Interview with Arslan Mohamad for Harper’s Bazar Art magazine, 2011.

You said that “it is hard to have my studio work and art production unaffected by the daily events” and I guess this is a good starting point for us. Can you go into a bit more detail here and give me an idea of how exactly you have been affected? 

You know, four years ago I started to open my studio every Friday for younger peers for exchange and sharing best practices. On Monday January 24th for some reason (it was a Monday not a Friday) I had around 15 young creators and they were all talking about the demonstrations the next day; I was skeptic since I was programmed to not to believe that revolting leads to any gains on the political and social fronts. This proved to be wrong over the next three weeks, and life never became the same ever since. There was a premonition that life will not be the same as of January 25th demonstrations and the 5 days that ensued: including Friday 28th when all telephones and internet lines went down. For me life started not to be the same on February 2nd when I got the first mobile phone since the communication interruption announcing the death of our colleague, friend and peer video artist Ahmed Bassiouny. It was clear in my head then that I am passing by a paradigm shift in my political beliefs, and that everything political that I have been programmed with for over two decades is absolute and radical void. 

Ever since and back in my studio, the Friday open studio sessions transformed into a hard-core political studio, with number of creators and art professionals reaching up to 45, and our discussions are politics than art. To me, for the first time in my entire career, I practice my role as a citizen; I vote, demonstrate, discuss, teach and revise my own beliefs.


How has your work and practice responded to the situation? What elements of the overall situation have most affected you on a deep level and motivated fresh aspects and themes in your work?

In fact I fell in the same expected trap of resorting to the literal imagery to what we have witnessed in the Square; I started using media propagated imagery in my first paintings. The first two canvases/paintings I finished by early march –one large 450 x 200 cm and the other is 200 x 140 cm) had loads of images of demonstrators, tear gas throwers, tanks and other military activities. Though literal more than metaphoric, I felt comfortable with those. My later work resorted to less literal imagery and more towards my standard before-revolution more subtle elements. I must say that using “field imagery” or not, every painting has part of what I lived, one way or the other. On the other hand, my video practice is massively affected. I created a piece from Internet footage and footage I took, as well as from footage that other colleagues took during the 18 days. I demolished this piece at least 7 times since March; now I am editing it with Ahmed el Shaer, a great younger peer who worked with me before in two projects. I plan this video piece for the Mercosul Biennale in Brazil next September; it is three-channel video and each screen has parts of “field footage”. I always worked in my videos with stock footage from various media sources; in my current project I plan to adopt this approach again, together with self-shot footage and older footage from my own “premonition” videos. I think the most things that affected me during this revolution are the loss of life, and the amount of inert violence that humans can show to each other. Also the paradigm shift (I cannot call it otherwise or less) that I lived with my own political programming.


In what ways have you been part of the events this year?

I was in Tahrir Square as of February 4th, though I had visited the debris of the 25th on the 26th, to see what the State Security and forces of Central Security did as they violently evacuated the Square in the dawn of the 25th.It was like a soccer field after a derby final that went wrong. I went on January 27th too and managed to cross the square in my car. When I got the news of Bassiouny, something died in me; I felt angry and furious, and I knew I had to go down with those who may lose their lives. As of the 4th, I was among the rest of Egyptians, assuming my role as a citizen, not as an artist. I could not shoot a still image with my camera, not until February 8th when it was clear to us that we won, and that it was only a question of time. I went back to my studio as of the third week of February; I painted, and I was helping the coalition of young visual artists prepare a policy to topple the visual arts leadership, which they later did. In March and April, I finished two proposals for two new culture-non-for-profit initiatives for the same young artists; I am also part of a coalition for national cultural policy reforms; we meet with the objective of submitting a proposal for sustainable cultural policies to be incorporated –perhaps—in the constitution. Most important of all I do two things: work my creative practice like there is no tomorrow, and from time to time I join my peers back to the square when there is need for that.


Given that there is now an interim military government who I understand, are not paying too much attention to the art scene – is there a new spirit of freedom and liberation amidst the city’s artists, filmmakers, writers and so on? If so, in what ways are we seeing this – from street art to film screenings and so on?


How did the Venice Biennial Pavilion come about? Who was responsible for it and how was it prepared? What do you make of the reaction it caused?


How do you think – in the long run – the events of this year will change the art scene in Cairo, Egypt and perhaps in other countries in which there has been similar unrest and activism? 


Is this a major turning point for the region’s art or will it be likely that with post-September elections there will be again a climate of repression and caution? How will a new system of patronage occur in the future, in your opinion? 


Post-Mubarak regime, do you think there is the possibility of a sustainable art industry in the country with an infrastructure of patrons, galleries, dealers, and collectors etc., who can nurture and support the emerging wave of post-Revolutionary art? Or will this take much more time?