In Foundation Deposits, a recent solo exhibition curated by Minh Nguyen at Soil Gallery in Seattle, Washington, Egyptian-born and Toronto-based artist Nadia Gohar explored historical memory, migration and sociality as a survival response through an immersive installation that centred around a fountain.
A ‘foundation deposit’ is a ritual relic buried beneath architectural points or structures and the starting point from which Gohar transported facets of her upbringing in Cairo into an American gallery space. Foundation deposits are believed to safeguard a building for those who will live in them for years to come, with Gohar’s installations not only having contemplated objects that have been deliberately buried, but also the structures that serve as points of exchange and develop shared experiences.
In the center of the gallery Gohar built a fountain, something that is central to an Islamic garden, but also to many urban cities. Historically, gardens localize fantasies of innocence, immortality and social utopia. A public fountain serves as a resource that not only provides the water that shapes our lives, but also as a meeting place within an urban setting. Gohar’s fountain is minimalistic, not grand or ostentatious. There is just one stream of water, but that is enough. As a sign of life living off of this structure, the wing of a butterfly has been set gently into one of the clay fixtures it has been built from.
Accompanying her impromptu red brick installations around the fountain, dozens of red bricks were stacked close to the gallery walls, beside which concrete vases that had been died the colour of terracotta were resting, and in some cases smashed, releasing the foundation deposits that once lay safely inside. In Cairo many buildings are cheaply and quickly constructed from concrete frameworks and filled in with red bricks in a response to the growing populations. The bricks reveal an alternative map of migration, and also serve as tools for the ever-changing landscape of the city.
The earth-coloured materials used in Gohar’s work seem fragile and delicate, and often her ‘foundation deposits’ lay broken on the gallery floor. ‘I’ve never really considered longevity too much in my work. I welcome any sort of natural material decay or alteration that happens over time, explains Gohar, ‘I wanted to create objects that spoke to this obsession with memory, but I wanted them to also be susceptible to change, decay, or even demolition.’ Gohar made use of concrete too within the display, which she dyed in different hues of terracotta to mask it as clay, naturalizing and softening the medium. Commenting on how the hard nature of concrete can erase memories and cause places to look the same, she explains: ‘It’s a natural material, but it also has a mind of its own; expanding, hardening and resisting nature.’
The work was inspired by displays of foundation deposits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These caused Gohar to think about museology, and more particularly what we have chosen collectively to remember through excavation.
“When I think of you now I feel a distance. The one that just is with time…
…The banality of it all: to think once you find love then you find home…the shame I feel now is that I gave into all that, which makes me wonder about my desires. To what extent they’re conditioned by images, ones that are not of my making. What did I give into? And why with you? What did we hope for? What got in the way?”
– Nasrin Himada
Nasrin Himada’s accompanying exhibition text Familial Treasures seems to echo Gohar’s interest in museology, asking why we give so much to one image of our past that has been championed by others than ourselves.
The decaying objects may comment on how memories change, alter and decay over time. In museological terms, history is often being ‘remembered for us’ through the act of curators putting objects on display for us, and then explaining why such items are important through museum texts that are written in order to ‘better’ our memory. The curator in a museum is given the authority to decide what is historically noteworthy, and what it is ‘OK’ to overlook.
By looking to the past, we give ourselves the opportunity to think about change and renewal, something that Gohar’s fountain also did in Seattle. ‘Fountains are a place of constant change and ephemerality’, she says, ‘To me they represent death but also renewal; past and present. I wanted to create a space that functioned in the same way that I filled with these sort of “time capsule objects” that felt like they were maybe transferred from one site to another to evoke their place of origin.’ Gohar’s display in Seattle may also be likened to a depiction of her own relationship to Cairo, one that has changed as she has been distanced from her hometown. Like memories, that are spread out and cover much ground, the installations span all corners of the gallery, and even hang from the ceiling and, while they are separated at times from one another, they all come together to complete one composite image.
Speaking about her audience’s reaction to the exhibition, Gohar commented on how most people gathered around the fountain for the bulk of the time. ‘People seemed to be enjoying walking through the space, and taking in different elements’, she says, ‘I wanted the show to flow in a sort of geometric layout with the fountain being central. Some people through coins in – haha.’ Like a fountain within a city, and the buildings that surround it, Gohar’s installation functioned as a social space, with her sister Laila even cooking a meal for 40 people surrounded by all the work the day after the opening.
And about in Gohar’s own home in Toronto, has she created her own personal foundation deposits? ‘I haven’t buried anything, but I do have objects that act as artifacts at home’, she says, citing: ‘A rug beater, a kanaka to make arabic coffee, or certain vessels. Their specificity triggers memory, and going through the notions of using them is like a ceremony.’ She goes on to comment a switch that occurred post-Renaissance in Western Civilisation when people began to think about objects in relation to memory, and the assumption that objects can act as the analogues of memory. Citing Adrian Forty, a UK based author of architectural history as a reference, she told me that fleeting memories could be transferred to durable objects, which would preserve and prolong them beyond their natural life.
Foundation Deposits considered history and museology to comment on how, what and why we form memories. Through the dual analysis of an urban Cairo and an ancient foundation deposit, Gohar’s Seattle exhibition merged past and present to create her own contemporary versions of foundation deposits.
Foundation Deposits took place at Soil Gallery in Seattle, Washington between 7th and 30th June 2018