Interview with Curator Alexia Tala* for the Mercosul Biennale 2011

E-mail Interview with Curator Alexia Tala* for the Mercosul Biennale 2011


Khaled Hafez is an artist from Egypt who lives and works there. His work and the personal experiences are fully interconnected. The social and political realities of his environment have prompted him to consider both the past and the present Middle Eastern and occidental history. I feel that his practice although it has a recognizable Middle Eastern scent and although Egypt is far from our familiar territories, it relates in many ways to our reality in Latin America, yet another territory with extensive zones of silence.


AT: Knowing that you were born to a Muslim family and that you are now close to Sufism.  Would you say that Sufism is an integral part of your life?  What are the aspects of Sufism that you are most interested in? Does it come out in your artwork in any way?

KH: Indeed I am born Muslim, but the time was different; it was a secular progressive modern society the least description of which is to say that it was far from conservatism. My parents put me in a Missionary Irish Catholic school in Cairo; it was excellent education according to their perception and religion was not an issue. I think everything changed after the assassination of Sadat in 1981, with the rise of conservatism, and in some communities of Egypt fundamentalism. The assassination was significant as a marking stone in time for the whole country, after which all liberal and progressive political currents were undermined by a rising right wing religious discourse. For me the assassination was significant because I saw it on real time live TV, because I grew up in Sadat’s time, and because my father, a recently doctor in the Egyptian army at the time of assassination –and who has fought four wars in army hospitals on the frontline– was supportive of Sadat in his peace initiative. Weeks after the assassination I joined medical school at Al Azhar University; until that time religion was not the least in my mind. At university I had to study theology and comparative religion, and some Islamic studies alongside the medical curriculum (and of course fine arts that I studied behind the backs of my parents and without their approval). By my graduation in 1987, I came to the conclusion that I am born without the genetic receptors for organized religion. I came out with questions more than answers, questions that defy logic; I guess it is the notion of “belief” that always missed: I have problems believing in miracles, but I respected all belief, the belief of others, and those who believed, including parents at home.

Sufism is the closest to my beliefs, indeed, and I came to it by serendipity, if there is such a thing. It was because of art: in 2009 and 2010 I was researching and creating a project for the European Biennial Manifesta 8, when I discovered the history of Andalusia (known as Andalus in Arabic and in Spanish). Sufism emerged first in Andalus then spread to the rest of the Muslim world in the latter part of the first millennium and the early part of the second. I think –and this is my personal theory, not science—that Sufism was developed by the fusion of the organization and social justice of Islam that came over the land of Andalus that hosted the love in Christianity and the perfection in the craftsmanship of Judaism. What I like in Sufism is the perfection, meticulous yet global approach in matters of life and the personal approach to the divine expressed through love, tolerance and accepting the differences in the other. I think I approach my artwork with this desire for perfection and lengthy process, whether I succeed or fail is beyond the point. I do my absolute best to have my work reflect how much I am in love with what I do. I am attracted by those elements of Sufism, rather than the practice of religion.


AT: What are you aiming for when you overlap different layers of iconic images?  What are you hoping to get when you take from ancient Egypt and cross-reference with American superheroes, such as Bastet the goddess of domestication and Catwoman?

KH Well, I believe that we are living a culture of visual recycling; as humans we have lived enough in civilization to have seen almost all visual intake there is existing. One hundred years of cinema and 60 years of television helped us see almost everything there is to see, plus printed and broadcast media. In the nineties I discovered that if you look at a model Anubis (the god of mummification and the underworld) and a model of Batman, you find “wild” morphologic similarities: half naked torso, shorts, muscles, the ears are also identical from front and back. More than that, they both assume the same function: protection against evil. Same for Bastet, goddess of domestication with a mask of a cat, and Catwoman; Gebb, the green-colored reclining god of the earth bears a resemblance to Incredible Hulk too. Here I do not claim that all those comics copied from ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, not at all. I believe that when icons of mythology were first created, they immediately crossed borders, seas and oceans, were hybridized to fulfill and fit the cultural specificity of the new host land, then matured over centuries, then crossed borders again, new seas and new oceans to some new host community. The process is repeated over and over, till in the second millennium we see them coming back in a more modern form to fit the civilization. The initial iconography, now altered by consecutive hybridizations, appears in the form of comic strips, and the superheroes assume the roles of ancient gods of mythology. See, there is a nice fact to know: ancient Egyptians invented painting as we know it today; before them we had drawing and sculpture, cave drawings, rock drawings, all expressive and all recount a story. Ancient Egyptians were the first to paint a wall from ceiling to floor, and to recount stories in those paintings, and to enhance the narrative, they illustrated the paintings with text, and the scripts/texts with paintings. This practice sustained for 3200 years with the same rules: flat, graphic, kinetic, colorful and always with text to confirm the story. Aren’t those the comic strips we have now? Except that those ancient murals and their iconography had also other functions: to narrate the military victories, to brag religious propaganda, and document the daily life of the ancients; almost like documentary film today.

Fifteen years ago I started appropriating images of advertising and manipulate/metamorphose them into ancient gods with same visual resemblance. Here I use the “essence” of ancient painting and sculpture practice: the idealization and idolization of the human bodies. Ancient painted and sculpted the human form in perfect proportion even if this was against reality; this is called the “Idealist” school. In my painting, I started to use bodybuilders for male figures and anorexic top-models for female figures; aren’t those our ideal forms today?


AT: I remember as an Art student living in London I was always expected to think in terms of a Latin American. I recall Yinka Shonibare saying the same thing happened to him at college, where although he was born in London and had lived there for many years, tutors would push him towards “African Art”. Do you feel you are expected or pressured to produce work that is highly recognizable as the so-called “Middle Eastern Art”?

KH: You know here we are talking about the issue of “labels”; I am very liberal there, and I do not feel the “allergy” many artists feel when –curatorially—they are selected for their heritage and not their practice.

For me, and this is absolutely personal and subjective, I do not mind labels except in certain conditions. Let me explain: I always used a particular term to describe the Egyptian identity. I call it “the big mac theory of Egyptian identity”: Egypt is African, Middle Eastern, Arab, Mediterranean, and those are all undeniable layers that you cannot miss; there is also the Islamic and Judo-Christian religious aspects that “taint” this cumulative identity, they crown and sauce the layers, like mustard and ketchup. So, here are my rules for accepting curatorial selections: first, I never tailor works, and never change what I am doing. I am a studio artist and I do what I want and feel like expressing in any medium I want, without suggestions or orders from anyone. Second, I do not mind being part of shows that are about Middle East or Africa or the Arab world or the Mediterranean as long as those shows are curated and thematic, and they are not just like “a bus with Arab artists”, artists who have nothing to do with each other. The label “Arab” or “African” does not bother me if the projects are meaningful and when I do not have to change my regular practice, as long as I am faithful to my daily studio practice. I did what I had to do throughout my career, and in the nineties, I sold less than 5 paintings because what I did then was not commercially attractive, I never cared and I never changed what I did.


AT: In the last European Biennial Manifesta 8, which was a very sharp show where the aesthetics of journalism, of war and violence prevailed, your work was commented to be one of the few that observed this relationship between Southern Spain and Northern Africa through a positive lens. Would you say that due to the harsh environment you are living in which is in constant conflict, you intended to highlight the positive side of things?

KH: In fact the project for Manifesta 8 is a landmark in my career, and I owe it to the curatorial collective I worked with, Chamber of Public Secrets, that helped me experiment with a project that challenged my daily praxis. I had never created a work from scratch within a theme, the challenge here was to create a work, that is personal and yet falling within the theme and at the very same time would be faithful to my studio practice and I would be comfortable that I “am not tailoring” a project. I had always, for years, wanted to work in the “docu-fiction” genre, always wanted to experiment with audio narrative, and always wanted to work about the subject of “mysticism”. The fact that Manifesta 8 was hosted in Murcia and Cartagena, the cities that were integral parts of the ancient Arab Muslim Spanish Andalusia helped me write the project “Dwelling Andalus” that had the components of video, audio, public talks and performance. One of my production obstacles was how to develop a project within a diversity of media over a period of exhibition time that look coherent and be still within my personal praxis. I worked with Manifesta’s theme of “dialogue with North Africa” and found in my research that over centuries the movement of migration existed between the north and south of the Mediterranean; I selected and found brilliant Sufi figures who were born in Murcia and Cartagena who travelled south to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, to live and die in Egypt or continue to live and die in Damascus. Along the way those figures, like Ibn Arabi and Abul Abbas Al Murci taught, wrote and educated thousands of disciples. This movement of voluntary migration and tolerance between Europe, Africa and Asia in the twelfth century was a statement to reflect upon with todays forced migrations and human rights violations in the twenty first century.

Manifesta 8 was a learning experience for me in research and a painful one in exhibition, as I was not very happy with the display, but looking at the half-full cup, I am content with the knowledge I acquired and disseminated. I came to work with Spanish Sufi academics that helped understand the history and modern times Sufism.


AT: It is almost amusing to see in the art fairs I visited during the last year in Europe that the “exotic of Latin” and the “exotic of Islamic world” are being looked at so much by the international art scene while we were so hidden for so long!. The connection south-south is not a usual one. How do you feel as a Middle Eastern artist to be showing in Latin America considering this is a south occidental show without being mediated by the centers?

KH: Indeed this interest in “South art” –or for political correctness “art of the south”– is phenomenal. I have been exhibiting for 24 years, and until 5 years ago, this international interest in Middle Eastern art was out of the realms of imagination. I think with the political/social turmoil, though disastrous to some, helped the world be curious about this part of the world. I think also the media-propagated imagery of what is happening daily in the Middle East since September 11, 2001 helped wise Western voices to try to explore the cultural aspects of the region. I am sure the same happened with Latin America, except that the interest in Latin American art happened earlier. I was in Cuba twice, once in 1997 and once in 2010, and in both times I was curatorially involved in bringing works of other Egyptian artists to Cuba. In Cuba I felt at home, with extra music in the streets. The political post-colonial history of modern Egypt since the independence is very much similar to that of many Latin American countries, and I think perhaps this is why the reception of the Egyptian artworks was extremely warm and well written about in the printed art publications, and the audience and professional were curious. On the professional level, never have I shown in any Latin American country except for 2010 when a couple of my videos were shown in the culture center of the Bank of Brazil.


AT: Some time ago you predicted, in your interview with Predrag Pajdic, that the interest of the international Art scene for Middle Eastern production was going to last “perhaps” until 2009. We are now in 2011 and I see that the interest is only increasing. Any comments on that?

KH: I was referencing recent history of the art market. The usual average of “interest” lifecycle is around 5 years, plus or minus. I think the sustained interest in the Middle East region is that its social politics never fails to surprise the world; a couple of moths back 2 revolutions, and perhaps in one year from now the whole region will look different. So my judgment in my interview with Predrag Pajdic was not fully accurate because this region is in continuous effervescence.


AT: What would you say are the effects of cultural globalization in Egypt today? Do you think the same effects are throughout the Middle East? What about Africa?

KH: I think globalization touched the whole Middle East and Africa with equal forces but the results vary according to cultural and economic specificities. Egypt was touched first because of the peace initiative of 1978 and the decision to stop all military confrontations; this helped multinational-transcontinental corporations and foreign economic powers to invest in the country. With free economy comes consumerism. The Eastern parts of the Middle East, countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and others were affected after the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait Gulf war, when Western corporations penetrated in the multibillion-dollar strata in the sectors of construction, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and fast-moving-consumer-goods. The Satellite/cable media helped universalize the language and culture of consumption through systematized marketing and advertising. Eventually some elements of local cultural specificities are lost and replaced by a unified globalized visual and audial langue comprehensible to newer generations. Look at Facebook and twitter and other social media networks; those are both an element of globalization. Both are capable of instigating revolutions and ousting governments. This is the bright side of globalization I think, the fact that you cannot hide or cover-up dictatorial acts.


AT: Some years ago you were asked: How did you imagine your country in the future? Your answer was that you had faith in an eventual political change. I would like to ask you the same question. How do you imagine your country in the future now, after the recent happenings?  Or are you just enjoying the present and the sense of freedom?

KH: I see and smell change J and perhaps a model of democracy that will be difficult to adjust to at the beginning. Gradually an acceptable model will be devised. Indeed we managed to replace the sclerotic political regime, but it will take time to demolish and replace the system and the way all of us think. I think the theories of change management will apply: the four stages of “forming-storming-norming and performing”, where at the beginning we change, then people storm and fight and conflict and be confused, then there will come some time where people will learn how to talk and dialogue and plan together and accept each other, and a final stage of performance as working citizens, a step that will lead us to a better economy, and perhaps authentic freedom.