Interview with Randa El Banna* for El Masry El Youm Daily, January 2014
RB: To start with, let me ask you about inspiration in your art practice. How, who and what inspires you?
KH: On the role-model level, I am inspired by certain painters that I consider Gods of the art: Picasso, Gustav Klimt, Igon Schile, Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Michel Basquiat.
On the career model level, I am inspired by the careers of interdisciplinary artists like: Gerhard Richter, Anslem Keifer and William Kentridge. On the level of the content, every medium in my practice derives inspiration from different sources: for my painting, I am inspired by ancient Egyptian walls, and I try to decipher the codes and symbols on such murals. I also simulate in my painting the rules and methods the ancient Egyptian painters used. For the content of my video, I am inspired by the narrative of filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Claude Lelouche, Stanley Kubrick, tom Tykwer and Bernardo Bertolucci.
My core research focus is the exploration of the complex nature of the Egyptian identity, one that is a composite of African, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Arab, Islamic, with ancient Egyptian and Judeo-Christian traces. In my current video, photography and other mixed media works, 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 a contemporary culture dominated by a century of film and animation, the similarity between the ancient and the current contemporary forms of the kinetic is intriguing to me, and a focal aspect of my research. In my painting, I use imagery of body perfection and treat them to reflect metamorphosis and the movement from one state to another; for the male figures I appropriate images of body builders, and for the female figures I use images extracted from advertising and from cheesy commercial tabloids. The images are enlarged archival color and black and white photocopies and silk-screen prints. The choice of the image reflects always the perfection of body proportions, a criteria used in all Mediterranean mythology, and a trait that does not represent a significant proportion of ANY majority of any population living today. This approach provides for my desire to mingle fiction with reality. I link imagery of the ancient iconography with deja-vu contemporary advertising elements; the icons/images are manipulated to insinuate metamorphosis. I believe that we are at a point in history where there is cultural recycling: visual, conceptual, beliefs among other aspects.
RB: You totally changed your career, as from what I know you completed a degree in Medicine and a specialty degree then abandoned the clinical practice. What made you make such a change?
KH: There was no mind-change at all. I studied medicine and fine arts together. I did the evening classes of the Helwan Fine Arts School from 1982 to 1988. I had my first solo in 1987 before I turned 24, while I was still a medical student. I quit the clinical medical career 1995, after a Master Degree (M.Sc.) from Egypt and two diplomas from Paris South University and Rene Descartes University in France, and then I had to take this decision. I abandoned all clinical practice, and worked in pharmaceutical marketing, where in fact I learnt computer graphic design, video and filmmaking. Throughout the years, all jobs I did started gradually to phase out and I never stopped exhibiting during all those years. In 2005 I took my full time studio practice.
RB: Now a question about the revolution; something you have been accustomed to in the past three years. What do you think about the revolution, and –if at all– such an event had a direct impact on your studio practice?
KH: I was influenced by the events in 2011, indeed, but I am not inspired. By July 2011 I turned my back to all the events and took all political elements out of my artwork because it was clear for me that regressive forces and similar groups are stealing the revolution. I must also say that I disdain art related to particular events; this type of art is very much reminiscent of the songs created for particular national events to be broadcast by official TV channels. This is cheap art that does not live. Despite my belief in the total uselessness of this type of creative practice, I –among many other artists—fell into that trap of using iconography of the 2011 revolution into two of my large paintings. I regret having done that now.
RB: When did this passion for Ancient painting start? Did you start reading about ancient Egyptian history to use it in your art, or was it like you liked ancient Egyptian art and started using it and reading about it?
KH: As a school child in the late sixties and early seventies, going to the Egyptian museum was the only official outing. So my interest in ancient Egyptian painting and sculpture started as early as I liked painting, precisely when I was 5 to 7 years old.
RB: Today, in the twenty first century, who do you perceive as your targeted audience / group for this art?
KH: “This art” entails painting, video and film, photography and installation. In fact, when I do art I do not think of target audience, and I do not think of sales, collectors and/or acquisitions. I just have thoughts and ideas that need to be expressed in painting, film or photography or any and all other mediums. The principal obsession I get when I work is to get those thoughts out into an artwork in the most complete way; it is like writing a book; a book has a beginning and an end, and in between there is a long process of lay-out and character shaping, editing, changing, elimination and addition till the whole work is complete.
RB: Do all people understand the symbolism in your artwork?
KH: “Symbolism” is such a gigantic work. I would rather use simple description as “codes” and “symbols”. Not all people “understand” –if that is the proper verb to use–, as not everyone is interested in art. I can say comfortably that my artwork, be it painting, video/film or photography, is quite accessible because I do care about creating a solid visual narrative into my work, a narrative that would be attractive and comprehensible to me before anybody else. This is precisely why I resort to irony in my painting and film. I need to smile and laugh and be happy when I work. It is a “need” not a “want”. I enjoy every bit of my practice and every inch of my career, and I enjoy it with a smile on my face, a smile of happiness and content. This needs to be reflected in my work, whatever the medium is.
RB: Why do you combine western modern figures and icons with ancient Egyptian symbols?
KH: When I was 20 I started traveling alone to several European countries with a back-pack; it was the time before AIDS, bio-terrorism, techno-terrorism, Ossama Bin Laden, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, September 11, the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, before “exporting democracy” and long before the Americanization of the Arab Petro-Gulf. Questions in my mind at that time were more about discovering the West I studied in the official history books, the colonial West, the liberal West, the democratic West, the socialist West, the human rights West, the West that represents the free world.
Several years later I became immersed in creative art practice. I never could stop taking images, using images, manipulating images, all coming from Western magazines. I used collage and image transfer techniques, for that I drew inspiration from and I owe a lot to the conceptual approach and to the great techniques of artists like Robert Rauschenberg that helped me find my own technical voice, to juxtapose images of East and of West, searching all the time for tangential points, areas of similarities and differences, trying continuously to find/create a language capable of representing ideas legible to both East and West. In my research I try to bridge between both cultures to attain a synergy of power for both languages to move together forwards rather than to clash if movement is in opposite direction.
RB: What do different people abroad think of and interact with Egyptian art, if such an intricate question can be simply answered of course?
KH: There is no one “abroad”. My works were superbly received in Brazil, Cuba, Germany, Sweden, and Italy, in several parts in the USA and in UAE. I had questions around my work in Spain, Belgium, Senegal, Cameroon and Mali. The reactions and interactions are always different. I take those different reactions as a nice surprise that need an artist-audience dialogue.
RB: I have a question about the local market in Egypt. That market flourished, speaking statistically, from 2005 till 2011. After the events that accompanied the new revolution in 2011 the whole issue of local market, sales and acquisition is uncertain, in fact moot. Do you think people in Egypt still collect, and if so, is it more from established artists or more from the burgeoning strata of younger artists.
KH: Of course there is still a market after 2011. The movement of collecting art started around a hundred years ago and never stopped ever since. Collecting as practice may slow sometimes, my go on a spree other times, but it never stops. The collectors are Egyptians, international or regional, and are either serious collectors or occasional. I think for that Egypt is unique, because sales in Egypt from artists’ studios and local galleries are much more authentic, and propose a true value on the long run, and is much more secure than following an potentially insecure phenomenal figures coming from regional auction houses.
RB: Is the official establishment responsible for culture in Egypt helping in any way to develop art in Egypt before or after the revolution?
KH: The ministry of culture, since its inception under different names in the past eighty years has been helping in supporting and developing artists in various ways. In the past four decades the support is insufficient, and artists are many times supported by philanthropists, and more recently through corporate social responsibility. Yet on and off a great project happens, like the Salon of Young Artists that started in 1989, and project by Farouk Hosny and Ahmed Nawar, the then top two figures on culture and the fine art sector.
RB: What is your perception of flourishing graffiti practices that became conspicuous since 2011?
KH: I personally think that graffiti is an ancient Egyptian practice: Egyptians invented the practice of “painting” as we know it today, and illustrated texts with painting and paintings with texts. The ancient painting carried political and social messages like graffiti today. I personally followed the graffiti works of artists like Keizer and Sameh Ismail for over a decade, long before 2011. Ganzeer was very active too. After 2011, other great names in graffiti art became known: Ammar Abo Bakr, Ganzeer, Tenneen, Aya Tarek, among others,
RB: Among artists, who do you think was influential in the revolution using his/her art?
KH: I personally like the work of Nermine Hammam and Marwa Adel in manipulated photography, the painting of Huda Lutfi, Adel El Siwi, Ahmed Kassem, Mohamed Moftah, Shayma Kamel and Amr Heiba, and the video works of Ahmed El Shaer and Mohamed Abdel Karim. But as a general rule, I do not like artworks tailored for revolutions or any art linked to uprisings or art precisely created for a national event. I prefer art created in studios as a result of a lengthy thinking process and linked to long days of hard labour. This art is much more serious that art linked to revolutions.
* Randa El Banna graduated from the Faculty of Applied Arts, Mansura University. She is an art writer and currently follows an MFA degree in photography, design and advertising at Helwan University.