Heba Y. Amin Brings Storks and Drones to London
In September 2013, a stork was captured in Qena, a small city in Upper Egypt. Carrying an electronic device on its back, Egyptian authorities suspected the animal of espionage.
Heba Y. Amin, The General's Stork (2020). Courtesy the artist.
The stork's capture made international news. When its electronic appendage was confirmed to be a tracker fitted by European zoologists, the bird was released and, according to reports, caught and eaten.
In a 2015 lecture on the subject, artist Heba Y. Amin threads these events back to Jerusalem's capture by British forces in 1917.1 But not before referencing the former Soviet military airbase located in Qena, from which a failed U.S. mission to rescue American hostages in Tehran in 1980 was launched; and the pigeon-cam that was patented by German apothecarist Julius Neubronner in 1908, a precursor to the contemporary drone as a tool of aerial surveillance.
Responding to an order to take Jerusalem by Christmas, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Lord Allenby, had planes fly over the city, dropping flyers with a message signed in his name telling the Ottomans to surrender.
Amin points out that in Arabic, Allenby corresponds to 'Al-Nabi', meaning prophet or son of god—a fact that might explain what happened next. Believing in a prophecy that they would not lose the holy city until a man of god came to deliver it, the artist explains, the Ottomans did indeed surrender, and on 11 December Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot. The British press hailed him a hero, with media stories taking an interest in the field marshal's pet marabou stork.
Appropriated archive images and footage of Allenby and his bird are on display in When I see the future, I close my eyes, Amin's first U.K. solo exhibition at Mosaic Rooms in London, curated by Anthony Downey (15 May–6 June 2021), with further archival material published in the book Heba Y. Amin: The General's Stork (2020), which will be launched as part of the exhibition's public programme.
The documentation populates an installation that emanates from The General's Stork project, along with wallpaper composed of aerial views of Palestine from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress, and As Birds Flying (2016), a video of savannahs and wetlands, including settlements in Galilea, captured in found drone footage.
Narrating As Birds Flying are voices remixed from Sherif Arafa's 1995 film Birds of Darkness, a tale of three lawyers navigating Egypt's political terrain—one works for a cabinet minister and is arrested for corruption, another joins the Muslim Brotherhood, and another keeps out of the fray.
As storks swan over land, serenaded by an orchestral arrangement punctuated by rolling strings, a conversation on sectarianism, censorship, democracy, and surveillance unfolds. 'We will never live below again', a man says. 'Below it is suffocating; overpopulation and poverty and polluted air.'
The title of Amin's show comes from 'Excellent Birds', a song written by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel for Nam June Paik's 1984 international broadcast Good Morning, Mr. Orwell: what Paik saw as 'a symbol for how satellite television can cross international borders and bridge enormous cultural gaps.'2
The General's Stork challenges Paik's interpretation, with the aerial bird's-eye view understood as a border-crossing technology of power, in which military surveillance, reconnaissance, and bombardment can not only decide the fate of a territory and the people who inhabit it, but produce a level of paranoia so great that a stork could be confused for a spy.
As storks swan over land, serenaded by an orchestral arrangement punctuated by rolling strings, a conversation on sectarianism, censorship, democracy, and surveillance unfolds.
Paik's vision is subverted again in Operation Sunken Sea (2018–ongoing), a research project looking at several historical proposals to drain the Mediterranean Sea, including German architect Herman Sörgel's 1920s vision to turn Africa and Europe into a supercontinent called Atlantropa, and a plan put forward by the CIA in the 1950s—'a techno-utopian idea, typical of the early twentieth century,' explains Amin, 'when people really believed that technology could solve the world's problems'.3
In the video Operation Sunken Sea: Relocating the Mediterranean, Inaugural Speech (2018), Amin borrows ideas from Atlantropa, among others, in a speech drawn from the rhetoric of fascist dictators, which she delivers dressed in the style of one.
Amin presented Operation Sunken Sea at the 10th Berlin Biennale (9 June–9 September 2018) in an installation designed to mimic the office of an old-world demagogue, tapping into 'a masculinist, patriarchal spirit' that she describes as fundamental to such colonialist pursuits.
At Mosaic Rooms, however, the artist seems to invoke a different vantage point. Installed in the first room is Project Speak2Tweet (2011–ongoing): eight videos combining footage of abandoned structures with voice recordings from Speak2Tweet, a platform developed by computer programmers after authorities blocked access to the internet during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, enabling Egyptians to post on Twitter through voicemail.
Project Speak2Tweet 'is not about the revolution nor does it attempt to document the events of the revolution,' Amin has noted; 'rather it seeks to relay the emotional state of the Egyptian psyche expressed at a particular moment in time.'4
In one video, someone reflects on a hadith in which the Prophet (pbuh) talks about killing a gecko, and he interprets the reptile as a representation of 'those who climb over their people'. It is this sense that Amin conjures in London—of how it feels to be on the ground, looking up.—[O]
1 Delivered as part of Asia Contemporary Art Week's annual forum Field Meeting: Thinking Practice in 2016, and the 15th Istanbul Biennial in 2017.
2 '"Good Morning Mr. Orwell": A look Back at the Nam June Paik Vide That Greeted 1984', Asia Society, 5 September 2014, https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/good-morning-mr-orwell-look-back-nam-june-paik-video-greeted-1984
3 Juliana Halpert, 'Heba Y. Amin discusses her work in the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art – Artforum International', Artforum, 5 June 2018, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/heba-y-amin-discusses-her-work-in-the-10th-berlin-biennale-for-contemporary-art-75675
4 Heba Y. Amin, 'Voices from the Revolution: A Speak2Tweet Project', 2012, http://www.hebaamin.com/documents/Amin_VoicesfromtheRevolution.pdf