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Amal Kenawy talks to Gerald Matt


 Q: “The Room,” a video animation you presented as part of the show “Some Stories” in Vienna in 2005, shows a beating heart of white fabric and lace-gloved hands slowly and mechanically sewing ornaments on it; the body remains invisible. Unfolding intense contexts, you shock people with ultimate views of the interior – they find themselves in places oscillating between spaces of remembrance and imaginary spheres where the familiar and the everyday give way to the irrational. Defamiliarization, the transition from the real to the imaginary, and the visualization of the invisible imply a surrealist aspect. – Would you say that your works or your artistic practice is related to a surrealist dialectics?

A: Although I do not follow a particular school of thought when working, one could link my art to surrealism because of my heavy reliance on symbols. I use signs and imagery to represent the remembered, the dreamt, and the imaginary. Portraying the inner and the invisible through tangible/recognizable forms, my works sometimes takes on a surreal character. However, I would say that only certain aspects of my work are surreal; other parts of it can be better described as expressive. In fact, I believe that my work is more the latter than the former. My primary concern is not the styles and/or techniques that I use to express my ideas but rather the ideas themselves. I chose my technique and style based on which forms of them allow me to best articulate my subject. In terms of style, I sometimes find that the most suitable way to depict my thoughts is through taking a symbolic/metaphoric direction, but this is not always the case.  

Q: In an essay on surrealist art, Octavio Paz noted that “what matters is to get rid of these fictitious personalities which the world forces upon us or which we have created ourselves […]. Smothering us, the self hides our real being from us.” The body as an area of activities, its boundaries, its fragmentation, or even its dissolution may be seen as a central subject of your work as an artist. In the animation video “The Purple Artificial Forest,”(2006) you break down the body into its component parts. With a few strokes, you create a one-point perspective space by connecting the mostly crimson parts of the body with the white of the pictorial surface – while the suggested room sometimes presents itself as a cage, the unordered net-like structures form dreamlike intricate beings. Being magically attracted by a mirror, the body fragments are devoured by an ethereal creature. – Could you describe the symbolism you rely on here?

A: My main goal in “The Purple Artificial Forest” was to present a world that appears unreal but is made up of realistic elements and is in fact a reflection of the actual/physical world. The piece’s title is directly related to this concept; it simultaneously establishes the artificiality of the strange, dreamlike world that the work depicts yet at the same time sets up a link between the world I have created and reality. I tried to create such an unreal world by placing humans body parts – legs, hands, and decapitated heads - in intimate, domestic spaces, using an open landscape as a background, in turn, depriving these spaces of their sense of security/comfort. The detached body parts are like plants, violently sprouting branches that grow and multiply. These body parts and the imagined, hostile space that they lie in, have interchangeable roles, one devouring the other and vice-versa in an endless cycle of consumption/destruction.     

Q: Recurring motifs such as high-voltage poles, shells, water basins, draped curtains, tree structures, animal creatures, and body extremities constitute a visual repertoire of forms which, reminding us of the return of unconscious dream pictures, keep overlapping themselves with always new contents. – Are these motifs to be seen as specific signifiers, or do their contents vary depending on the context? Why the reduced range of colors you use in your drawings?

A: To begin with, my use of symbols and motifs is conscious. I purposely employ recurring images that are loaded with premeditated meanings, meanings which are nonetheless subjective. Sometimes, I use a specific motif to express the same idea in many different contexts/places; other times, I use different motifs to express the same idea. One motif that I have used in my latest work, and which I have not used previously, is the rat; in my video, a rat ferociously bites a female figure, causing her to bleed profusely. I intentionally used a small and weak animal here so as to emphasize the fragility of humans. In my other works, this idea, the vulnerability of humankind, is present and is expressed, however, through distinct forms. In contrast, a motif that I have used in many of my works is the tree. In the multiple contexts in which I have utilized this image, the tree stands for the cycle of life. I use imagery and symbolism in many of my works because they allow me to better explore the conscious and the unconscious. In my earlier artworks, I sometimes used imagery so that I could maneuver around censorship laws; through symbolism, I was able to express myself and my thoughts in a more discreet but still powerful/effective manner. My two newest works however do not rely on symbolism for censorship purposes; symbolism is used in them for purely expressive reasons.
As for my choice to use a limited range of colors, this stems from my belief that color serves a function in art and that its employment or method of employment do not have to do with just aesthetics or technique. I think of drawing and painting as the visual equivalent of writing, their principle function being to convey an idea or explore a subject.  Within this framework of thought, each color, when it is used, is given a specific meaning. I use a lot of purple in my work because I find that it suggests the liveliness of man and captures his vivacity; this is due to the color’s likeness to that of blood. At the same time, the purple that is used does not stir feelings of disgust in my viewer because it is not exactly the color of blood. This resemblance yet difference allows for the color to evoke feelings that are more central to my work than revulsion, feelings such as fear and apprehension. I use a lot of black as well. Black allows me to draw lines and define my forms. It also enables me obliterate details when I want to and to convey a sense of ending/non-existence.   

Q:  We have talked about boundaries; behavioral patterns and social structures informed by the cultural environment and the restriction and loss of self-determination in an increasingly complex world determine the discourse on the relationship between the individual and a globalized world in which different cultures still define different frontiers. Your video “Frozen Memory” fathoms the socio-cultural codifications of marriage and death – two events that mark breaks or transitions especially in Muslim culture; although the work exposes a central ganglion of collective clichés by focusing on emotions hidden beneath the surface and the visual recollections resulting from them, it deals with identity as a product and as a mirror of one’s immediate vicinity. – Do Islamic traditions and their social and religious codes provide a direct or indirect frame of reference for your practice as an artist?

A: Events such as birth, marriage, and death mark significant times in the cycle of life of all humans and are loaded with/involve many emotions. For this reason, they are given importance in most cultures and consequently are assigned socio-cultural codifications. Their significance then is not exclusive or unique to Muslim culture. As an individual cannot remove or separate himself from his social and cultural environment, his perception of these events is no doubt tied to them. Thus, my exploration of the subjects of birth, marriage, and death is influenced by my society’s/culture’s views on them.

While it would be dismissive to deny or underplay the influence of Islamic traditions and codes of behavior on the customs and rules of a given Muslim society, it must be recognized that Islam is only one determining factor in this society’s social regulations. Thus, to say that Islamic traditions or codes provide a direct or indirect frame for my work would be to lump Islamic countries/societies into one extremely simplified and generalized category, overlooking the diversity of Muslim societies. Even Arab societies differ greatly, with Algeria, for instance, bearing little resemblance to Syria. My work then is not an expression of Islam or the Muslim world or even the Arab world; rather, my art reflects Egyptian society, as a product of its socio-cultural, political, and economic climate as well as its cultural heritage and history.

Q: According to Jacques Lacan, an identity has to be recognized and confirmed by its social environs, i.e. is subject to a continuous fight for qualification and has to be reinforced by rituals, symbols, and myths. – Does the subjective, autobiographic symbolism you draw on employ forms of pain and injury?

A: I would like to start off by clarifying that I do not use autobiography or subjective symbolism to present myself or who I am in my work. My goal is not to create a self-portrait; it is not to use personal signs to communicate something important about me specifically. Rather, I use these symbols to convey my views on topics that are relevant to all people. I treat myself as a figure or an agent through which I can talk about universal feelings and experiences. The emotions and incidents that I deal with in particular include fear, desire, insecurity, and hope as well as violence, injury, and pain.

I think of artistic creation as a means for expressing life; I envision the course of art as running parallel to the track of life. My artwork does not focus on the tracks of my life, my memory, or my dreams but rather looks at life, memory, and dreams in general, along with their relationships to one another.

Q: The complexity of the female identity and the intense, intimate exploration of dialectical parallel emotional and intellectual spaces constitute a central field of your artistic practice. Reviews of your work relate it to that of various feminist artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, or Carolee Schneemann. – Are there certain artistic positions you feel near to? Which artists and traditions are important for you?

A: I would not say that my work has a conscious feminist direction. It is pertinent to all human beings; its main concern is to explore the emotions that are felt by humans, including love and pain, as well as how humans perceive their experiences in life. My art, as mentioned above, deals with the influence of society on humans, on how society affects their understanding of certain events or feelings. Most societies have ideas about gender differences that are incorporated into their values and codes of conduct. This is one of the reasons why one could say that there are differences between the way women tend to emotionally respond to or perceive their experiences and the way men do. Thus gender may be said to play an indirect and unconscious role in my work. My views on my inner world and the world that surrounds me, which are expressed through my artwork, may be affected by my identity as a woman, however, gender is definitely not a central theme or concern in my art.

With regards to my work being compared to that of the female artists mentioned above, I see this comparison as being drawn for mainly two reasons. Firstly, a connection has been made because of what has been perceived as our shared use of certain symbols or imagery. However our use of these symbols, the contexts we place them in, and what they signify differ. One can not talk about a similarity in our use of certain images because doing so would be like talking about a part of our work and ignoring how this part fits into the whole. Secondly, I believe that this link can be largely attributed to my being a woman. In 2006, I participated in an exhibition entitled “Nafas,” which, it was stressed, provided its viewers with a look at the work of 8 female artists from the Islamic World. If the exhibition had featured the work of 8 male artists, the gender of the participating artists would have been considered a subsidiary detail and not a definitive feature of the exhibition.

Q: The space of your early works is an abstract space of imagination. Your recent work “You will be killed” is the first for which structures and recollections of a real space are the point of departure. The rooms you show in your video were used as a hospital in colonial times: you tell us about the place and your dismay at the traces of violence to be felt even after 30 years. In the video, these rooms dissolve to reveal or are superimposed with abstract drawings, symbolic archaic motifs, and your portrait. The sequence of metaphoric pictures sketches a self-portrait by inscribing the connotations onto the hospital walls. – You show the social space as a network of more or less anonymous relations of power: are you alluding to certain political events here?

A: First off, “You will be killed” is not the only piece in which I depict/work on a real space. This was also done in “The Room.” “The Room” encompasses two spaces, one that is the abstract space of a person’s inner being and the other that gives us a look at this person’s interaction/relationship with the outer world. The existence of two such spaces side-by-side represents the separation of the self. The inner, it is shown, is unrelated to the outer. Furthermore, the outer is just a static image, a cover, a surface. The non-abstract space in which man’s interaction with the physical world is featured provides a commentary on society’s influence on man; this space is a real place.

“You will be killed” is set in a real place/location - a military hospital. Fantastic images and spaces are projected onto the walls of this actual space, converting the hospital into a gallery. The location has an undeniably intense history; it is a place that has witnessed conflicts/relations of power and violence. The superimposition of a picture of myself on the walls of the hospital emphasizes that this is my understanding of the place. The work however is not about a particular place or a specific event, it is about violence in general, whether on a personal or political level. It deals with instances of violence, locations that have witnessed these instances, and the effect that these instances and locations have had on those who have lived through the violence.  

Q: How would you describe your attitude towards violence, power, and politics?

A: I find that these three concepts are intricately tied together. Power is what defines the relationship between individuals as well as nations. Power structures are based on the ability of one side to do harm onto the other, on the potential of the former to treat the latter violently. Most importantly, the link between violence and power can be explained through their relationships to security and insecurity. If a person feels secure or self confident, he sees less of a need to use violence to prove himself or to exert himself on others; he is trully powerful. If an individual is insecure, he is always on the defensive, trying to protect himself or to demonstrate his strength/ability. However, this overcompensation is not a show of actual power but of fake power, beneath which lies weakness. In short, violence and power determine both personal and political relationships.

Q: Compared to other countries of the Near East, Egypt seems to be more aware of the continuity of its culture and its deeply rooted tradition. Nevertheless, the development of a modernist movement was blocked by structural limitations in academic education, insufficient institutions for artistic exchange, as well as a repressive attitude concerning the establishment of a theoretic critical discourse for a long time. Since the mid-1990s, private initiatives by the Town House Gallery, the Mashrabia Gallery, and others have created a public interest in contemporary art. This entailed an unheard-of dynamic change for the younger generation. – How do you position yourself within these local structures? What about your forms of networking with regional and international artists, curators, and cultural institutions?

A: Up until now, and even now, most galleries and art institutes in Egypt are nationally supported by the Ministry of Culture. I am against this centralization in the field of art, against the control of education, resources, opportunities, and even ideas, that produces artwork made with a purpose/agenda in mind. Since the mid-1990s, a number of independent galleries have opened and private and individual efforts are being made. Artists are no longer linked to a certain gallery. These rising independent galleries, which serve different purposes, give artists more freedom to move between them as well as to choose the direction in which they would like to move forward or the aspect(s) of their art or artistic career that they would like to develop. A number of art related institutions have also emerged, offering artists greater opportunities and more choice as well as complementing the activities of up-and-coming galleries. Recently, there has been an increase in global interest in the Middle East and Muslim societies. Some of this interest has been channeled into endeavors that look beyond the stereotypes and images produced by mass media and attempt to discover the reality of these societies. This has had a positive effect on Egyptian artists as well as artists from the region as whole. It is the combination of the local developments and international interest mentioned above that has led art in Egypt to increasingly become on an international level, a change that bears on all Egyptian artists, including myself.   

Q: Your work has been shown in numerous exhibitions. You have not only participated in the Biennials of Singapore, Dakar, Cairo, and Alexandria, but also in thematic group exhibitions such as “Africa Remix,” “Nafas” in Berlin in 2006, and “Some Stories” in Vienna in 2005. These approaches are primarily determined by cultural attributions or are presentations focusing on cultural dialogue. – How do tendencies towards generalization or geographic standardizations affect the perception and positioning of your work? Do you see Egypt as a country which is still dissociated from mainstream international art?

A: There are certain criteria which I use when making a decision as to whether or not to participate in these thematic exhibitions. First and foremost, I look at the title and theme of the exhibition and see if they are too stereotypical or if their approach is overly simplistic. As I mentioned in my answer to your previous question, topics related to the Middle East and Muslim societies have become extremely fashionable/trendy. I have used the many thematic exhibitions, which often times tend to make generalizations and geographic standardizations, that have resulted from this fad to exhibit my work. I make a point however of presenting something contrary to what is expected, to clichés. I do so by focusing my work on a personal/subjective level, by producing art that looks at the intimate. I believe that this is an effective way of changing existing perceptions and misconceptions.

As for your question on Egypt’s disassociation from mainstream international art, this is once again due to the large amount of control that national institutions exert over the art scene. This monopoly has led to their being no serious research, very few international artists working or exhibiting in Egypt, as well as a small number of exhibitions of international art being mounted in the country. This is further exacerbated by the weakness of Egyptian art education programs; art schools mainly focus on the academic aspects of art and do not cover/teach many modern styles and techniques. As I have mentioned earlier, there are private and independent efforts at change being made but they are just not enough.        

Q: Your means of expression as an artist comprise an enormous range of different media: you have been director, scriptwriter, and actress rolled into one. Drawing, sculpture, photography, animation, video, installation, and performance seem to be part of a continuing unending multiple project which resists the categorizing grid of Western norms. You first studied design in Cairo, and it was only later that your education also included film and painting. – How has this diversified focus determined your language as an artist?

A: When I was three years old, I started designing clothes. When I grew a little older, I came to realize that I wanted to work in and combine drawing and design. I eventually studied film and design. The program was very academically focused and was not very strong. From there, I moved onto painting but I encountered the same problems in my study of it. I was always working and researching alongside my studies, beginning with my first year of training and up until I left school. This was an attempt on my behalf to reinforce my education. For these efforts, I received the UNESCO Grand Prize at the International Cairo Biennale and the First Prize in Sculpture at the Salon of Youth in 1997. The study of many disciplines/techniques was not meant to lead me to a different or special perspective but rather to increase my ways for expressing myself, to allow me greater freedom of expression.

Q: What do you think about the education for artists in Egypt in general? Which options or kinds of support are there for teachers and students? Video is a very young medium in contemporary Egyptian art: which are the difficulties you were or are confronted with concerning the technically intricate production of your works?

A: I have already touched upon this question in previous answers. Expanding on what has been said, with an emphasis on education, I believe that a greater importance should be placed on art educators/teachers. Formerly, teachers were sent abroad so that they could keep up-do-date with the developments of the international art scene and maintain a link between Egypt and the rest of the world. This is no longer the case. Another change that is required is an adjustment of the admission policies of Egyptian art schools, whereby admission becomes based on talent and artistic standards rather than on grades.

With regards to my working in the time-consuming and technically-demanding medium of video in Egypt, I find that the biggest challenge to my work is that there are not enough sides that support independent films and cinema. I prefer to produce independent films in a setting such as this, without support, than to be controlled or censored by a backing institution.   

Q:  Since 1997, you have realized 11 projects together with your brother Addel Ghany, projects for which you have received numerous awards like the Pro Helvetica grant (2004) and the Leonardo Global Crossings Award (2005). Though your approach is based on a decidedly subjective autobiographical symbolism, you describe the collaboration with your brother as a creative process encompassing all phases from the development of the concept and structural visual considerations to the production of the work itself. – Could you tell us what this common work was like? How can an introspective and intimate form of expression be realized together with somebody else? In what way has your method of work changed since you have developed and realized your projects without your brother?

A: My collaboration work began with Abdel Ghany in 1997. This was actually at the beginning of my career as an artist.  We started off wanting to leave an impression; we collaborated on everything, in producing our work as well as in exhibiting it. Our collaboration was not limited to technical cooperation; we even collaborated on the ideas and concepts expressed through our art. Such cooperation was novel at the time. Since then, there have been many artists in Egypt who have collaborated together. Our art focused on the relationship between man and his surroundings or nature. We received numerous awards for the work that we did jointly.

The last work that I created with Abdel Ghany was "Frozen Memory." It was the first work which I felt treated a personal subject and even then, its subject was only personal to a certain extent; "Frozen Memory" looks at how humans reflect their society, or what their relationship is to their surroundings, and not at their inner being. This topic was an extension from the subjects we had previously dealt with, but it took a small step in a more intimate direction. My brother and I approached the subject separately, from our own perspective. We each created a video that explored our views on the subject through a topic that interested us. Abdel Ghany looked at how a person can feel alienated despite living amongst others in society as well as how we are all part of a turning wheel, representative of society, a wheel that keeps moving, that never stops. My part of the work explored what I call the "real life" of a person, as recorded in/by his memory, and not his life as measured in time. After completing our separate parts, we combined them to create "Frozen Memory." My work has changed since then, but I would not say that that has to do with our separation.

After making "Frozen Memory," I began to seriously question the purpose of my art. I realized then that art is a tool for expression not a final project to be exhibited whenever and wherever possible. I also became aware that I wanted to explore more personal topics such as how experiences or surroundings affect an individual and how an individual perceives them. Since then, this is the direction that my art has moved in.

Q: You will be showing the works described here in short (“Frozen Memory,” “The Room,” “The Purple Artificial Forest,” “You will be killed”) at the Darat al Funun in Amman. – Would you outline your concept for the presentation? Most of your works are fragmentary – both the dramaturgical organization and the time structure make us think of a finger repeatedly pushing the STOP button “at random”: what role do narration and narrative structures play when you prepare a presentation?

A: My work does not fall under different subjects; there are definitely clear ties between my pieces. These links include their shared treatment of the subjects of history, memory, and abstract spaces. The presentation of my work in this solo exhibition outlines its development and transformation. It displays how my works have affected one another. Their exhibition in one location is similar to the act of combining my diaries to make a story of them.

As for the question on narrative structure, the chosen progression of narrative and the rhythm of time in a work most certainly have a function. I edit my tapes in a way to make a story out of my footage, to bring across a message to my viewer, or invoke in him a certain emotion. Not all of my works are fragmentary. For example, “The Room” has an organized narrative; it also conveys a message. My last two projects however have moved in a more fragmentary direction. They are both cut up to disturb; they are especially carefully edited, with their scenes and music meticulously arranged, to leave the viewer with a sense of visual and aural discomfort. In “You Will Be Killed,” there is not even a specific melody. This technique of cutting produces a sense of anxiety in the viewer, a sense that is fitting for videos that deal with such disturbing subjects as violence, pain, and fear.