was placed in a mixed prison. Men and women have to share one cell.” She’s also still upset by the lack of support from Townhouse Gallery upon hearing of her arrest. “It’s a sensitive issue, but they could have stood by me. I felt no respect as an artist.”

The Ministry of Culture tried hard to step in to help her but State Security said that it was too late. Kenawy is accepting of this. She doesn’t want to be the person who’s called a complainer, and she doesn’t want to attract unwanted attention from authorities.

Despite the difficulties faced here, Kenawy has not considered moving abroad. “Before, it was because I was married with a baby. But as an artist, I wouldn’t want to move,” she says definitely. “We are all influenced by where we come from. My identity is here, it’s flexible and I have been shaped by the good and bad. I understand Egypt and it understands me.

It takes a long time to find a clear identity in another country. That’s risky for an artist.”

Kenawy’s work encompasses all mediums, and she draws on the laws of biology, nature, physics. “I lean on physics for a sculptural installation. It’s all about unity. Everything has a function, and the form is perfect depending on the function.”

There is also a spiritual element to her work. She studied Sufi arts for a limited time, but does not regard herself as a Sufi. She does, however, find understanding in Sufi ideologies. “There’s a balance in the Sufi way of connecting the soul and energy to life,” she explains.

Just as artists have been portrayed as misunderstood, the general public have been portrayed as not being able to understand art. Kenawy reiterates, “Art is life. People think they don’t understand, but they do.”

She believes we all have an artistic gift within us, we just have to broaden our definition of what art is.

“Booby Trapped Heaven” video animation shown in 2005 Venice Biennale.

Kenawy was arrested while filming her award-winning “Silence of the Lambs.”

Egypt Plugs Into The Sun

Egypt receives nearly 360 days of sunshine every year, making it a perfect spot to invest in solar energy.David Evers/Flickr

In a bid to increase the proportion of renewable energy to an ambitious 20% of total generated electricity by 2020, sunny Egypt is looking to solar energy. Its first, hybrid solar power plant is set to start production by the end of 2010, and will be amongst only four in the world with a capacity of 140 megawatts (MW). A second 100 MW plant is planned for 2017.

Since Egypt does not manufacture solar panels, it has to rely on importing them, which increases the construction costs of solar farms considerably. The government announced in March that Egypt will host a Dutch factory that will have an annual output of 3,000 tonnes of polysilicon and 1,500 tonnes of phosphine gas, both materials used in photovoltaic (PV) cells.

The country’s Nanotechnology Research Center is attempting to develop improved, low-cost, thin film silicon photovoltaic cells to increase the efficiency of solar energy.

Nadia Shalaby, a computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), sees a manufacturing gap for entrepreneurs. She is developing a business project for Egyptian-owned companies to manufacture solar cells.

These initiatives often suffer at the hands of government bureaucracy. “The potential is definitely there for solar panel production in Egypt, but it depends on the willingness of the authorities in Egypt to collaborate and provide permission,” says Rasmus Vincentz, a climate change consultant at Danish Energy Management. “Other challenges include obtaining needed licences and availability of skilled labour.”

Power to the marginalised

“If Egypt allows working communities to realize their innovative capacity, then we should see a renaissance of solar expertise in the country.”

Thomas Culhane, co-founder of Solar CITIES, a non-government organization that builds low-cost solar heaters in under-developed communities in Cairo, believes a skilled workforce exists. “That this expertise has not yet translated into the industrial sector has much to do with a poor educational system and poor management.”

Culhane contends that Egypt was once a leading nation in solar technology up to the late 1970’s. But in recent decades the country relied on importing foreign expertise and technology.

Vincentz and Culhane agree Egypt can become a market leader in supplying solar panels and renewable energy technology to the greater MENA region if the country revitalizes and redoubles its efforts in solar technology.

“This can only happen if we develop native capacities of the marginalised through vocational training and skills transfer. If Egypt allows working communities, and not just the elite, to realize their innovative capacity, then we should see a renaissance of solar expertise in the country.”

Vincentz, however, argues it may not be that simple. “Egypt will have to rely on the transfer of renewable energy technologies until the political environment realizes the opportunities and creates predictable long-term regulation that promotes domestic installation and development of local businesses.”

If Egypt is to meet its self-appointed target of generating 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, it will have to considerably upscale its solar and wind energy output. Today, less than 500 MW of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources. At the current growth in energy consumption, the Egyptian German Joint Committee on Renewable Energy (JCEE) estimates the country will need to generate 1 GW of energy by solar farms, and seven times as much from wind energy, to meet its goal.

Early plant virus detection may boost Lebanon’s crop

The new kits promise to decrease virus detection costs and improve agricultural yield.American University in Beirut

Farmers in Lebanon whose crops have long been plagued by plant diseases have reason to celebrate. Researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon, have developed new plant virus detection kits for diseases that reduce crop yields and cause economic loss throughout the country.

The new ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbant assays) kits detect cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus (CYSDV), which infects cucumbers, melon, squash and watermelon, and prune dwarf virus (PDV), which infects stone fruits like peach, almond, and nectarine.

CYSDV cannot be detected using serological tests, and scientists considered it too difficult to purify the virus in sufficient quantities to make antibodies. “This is because the virus particles are labile, and the virus is present only in the phloem cells, therefore having a relatively low concentration,” says Yusuf Abu Jawdah, a plant pathologist at AUB who led the research.

Jawdah was prompted to begin his research in 2001 by the complaints of low crop yields by farmers. In Lebanon, CYSDV infections of greenhouse-grown cucumbers are estimated to result in approximately a 50% loss of productivity.

Each virus species has a unique coat protein (CP). Preparing antibodies that stick to this particular protein can be used to detect the presence of the virus. However, in order to produce these antibodies, researchers need to obtain large quantities of the CP. The low concentration of CYSDV in plants makes this particularly tricky.

Finding the antibodies

Cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus in melon, a member of the virus’s host family, Cucurbitaceae.University of California

“We searched for the sequence of the CP of the virus, and designed specific primers. Using polymerase chain reaction we amplified millions of copies of the full CP gene, cloning it to allow for expression of the gene,” explained Jawdah. “This was used to transform a bacterium which when placed in an appropriate culture medium allowed us to obtain the protein.” Finally, the protein was injected into a rabbit. The rabbit’s serum was then used to obtain purified antibodies, which were used to develop ELISA detection systems for CYSDV.

This technique was then applied to stone fruit viruses, and the results were successful for PDV. This led to the development of antibodies with better selectivity and sensitivity than those that were commercially available.

The ELISA kits will provide a commercial boost for Lebanon, as they can be used worldwide. “We were always importers of kits. Now we are at the stage of producing kits and exporting them,” said Jawdah. However, the kits are being marketed by a Swiss firm. Jawdah said that, to his knowledge, no Lebanese or Arab firm currently has a stake in this market.

While the research is a breakthrough for Lebanon, Mohammed Jeenah, executive director of the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa, doesn’t think it will have much impact beyond the Middle East region. “These tests are already available in developed countries and some advanced developing countries,” he says.

However, he adds, “The advance is important for Lebanon as it will bring down the costs for Lebanese farmers and will increase yields in the region.”

Early detection through use of the kits will allow farmers to take preventive measures to stop the spread of these diseases. “Nurseries with the help of government institutions should test and certify that seedlings are free from viruses to ensure that the farmer will get good yields. Under field conditions there is no cure for virus diseases,” warns Jawdah.

Renewed Sectarian Clashes in Cairo

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