Interview with curator JW Stella* in the course of MENASA Art Fair, Beirut, 2012
JWS: What’s the link between ancient Egyptian art and your art practice?
KH: Well, my practice spans the mediums of painting, video, photography and installation. My principal obsession in my practice is “identity”; as an Egyptian I am living with a “cultural overload”, as Egypt is African, Middle Eastern, Arab, Mediterranean, with heritage that is ancient Egyptian, Judo-Christian and Islamic. The ancient Egyptian influence appears only in my painting practice, as 15 years ago I decided to refrain from the post renaissance laws of painting: composition, form, dynamic symmetry, shadow and light, etc.… Instead, I resorted to solutions that appeared in ancient Egyptian painting: solutions that enforced the narrative on the sophistication of mannerism and details. The principal objective was to tell a story. I grew up surrounded by books of those ancient Egyptian paintings of temples and tombs. With regular childhood visits to monument sites, I became inspired and influenced by the graphic narrative of ancient Egyptian painting. I am interested always by this capacity to tell stories, and do it on such gigantic scale, like on the entirety of walls. In my painting practice I try to simulate such narrative while using contemporary iconography, especially that of the advertising culture. I am interested in movement, an element that was indispensable in ancient Egyptian painting, where all painted elements were in motion, as opposed to Egyptian sculpture that always caught the protagonists in a “pose”, nearly always static. In contemporary culture dominated by a century of Western film and animation, the similarity between these ancient and contemporary forms of the kinetic is intriguing to me, and a focal aspect of my research.
JWS: Ancient Egyptian art, with the great respect of its artistic achievements and inspiration, it can also be considered as a symbol of propaganda or authority as well. (One can argue that it can be one of the current statuses of contemporary art scene as well.). I see this aspect appears in your works in a critical point of view rather than just adopting the traditional context. Again please tell me your thought on this.
KH: Indeed this is one of my profound interests that attracted me to abandon many of the “Western” –if I can say so– laws of painting. I try to explore the core of ancient Egyptian walls: the “why”, not just the “what”. Indeed those painted walls were power documents: the paintings recounted political propaganda, religious propaganda, true or false documentation of history, and an indispensable source of knowledge. By attempting to adopt simulation of those ancient laws while manipulating contemporary iconography, I try to break those barriers between past and present, between East and West, and between the sacred and the ephemeral.
JWS: Can this be linked with the socio-political aspect that often appears in your work?
KH: In fact, this attempt to bridge and abolish barriers of cultural and temporal nature spans all my practice. This aspect of practice transcends all mediums I work with; you will find it in my painting, video and photography. The social politics appears primarily in my video projects; for the first large video project Idlers’ Logic (2003); I wrote Idlers’ Logic between August and December 2002. The 24-minute film, shortly followed by the 5-minute experimental video Obsessive Compulsive Neurosis, depicts three idlers of North African / Middle Eastern features locked up in a space. We discover throughout the scenes that, though idlers, they are not without talent. The lead character turns out to be a trained singer, another character is obsessed by Hollywood action movies, and the third creates and plays indigenous musical instruments (the aboriginal didgeridoo). Through equivocal Arabic (Egyptian) songs, some of them created during the politically effervescent years of the sixties of the twentieth century, and through excerpts from slang phrases and stock images of televised news and commercial Egyptian films, the viewer gets a reflection of what flows in the minds of our three protagonists; we are able to navigate in a process of “socio-political revisionism” of the last four decades of regional history, tackling along the way the three Oriental Taboos: sex, politics and religion.
In my video Revolution (2006, Singapore Biennale) the experimental screen is split into the three colors of the Egyptian flag: Red, White and Black that represent the three promises of the Pan-Arab military coup-d’état / revolution: Social equity, Liberty and Unity. We learn throughout the 4 minute duration that what remains of the broken promises of the military revolution of 1952 are the social equity of the military gun, the pseudo-liberty of the multinational transcontinental corporate economy and the unity of chopping heads representing the worldwide rising right wing religious fundamentalism. For my other videos since 2006, I addressed –beside my principal obsession of “identity” research—notions of subjugation, war, democracy, and corruption and most recently the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
JWS: What’s the current issue that inspires your work as well as yourself?
KH: Since the beginning of the year I was overwhelmed by the current political situation in Egypt. I created my three-channel video that is currently on show at the Mercusol Biennale in Brazil, which is inspired by the 18 days that ended by the collapse of the regime in February 2011, it is entitled “The Video Diaries”. I also created a photo project from the shots I took from Tahrir Square during the same period of time in the photojournalistic genres; a set of those images is also shown at the Mercusol Biennale, and currently also on show at the French Institute, Cairo. Then I am working on two books of drawings and text that will be published before the end of the year, which is a project delayed for over 15 years.
JWS: What’s your next projects for 2012?
KH: I am currently working in a large project (Biennale or museum scale) with a colleague of mine, Josephine Turalba who is an interdisciplinary artist from the Philippines; her practice is almost identical as mine in terms of mediums, content and concept. Our project comprises three solid works: a video, a photo project and a performance (Josephine only). The video tackles guns/weapons as tools for subjugation and oppression, and the struggle of wealth and power characteristic of the neo-colonial forces operating today. Josephine’s approach in her work deals with personal trauma (her father was assassinated by corporate business mafia six years ago with 4 bullets, ever since she weaves those dresses made out of over 1500 bullet shells each dress, wears them in performance in cities and crowded places and documents in video), she plays sometimes “diwata” the goddess of the fields who comes out of her green mature to visit the city and back, all dressed up in bullets and shot gun shells, while my practice explores the role of the corporate, the military and the religious in formulating new social and economic realities in my society. So far, we filmed in Germany, Cairo, and soon we will film in Manila.