Huda Lutfi has packed The Third Line. The space is filled to bursting with the Egyptian artist’s installations, bottle sculptures, breasts scrawled with calligraphy and an endless number of subversions of the face of Umm Kulthum.
Endless is the word. The artist has meticulously copied, cut and pasted a particularly iconic shot of the Egyptian singer, then attached flinging arms to her head, painted dashes of colour that shoot from her fingers and eyes, and reinvented her into a style similar to that of a Hindu or ancient Egyptian deity. The effect is kaleidoscopic at first but there is a slight sense of overkill, as soon Umm Kulthum slips onto the head of the Statue of Liberty, four cross-legged guru characters and even driving a shiny black car.
But Lutfi’s skill would seem to be this repetition. By repeating her subject over and over again, the artist begins to strip away the celebrity that is Kulthum. Soon, her face becomes freed from those brackets. She becomes a face; warm and cold, reflective and strong, looking to the future and yet oddly nostalgic. Lutfi is making Kulthum into an archetype, something like a Mother Egypt figure.
There’s a suggestion at the start of the exhibition that the artist’s interests lie in the repetition, the trance-like use of language and lettering found in Sufic traditions, but the works themselves give a greater clue. The mandala series, included in the show, are some of the best – they are mandalas to celebrity, in the manner that Buddhist monks would endlessly repeat highly intricate patterns so as to concentrate on nothing, to free the mind from its fog. The artist appears to have done the same with the visage of Umm Kulthum, repeating her ad nauseam to fade her cultural relevance.
Some of the small inclusions (particularly the bottles pieces) do fall a bit flat. And the bare breasts, cast in resin, wrapped in paper and furiously written across in calligraphy to read, ‘I Speak So You Can Understand Me,’ are a smart if slightly literal addition to this overwhelming but kaleidoscopic expression of Lutfi’s ideas.