To this day, the conceptual artist Rehab El Sadek favors a visit to a history museum over one to a contemporary art museum. Growing up as she did amidst the baked, ancient stones of Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps it’s impossible to refrain from a certain fascination with the past. Her own childhood was punctuated by exhilarating visits to local history museums with her father, who as history major in university had friends who had since become museum managers. These friends would discreetly pull El Sadek and her father into the museum’s storage area, a world of hidden, ancient wonders El Sadek’s sweeping gaze would take in, breath abated. The thrill of being admitted into such a secret world, and yet just out of view to so many, enveloped her.
“I still miss these things,” El Sadek tells me, somewhat sorrowfully, in the Big Medium gallery in East Austin as she puts the final touches on her solo exhibition, “Memory Palace.”
El Sadek has created her own chamber of the past — a storage room of personal history based on the elusive grasp of memory. Unlike the museum storage rooms she would visit years ago, El Sadek’s exhibition is a dynamic reconstruction of her personal history subject to the emotions, fluctuations and alterations of memory. She weaves together strings of influential literature and architecture from the past. She draws on her mother’s recollection of her hajj to Mecca and on the architectural plans of a mosque built by her grandfather.
That day in the gallery surrounded by the near-complete exhibition, El Sadek shows me her work piece by piece. But the night of exhibition’s opening presented an altogether different experience.
Slipping into the gallery past the curtained door and glass wall that expunge every last ray of external light, I enter a dreamlike space of shifting light and shadows, where groups of semi-obscured figures shuffle past El Sadek’s artifacts in an undesignated yet somehow preordained path. It is the beginning of a journey through the artist’s subconscious, where I interact with specific pieces of thought and memory while remaining unequivocally engulfed in the entirety of one environment. Every object El Sadek presents is unified in an atmosphere of light and dark, of form and formlessness.
“For me, this [exhibition] is a town or a city,” she explains. “The whole experience I want [is for] people to get in and be completely transformed as if they’re visiting a different place.”
El Sadek is part artist, part historian and part architect. She tells me with a look both guilty and triumphant that she actually owns more architecture books than art books. For “Memory Palace,” she relied on Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” a book that, she says, “actually determined everything.” It especially influenced her idea of the exhibition in its entirety as resembling a city, and also informed her use of light. “The building needs to be a tapestry of light and dark,” Alexander’s book reads “The tapestry of light and dark must then fit together with the flow of movement.”
Architecture also plays an essential role in El Sadek’s individual artworks. The most prominent, “Haram Xafra,” is a large pyramid composed of approximately 420 cubes created from haphazardly glued wooden sticks. It’s a structure both delicate and imposing with a beam of light casting the pyramid’s larger-than-life shadow upon the wall.
Approaching the pyramid through the shadows, I have the revelatory experience of watching myself — on the wall — interact with the structure. It reminded me of the fascination I would have as a child walking into a Target store and seeing myself on a small television screen in the entryway, captured and retransmitted by means of some vaguely foreboding security camera.
El Sadek uses light and shadow in this way throughout her exhibition, compelling the viewer to not only engage with the art, but also watch themselves engage with the art. Shadows embody the theme of her work: the shifting, nebulous nature of memories; the distant, third-person quality of peering into yourself through the lens of time. Looking from the pyramid to the shadow, I wonder which is more real and which is the true work of art.
Already, El Sadek’s exhibition has done what she intends: stimulate. “That’s why the work has a lot of layers, not just so that people will have questions, but maybe they can figure it out by themselves,” she says. “The thing I’m looking for most is to talk to the brain as much as the eyes.”
El Sadek believes conceptual art has a responsibility to communicate and foster viewer engagement. Art, she says, plays the paradoxical role of being both the messenger and the message.
“I have a role as an artist,” she says. “Mine is always how to communicate, how to exchange experiences, how everybody is unique and we all need to blend.”
The concept of a memory palace is also known as the “method of loci,” a mnemonic technique of memory enhancement that utilizes spatial visualizations to mentally walk you back through memories step by step, unpeeling thoughts like an onion. For El Sadek, the memory palace led her to reflect on her own history and heritage, aiding her in healing from the pains of separation and a fragmented sense of identity.
“The idea of the memory palace is to go to certain places to heal and meditate,” she says. “And [to go to] certain places, if there’s some really bad energy, to just get it off, to get rid of it, and to rebuild it in a different way.”
El Sadek experienced that emotional catharsis making two smaller sculptures of her houses in Alexandria and Utah, respectively. Creating the former, “3 Zahret Aflaton St.,” helped her trudge through the sorrow of alienation from her home country and culture. The Egypt of her childhood has transformed under increasingly oppressive political regimes, peaking now under the draconian rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Alexandria, El Sadek says, looks like a destroyed place.
The house in Utah, “1173 E Stadium Dr.,” was El Sadek’s first home in the United States, which she moved into with her now ex-husband, gaining residency in the U.S. through his student visa. El Sadek didn’t feel welcomed in Utah and the social isolation was exacerbated by her immigrant status under a F2 visa that prohibited her from working. With the absence of productivity and community, she felt hours unspool into endless, empty days. The statue speaks for those muted years, and in doing so puts them behind her. “It’s history now,” El Sadek says.
In fact, El Sadek constructed her weighty house sculptures of stacked literary tomes to make that very point. She cut and arranged the books into architectural models, integrating content and form, words and structure. She likewise combined literature and architecture in “Haram Xafra” by inscribing her own Arabic translation of Italo Calvino’s novel about fictitious places, “Invisible Cities,” on the linen cloth stripped across many of the pyramid’s cubes. This personal Arabic translation is intended as an imprint of her immigrant experience and a declaration of her Egyptian heritage. She expresses the struggles of her secluded experience in Utah and elsewhere, which she knows many other immigrants have to go through. She views this as her duty.
“As artists we shouldn’t just make beautiful things,” she insists. “It can be beautiful and send a message. It can be beautiful, and it can talk to your brain and make you think of other people or make you read more about certain things and have knowledge.”
Since moving to Austin over three years ago, El Sadek served as the city’s artist-in-residence for a year and, in the process, finally found a creative home. She can be herself in Austin, she says. She can speak in Arabic without disapproving glances, be foreign without being ostracized. Feeling a sense of freedom, El Sadek has been liberated to produce her profoundly personal exhibition and pursue a role as an activist.
Accordingly, El Sadek rejects the archetype of the aloof artist and embraces the perhaps grittier path of the socially engaged artist. Her work is personal and subtly political. While pulling from the recesses of ancient history, El Sadek excavates a personal — and modern — heritage, a complex infrastructure of memories, a diaspora of identities, a sense of home lost and then found. She takes these disparate pieces from without and from within, and puts them together, reconstructs memories both collective and individual, to create a world that not only assuages her own wounds, but also comforts the wounds mirrored in others.
El Sadek has after all, created a city. And try as one might, no one in the city is alone.
“Rehap El Sadek: The Memory Palace” continues through July 3 at Big Medium.