At first it just looks like a man dancing on the roof.
The video display, behind a black curtain on the lower level of the Colby College Museum of Art, is part of a newly opened exhibit that features the works of six artists from Egypt.
On Thursday, artist and co-curator Ahmed Abdalla, of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, led a tour of about 50 people through the exhibit, pointing out some of the political and social meaning behind the details.
The man dancing on the roof was a policeman, atop a multi-story apartment building. Abdalla explained why what might at first seem like a joyous act could actually signify something sinister.
“There are people living there,” he said. “We don’t know if they are alive or dead. There were 6,000 Egyptians killed by the police, some burned to death. That influences the perceptions of this policeman dancing on the roof.”
Cairo, where the artists are from, has been the focal point of the 2011 revolution that led to the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak and then, just two years later, another revolution that led to former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. The images of the man dancing on the roof were created prior to the revolution, but the deaths mentioned by Abdalla happened later during the revolution, adding new meaning to them, he said.
The exhibit opened at Colby on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the date that 50,000 protesters first occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Abdalla on Thursday led the crowd through the six different video-driven components of the installation, which were created by artists Mohamed Abla, Ahmed Basiony, Hala Elkoussy, Shady El Noshokaty, Sabah Naim, and Moataz Nasr. The exhibit, “Histories of Now: Six Artists From Cairo,” was most recently on display at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Basiony’s installation includes footage of himself in Tahrir Square running in place in a plastic jumpsuit while electronic sensors recorded his movements and fluid outputs. Basiony was killed days after the footage was shot, at the age of 33.
The most visually striking part of the exhibit is Nasr’s, which shows three large side-by-side projections of Sufi dancers, sometimes referred to as whirling dervishes.
Each brightly colored dancer is seen from above, spinning continuously so that the lower part of the outfit flares out like a skirt.
“In my opinion, it is a highly political piece,” Abdalla said.
Sufi dancing is spiritual, Abdalla said, part of a minimalist lifestyle that rejects many earthly luxuries. Their outfits, each one a different primary color, are made of rough wool, rather than a more comfortable option.
The dance they perform, often to quiet and simple music, symbolically transmits the light of God from the heavens to other people.
This exhibit, too, has an insidious undertone.
“Ordinarily, we would see them from the front,” he said. But the view in the video footage is from above, like a surveillance camera.
“They are being watched,” Abdalla said. “There is suspicion about what they are doing.”
Abdalla praised Colby’s art museum, which he said had space and architectural features that add to the meaning of the exhibits.
The museum reopened in July after the addition of the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion.
Admission to the museum remains free, which officials say is part of its mission to make quality art accessible to the people of Maine.