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Slain protester's art to represent Egypt at Venice Biennale

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • An artist killed in Tahrir Square to represent Egypt at Venice Biennale
  • Digital artist Ahmed Basiouny shot on "Friday of Rage"
  • Exhibition to include footage of the protests taken by the artist
  • Choice of artist "symbolic" of Egypt's current political situation

(CNN) -- An artist killed in the demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January is being honored this summer with a special showcase of his work at the Venice Biennale.

Ahmed Basiouny was a digital and media artist based in Cairo and a teacher of new media art to students in the city. Aged 31 when he died, he had shown his work in Egypt but never abroad.

He was filming in Tahrir Square on the so-called "Friday of Rage," on January 28, documenting the revolution as it unfolded, when he was reportedly shot by a sniper.

"He was a targeted victim," says Aida Eltorie, curator of the Egypt pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. "It wasn't a mistake. He was holding a camera and (the police) were shooting anyone who was carrying any kind of device to film or document what was going on."

It was only after President Hosni Mubarak's regime was toppled in February that the decision was reached to have Basiouny posthumously represent Egypt at the biggest and best-known international art showcase in the world.

(Ahmed) definitely represents the majority of rebels who started the revolution.
--Aida Eltorie, curator of Egypt pavilion at the Venice Biennale

The decision, said Eltorie, was made because of the strength of Basiouny's work but also as a symbolic gesture.

"He definitely represents the majority of rebels who started the revolution; he was young, like them, he was active and very much dedicated to the betterment of his country and he never stayed silent about the issues facing his country," she said.

The work that will be shown at the Biennale in the Egypt pavilion, a building housed along with many other national pavilions within Venice's public gardens, includes footage that Basiouny shot in Tahrir Square, alongside that of a live performance he undertook in 2010.

For this performance, entitled "30 days of Running in the Place," Basiouny strapped himself into a suit carrying sensors capable of reading body heat. He then jogged on the spot for performances across 30 days, and the sensors relayed the information to a microchip, which turned it into a graphic grid.

Addressing the idea of energy consumption leading nowhere, Eltorie considers it an interesting counterpoint to the revolution itself, which she described as an enormous outburst of energy that lead directly to change.

"He was the kind of artist that acted in the moment, he was a very reactive individual," she said.

She explained that after Basiouny was killed, a banner in his honor was put up in Tahrir Square and it became a meeting point during the revolution for other artists and protesters.

"He was a huge emblem for a lot of people, and a very big inspiration," Eltorie said.

The decision to stage an exhibition of Basiouny's work in Venice is certainly symbolic of Egypt's current political situation.

But the Venice Biennale, a major international art showcase in which countries all over the world present what they consider to be their best art in special "pavilions" across the city, is as much a stage for international politics as it is a platform for new art.

Every country (showing art in Venice) seems to have its own dynamic and certain things it wants to express based on whatever their national politics are.
--Martin Herbert, art critic

"It's almost like this geopolitical map, an exploded view of the world," says UK-based art critic Martin Herbert, on the way the national pavilions are organized for the 116-year-old Biennale.

"And I suppose that does make it a good stage for whatever statement countries want to make," he continued.

These statements range from the political to the cheeky, he said, as with Germany's decision in 2009 to choose a British artist to represent it.

"Every country seems to have its own dynamic and certain things it wants to express based on whatever their national politics are," Herbert said.

Egypt has had a pavilion in the public gardens -- the main viewing ground during the Biennale, and home to the British and American pavilions, among others -- since 1952.

According to Eltorie: "The history of the Egypt pavilion has always been something that commemorates a very traditional form of practice in the arts."

For Basiouny's digital art -- not to mention the highly political nature of his footage of the revolution -- to be shown there marks an important departure, she said.

But things are still in flux in Egypt, according to Eltorie. "We don't know what's going to happen, if it's an attitude that will continue to be applied," she said.

"But we're very happy that it's happening while it can and even if things go back to the way they were, we still have that possibility of change," she continued.