On the morning I visited ToGather, an exhibition of drawings and installations by the German/Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna at the Whitworth in Manchester, the galleries were eerily quiet. For minutes at a time, I was quite alone with the work, something I found to be disappointing at first. After all, as the show’s title suggests, its subject is people, and all the ways they live, together and apart; it would have been nice to see more of the real thing around. But then, as the emptiness took its effect, I began to be glad of it. Wandering the room in which, for instance, Hefuna has built 13 towers using afaz, the improvised palm wood cubes that are commonly used by Cairo street vendors, it was as if I’d stumbled upon an abandoned city. Here, all around me, were the teetering ziggurats of misery and desolation we see on the television news almost every night. No wonder I jumped at the sudden sound of laughter somewhere far off.
Hefuna, the daughter of a Catholic German mother and a Muslim Egyptian father, moved to Germany from Egypt at the age of six. But having trained at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe and the Institute for New Media in Frankfurt, it is her paternal heritage that now plays the more prominent role in her work. On a wall beside the afaz – somehow, it isn’t surprising to learn that in Arabic the word means “cage” – you’ll find Patience Is Beautiful (2007), a collection of 45 bronze inscriptions in Arabic that I took, given the context, to be mocking rather than consolatory; while in the next room is Confession (2011), Hefuna’s riff on the decorative wooden screens (a mashrabiya) that allowed air to pass through the windows of traditional Islamic homes even as they maintained the dignity of the women inside.
Up close, this is just a vast decorative object. Walk away from it, though, and you’ll see that the word “confession” has been carved into it, at which point its blackness – the wood has been darkened with ink – brings to mind not the heat of an Egyptian summer but the airlessness of close confinement with a priest.
Her drawings and other works on paper, meanwhile, comprise dot-to-dot-like geometric shapes, and lots of extremely stylised representations of aspects of Islamic architecture. There are plenty of them in this show – too many, in fact. Arranged in groups, they strike me as repetitive and bland, like something you’d find on the wall of a hip hotel (their message has to do, I think, with human connectedness). But I do like her vitrines, in which she attempts “to catch experience”, giving it a physical form that might be understood in a glance. Vitrines of Afaf (2007) was made in Egypt, and originally shown in the street outside the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. The cases in question, built of metal and glass, are actually the wheeled, stainless steel carts Cairo street vendors use to sell warm sesame bread, only now they house, stone-cold, objects that were given to Hefuna by the wives, daughters and mothers of workers from the gallery: a group of plastic cigarette lighters and a novelty fez; some inexpensive hair oil and a group of old printing blocks; a child’s jelly sandals and a bottle of Moldovan liquor. Each woman chose an item with some special meaning or story attached, and thanks to this, even as the piece suggests a rather hackneyed idea about the cheapness of life, it fairly tugs at the heart.
The second set of vitrines (Manchester Vitrines, 2017) were created specially for this exhibition: a series of boxes in which Hefuna has placed objects of personal value lent by refugees living in Manchester – a group that will today participate in a one-off performance piece in the park outside as part of the Manchester international festival. The objects are intended to “distil” the story of the refugees’ journeys – though what this means in reality, of course, is that the visitor’s imagination goes into overdrive. If it seems obvious that a person would bring a leather-bound Bible or a model of an angel halfway across the world, picturing this is not half so intimate an exercise as to try and conjure up the thought processes of the woman (I assume it was a woman) who carried with her two of the coloured glass jars from an old-fashioned 1950s-style dressing table set – the kind in which you are supposed to keep, say, cotton wool.
Why, of all things, did she choose these? Who had given them to her? Wasn’t she worried they would break? What did she wrap them in? ToGather is not a wholly successful show. Contrary to what its curators seem to believe, the issue of immigration isn’t a free pass: work with a heart can still be trite and its message ill explained. But since I saw it, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these little glass jars. I went to see an exhibition, and came home with a short story in my head.
• ToGather: Susan Hefuna is at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 3 September