Ahmed El Shaer: A True Egyptian Gamer

Ahmed El-Shaer Self-Portrait

[Originally published in the Cairo Art Blog]

Multi-media artist Ahmed El Shaer (b. 1980) has a lifelong interest in video gaming art. He is currently one of few practitioners in Egypt creating art with video game technology and his practice includes graphic works, films and interactive games.  El Shaer has exhibited widely in Egypt and overseas where he has participated in international group shows including the Gamerz festival in France, the Impact festival in the Netherlands, and Athina Art International Arts Festival in the Ukraine, among many others.

At the artist’s recent solo exhibition, “8-bit Portraits” held at Cairo’s Mashrabia Gallery in October 2012, Shaer showed a series of works that harnessed elements drawn from the international language of gaming to tell a very personal and Egyptian story.  The exhibit featured portraits of notable Egyptians, including presidents and film stars, all created in “8-bit,” described by the artist as: “most basic form of computer coding used, back in the 1980s, in the graphics of video games like Atari when the number of available colours were limited to only twelve”.

El Shaer’s projects are often an exploration of his own identity. For “8-bit Portraits,” the artist uses icons of Arab and Egyptian culture that hold personal significance for him. These public figures appear in his works alongside portraits of El Shaer’s friends and mentors, creating a uniquely personal vision expressed in this nostalgic and antiquated digital language.

"Abdel Nasser".

“Abdel Nasser”.

“This exhibition is about Ahmed who read about Sadat and Abdel Nasser, Ahmed who loves the voice of Om Kalthum. It’s about Ahmed the Egyptian who sees Soad Hosny as a symbol of freedom for women. It is about the sound of Fayrouz… It’s about the artists Mohamed Abla and Khaled Hafez who have left a profound impression on me,” explains the artist.

There is an implicit political orientation in “8-bit Portraits”. Developed since 2010, this project is an attempt, by the artist, to rewrite the history of gaming by adding an Egyptian identity to this international language. El Shaer points out that most video games revolve around characters and situations from the West and Asia. “I’ve studied the history of gaming since Atari, and I found that while gaming has always been globalized, the content of the games is dominated by Western and Asian cultures,” he says. In the works that make up “8-bit portraits,” El Shaer is injecting himself, as an Egyptian citizen and as an artist, into an international discourse from which he has been excluded.

El Shaer received his B.A. from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University in 2002, with a focus on painting, but he shifted his practice to video art after attending an independent workshop run by Egyptian artist Shady El-Noshokaty. “Even when I was painting, I always felt I wanted the painting to move,” El Shaer explains. “2-D wasn’t enough for my ideas. I wanted a fourth dimension of time and movement.” He decided to take the path of multi-media art and made several videos.

In 2006, the artist was invited to attend the Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria where he met his Chinese mentor Feng Mengbo, who was running a workshop on machinima, a form of filmmaking made with video game technology. El Shaer signed up for it immediately. “In essence I’m a gamer. I’m crazy about video games,” he says. From Feng Mengbo, he learned that since games are entertaining and flashy, an artist really has to know what he wants to say in his work, otherwise the viewer will be distracted and infatuated by the gaming and lose sight of the artist’s ideas and vision.

A still from the short film "Home".

A still from the short film “Home”.

At the Austrian workshop, El Shaer created the short film“Home,” his first machinima project. The film was inspired by his homesickness for Cairo, with all its traffic and pollution, in sharp contrast to the Austrian landscape that surrounded him.  Reflecting his mood at the time, the work is a reflection on feelings of homesickness, and separation from Egypt. In his trademark fashion, El Shaer here uses the international medium of gaming as a vehicle for a work that is deeply personal. The film centers on a character from the popular video game Quake and transplants him to the Austrian woods. The narrative is propelled by the character’s urgent need to return home to Quake, even though Quake is a violent place where the character is constantly getting a “game over”. The project won El Shaer an award for best film in class. From there, the artist taught himself more machinima and went on to create films and interactive games that he has shown in exhibitions and festivals in Egypt and abroad.

El Shaer’s interactive game, “Nekh,” an overtly political work, also explores the theme of violence as experienced by Egyptians. Named after the command, in Arabic, to make a camel bow down, the game is El Shaer’s vision of the brutal Camel Battle that took place in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. “Up until that day, the Egyptian revolution had been driven by the internet, by technology. But then, they attacked us in Tahrir Square with camels and horses,” El Shaer says about his game, in which the opponents are a camel and a man, but no matter what side the audience chooses to play on, nobody wins.

The artist says he enjoys creating interactive games because they provide unlimited solutions, and afford scope for endless fantasies. He enjoys the two-way nature of gaming art where “the viewer is part of the work, so the audience comes up with solutions.” He says his future goal is to get a master’s degree in game art, so he can teach it in Egypt.

For more on El Shaer, see his website.

For a biography of the artist, click here.

Rowan El Shimi is a culture journalist using writing, photography and video for reporting, featuring and analyzing Egypt’s cultural scene. She is also interested in social development and concerned particularly with its relationship with the arts. You can follow her work at www.rowanelshimi.org

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