Mona Marzouk’s ‘Trayvon’ at Gypsum Gallery

Review for Flash Art, October 2014

The eight works in Mona Marzouk’s exhibition consist of flat, dark abstracted silhouettes against coloured backgrounds of lavender, grass green, faded red, taupe, etc. These semi-abstract and rather discomfiting silhouettes are constructed of numerous combined forms, some of which are clearly identifiable — staircases, mountains, guillotines — and others less so. Some of the images have the alien feel of deep sea creatures, and others would not look out of place on the cover of a Kafka novel.

We are informed that each painting is based on judicial trials in which justice was not served. Marzouk included no further contextualizing information, although we are told by way of the press release that the shapes are formed of “evidence, phrases, and uttered sentences,” used within the trials. This title Trayvon is after the unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin who was killed ‘in self defence’ according to the claims of the acquitted shooter, George Zimmerman.

There exists online an image that fascinates me. It is a photograph of Martin’s hoodie being brought in as evidence before the jury, displayed in a large wooden case. The hoodie itself is laid out in an awkward crucifix, in a cut-out void. A mythology immediately attaches itself to this accident of display. But another aesthetic pre-exists and supersedes the accidental emblematising of the hoodie: the racist myth of the violent black male that ultimately led to Martin’s death. Marzouk’s silhouettes may well combine these two dynamics, undermining the claimed neutrality of the courtroom to produce a sense of inevitability to the wrongful convictions: a life entwined helplessly with a corrupt justice system, in one dark mass. Against the flat, calming backgrounds the silhouettes wallow as individual histories summarized into a single object, a succinct expression of dehumanization.

However the appropriation and iconising of the subject of Martin and others with similar fates is also disturbing. Flat, non-expressionist abstraction of this kind clearly proposes a cool distance from concrete realities. This is furthered by the intellectualizing tendencies of the art world in general, a space consciously (and, in general, laudably) carved by Gypsum, a gallery only in its second year. But these aspirations loosen some of the horizontal class connections one might make between Martin and the many wrongful convictions that have taken place lately in Egypt. To be oversimplistic, what sort of conversation would we have with Martin’s family around this exhibition? How many languages of aesthetics and layers of pain would we still have to traverse? These images clearly afflict the comfortable, but I am not sure they can comfort the afflicted.