Rehab El Sadek

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gender, identity, myth, power, spirituality, tradition, values
Visual Arts (installation art, video art)
Africa, Northern
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May 14, 2003
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Rehab El Sadek
Rehab El Sadek


Archeologist of the known

Rehab El Sadek was born in Matrouh in Egypt in 1974. A graduate of Alexandria University of Fine Arts, she lives and works in Alexandria. She is recognised for her poetic reflections on power structures, dealing with issues of gender, identity and values in a society bound by tradition and history. She works in video and installation, has been awarded a UNESCO bursary for a residency in London and a residency at the Kuona Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Her work is increasingly visible in international contemporary art events outside Egypt.
Egyptian visual artist Rehab El Sadek lives and works in the coastal city of Alexandria where she graduated from the University of Fine Arts in 1994. She was born in Matrouh, Egypt, a small city in the desert close to the Mediterranean Sea. Geographical isolation from the Cairo art community has provided her with the opportunity to work independently on concepts that deal directly with social issues she encounters in her daily life. She makes installations and video works addressing issues of culture, value and the environment in contemporary Egypt.

El Sadek states: ´The complex make up of Egyptian society, religious / historical / political, has created boundaries for artistic expression and criticism for the contemporary artist. For a female artist those limitations are more acute within the traditional, conservative expectations of the woman’s role. I have occupied myself for a few years with the question of investing cultures and why people are indifferent to their own history and seek to belong to other cultures.´

In 1998 Rehab El Sadek was awarded a UNESCO-Sarvath El Hassan Bursary for Culture and Art three-month residency at Gasworks Studios in London. The first place she wanted to visit was the British Museum, drawn by the museum’s reputation for housing some of the most important works of art from ancient Egypt. The reality shattered her expectations. ´At first I couldn’t believe it. I felt angry and sad. The artefacts had no spirit.´ Her response to a display which she felt robbed the sacred objects of their meaning was to create an installation ‘Empty Shapes’. The narrative was based on the ancient myth of Osiris where the murdered king’s body is dismembered and scattered across the land to prevent his wife from retrieving his body and salvaging his spirit. The installation attempted to reverse power relations by questioning the viewer’s assumptions about displays of artefacts acquired through colonial conquest. A haphazard scattering of house-like structures made of thin sticks bound with worn cloth and inscribed with Arabic characters convey a fragile world, material culture without spirit.

On her return to Egypt, the exhibition created an intense debate among the art community over the use of installation as a valid medium and the right of the artist to confront traditionally accepted norms in a conservative environment. The fragile houses with overt references to the position of women and their historical status were acclaimed by several marginalised groups in Egyptian society. Exhibiting at the 10th Salon of Youth in Cairo, El Sadek was given an entire room for her delicate constructions, described by reviewer Nigel Ryan in Al-Ahram Weekly as ´a fantastical village´ and ´one of the most convincing installations in the show´.

Another work made around this time ‘Art Books’, originally shown in Cairo in 1998, treated cultural history as stagnant and unreadable, with pages glued together and in some cases bound into volumes with wire twisted into tight knots. Reviewer Nigel Ryan described her process. ´she archaeologises the known, while at the same time delineating the tentative nature of the boundaries of what can be known.´

In 1999 she showed at the Biennale dei Giovani Artisti in Rome and won 2nd prize for her installation at the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. She was selected for the Kuona Trust 3rd international artists residency in 2000 in Nairobi, Kenya where she worked on a public project with young girls from underprivileged backgrounds. Seventy-five dolls were made with seventy-five children from different locations in Kenya. The work ‘Dolls’ was installed in a glass case in the Museum Art Studio with the children’s biographies.

At the Al Nitaq Festival in Cairo in 2001, Rehab El Sadek made a video installation, ‘Boy and Toy’. El Sadek built a toy pyramid of 500 transparent cubes, wooden dowels and cloth. Beyond the pyramid the slow motion video depicted a young boy lethargically chewing a massive wad of gum, reflecting the carefree / careless approach to life. Sacred and social Egyptian texts were used in the toy pyramid, sometimes readable but cut, mixed and disturbed.

Rehab El Sadek was shortlisted for the Visiting Arts/Delfina Annual Fellowship in 2001 on the nomination of William Wells, Director of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

Gender issues have come to the forefront of El Sadek’s work in recent years. ‘Couple’, a two channel video created at a workshop in Karachi, contrasts the hesitation of subjugated women – bent at the waist, unable to stand upright – with the fast-paced movement of a man slashing the air with a machete. Her work shows in 2003 in the Netherlands in a group exhibition ‘Cairo Modern Art’ selected by the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art in Cairo at Fortis CircusTheater gallery in Scheveningen. In 2003 she also participates in the ‘Les Ve Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine’ in Bamako and the Havana Biennale in Cuba.

SOURCES: reviews by Alessio Antoniolli (NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art), Nigel Ryan (Al-Ahram Weekly)
Author: Judith Staines


Rehab El Sadek was born in Matrouh, Egypt in 1972. She graduated from Alexandria University of Fine Arts in 1994. She was awarded a UNESCO bursary in 1998 for a residency at Gasworks Artists Studios in London and was selected for the Kuona Trust international artists residency in Kenya in 2000. She live and works in Alexandria, Egypt and makes installations and video works addressing issues of identity, gender and tradition.


Solo Exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
2004 Lumen Travo Gallery, with Simen Johan, Amsterdam 2004 Open Studio, Thami Mnyele Studio, Amsterdam 1998 “Pages from Old Time” Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo, Egypt 1998 Empty Shapes, Gasworks Studios, London, UK

Group Exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
2004 L.A. Freewaves 9th Celebration of Experimental Media Arts, MOCA Geffen Contemporary, L.A., USA 2004 C.C.C.B., Barcelona, Spain 2003 Photo Cairo, The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt 2003 9th Wexford Artists¹ Book Exhibition, Dublin, Ireland 2003 Les Ve Rencontres De La Photographie Africaine, Bamako, Mali. 2003 Open Studio, The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt 2003 Wasla Workshop, Newebaa, Egypt. 2002 “Drawings Straight from the Artists Studio”, AUC, Egypt 2002 “Imagining the Book”, International Contemporary Art Encounter, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria Egypt 2002 Squared Circle, Beirut, Lebanon 2001 Cairo Modern Art in Holland, Circus Theater, Den Hague, Netherlands 2001 Al Nitaq Festival of Art, Cairo, Egypt 2001 22 Artists, Amin Gulgee Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan 2000 3rd International Artists Residencies, Museum Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya 1999 Biennale Dei Giovanni Artisti, Pavilion Jannis Kounellis, Roma, Italy 1999 Boursan Art Center, Istanbul, Turkey 1999 Sharjah Biennale, UAE 1999 Moderne Kunst Aus Agypten, Galerie Xenois, Frankfurt, Germany 1998 The Exhibition of Small Artworks, Arts Center, Cairo, Egypt 1995, 96, 97, 98 Salon of Young Artists, Akhnaton Galleries, Cairo, Egypt 1998 “T Shirt”, Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo, Egypt 1997 Contemporary Egyptian Art, Kunst Historican Museum, Vienna, Austria 1997 Goethe Institute Gallery, Alexandria, Egypt 1996 “Egyptian Painters” Italian Cultural Center, Alexandria, Egypt 1992, 93, 94, 95 “Al Marsam” Annual Exhibition, Alexandria Atelier, Alexandria, Egypt 1995 ”Drawings” Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo, Egypt 1992 Alexandria The World Group Exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria, Egypt


Found object A water tank covered with names of Bedouin women written by different Bedouin men.

Sugar Sculptures

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation Hundreds of traditional sugar sculptures covered with epoxy, cement and sand.


Film / TV,
Video art (black and white): one image made of two. Above is a female figure moving but always bent over. Below is an inverted image of a strong arm wielding a machete cutting at the face of the bent over figure above.

Boy and Toy

Exhibition / Installation,
Video installation A toy pyramid made of 500 transparent cubes constructed of wooden dowels and cloth. Beyond the pyramid is a zoomed in video of a boy chewing a huge wad of gum.

A Day of a Housewife

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation: Off-white men´s trousers, enlarged in size, with metal tools hanging from their crotches. These tools were redesigned to represent both male and female organs.

Trees series

Collage: Local Kenyan cloth cut into the shape of trees, glued on wood along with pigments, sand and cement.

Dolls (public project)

Production / Performance,
75 dolls made with 75 children from different locations in Kenya, using different degrees of skin colour, installed together in a glass case with the children´s biographies.

Empty Shapes 2

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation: different structures of Byzantine houses made of wooden dowels covered with cloth in certain areas, with text.

Empty Shapes

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation: Different structures of English houses made of wooden dowels covered with cloth and in certain areas with text from the Isis and Osiris myth.

Art Books

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation: Old books or blocks of wood giving the impression of stone. Books may contain sand, cement and/or wire.

School Benches

Exhibition / Installation,
Installation: Normal sized benches re-designed with different kinds of wood, covered with linen similar to that covering mummies with text taken from the Book of the Dead.


2000 Kuona 3rd International Artists Residency, Nairobi, Kenya
1999 2nd Prize, Installation, Sharjah Biennale, Emirates
1998 Bursary supported by UNESCO-Sarvath el Hassan Bursaries for Culture and Art, Gasworks Artists Studios, London
1999, 98 & 97 Egyptian Government awards for freelance artists
1997 Installation Prize, Salon of Young Artists, Cairo, Egypt
1996 & 95 Committee Prize, Salon of Young Artists, Cairo, Egypt
1994 Alexandria Atelier Honors Grant, Alexandria, Egypt


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Delfina International Fellowship 2001

(30 October 01 - 02 February 02)


Cairo Modern Art

Exhibition of contemporary artists from Egypt in Netherlands.

Al-Ahram Weekly

´Youth at the end of´ - review of Salon of Young Artists exhibition, 1998, in Cairo.

The Townhouse Gallery

Artist´s page at The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
Sugar Sculptures
Sugar Dolls