What has make you step in the art world ?
J Nice start ; i guess i was five when started with wax and pastel crayons to draw on the walls ; my first memories start when i was three, there was no art then, but i remember my father, who was a doctor in the army, taking me to watch bon fires on the Kasr el Nil bridge along the Nile, he was in his military suit; my very second memory when he was posted in algeria as part of the technical support Nasser was giving to the newly independent Algeria ; i drew and painted on the wall as far as my energy and height took me ; i was always punished since my parents had to deliver their Alger apartment in the very same state they received it in ; i never seemed to learn ; and i never stopped since then.
I was of course forced to study medicine as both my parents are physicians ; but i studied fine arts behind their back concurrently ; they never knew till i was already exhibiting as a professional.
The word and ideology of the « icon » is recurrent in your work, what is your relation to it ?
I was born muslim, but my parents put me in an irish catholic school ; i twas the best education at the time ; i twas a totally different time then ; i grew up with muslims and christians ; we even had one egyptian jewish colleague at shcool back then, called Michael ; we envied him because we (both Muslims and christians) all hated the religion classes, and he was the only exempted student/pupil.
I started hearing the word « icon » in my childhood, in my parents’ friends’ homes, at school, and in my own friends’ homes.
I grew up to know that those icons were first created in egypt, since the monestary system and the convent institution was created in egypt in the deserts of Zaafarana and Beni Sueif to escape the Roman persecution at the time. The icons philosophy is even ancient egyptian ; some archeologists lin kit to Akenaten and his religion, since Akhenaton prohibited sculputre and painting (exactly like findamentalists do today) and only allowed imagery of himself, or his « sacred self » and his family as representatives of the one and only God, Iten (pronounced wrongly as Aten).
I got obssessed by icons as i read art history ; i mean ancient art history. There were only two schools of art in ancient Egyptian history of 3500 years B.C. : the Idealist School (and that was developed, survived, declined, revived, rejuvinated and re-shaped several times throughout 3500 years).
The second school is the Realist School (survived at best for eighty something years only, with a golden age of 28 years).
When you study the painting and sculpture of the Akhenaten era, you find that he is pictured standing with a perfect golden circle representing the solar disc behind him (in Coptic then Byzantine then Western Christian iconography this disc/circle became the halo of saints).
With the early Christianity in Egypt, and with the Roman persecution of christians, believers use to escape to the desert, stay in caves with their small images of their Gods, Lords or saints, all called icons at some point in time. It later became a mediterranean business to paint and sell those small hand-painted icons.
In my work, i believe that we live today in a process of cultural recycling ; we sanctify figures of today in accordance to our needs, the same way we previously handled our gods and saints.
In my painting i manipulate ancient gods to represent the sacred, since i personally do not know how GOD looks like, but i know how we previously symbolized God or gods according to what was needed then. Perhaps now we need ONE mighty entity, before i twas more of a superhero narrative, where every icon, god or saint had a role to play in an entertaining narrative.
Your paintings are made of collage confrontring imagery of the ancient Egypt with contemporary consumption symbols and images from media and advertising, what kind of link do you intend to draw between both ?
I think this question is crucial to get to my work ; i like to break barriers between Past and Present, and between East and West, and between Sacred and Profane ; manipulating imagery of today’s consumer’s goods culture, mostly american in nature, and juxtaposing those with ancient Egyptian gods allows me to attain this destruction of barriers.
When you look at Batman (as an american superhero) and Anubis (God of the underworld) from the front and the back, you will be surprized that they look identical ; the only difference is in profile ; but the interesting part is that both icons/superheros have the same function : protection against evil forces.
The same goes for Catwoman and Bastet (godess of domestication, the sesual female figure with a mask of a cat), and so many other symbols of Hollywood-mediatized heroes who represent consumerism and their ancient Egyptian very sacred counterparts, who represent everything sacred and worshiped.
The whole thing is a process of visual, ideological and cultural recycling.
When i paint, i stopped long ago making sketches according to rules and laws of composition, form, shades and light, sicne those are post-renaissance rules, that appear and disappear sometimes even in the most contemporary pf apinting today ; i use instead the graphic designers’ methodology of lay-outing : in fact an ancient egyptian approach of painting, where all elements are placed in trial-and-error manner to create the best narrative. I let my Anubis metamorphoses into Batman thus eliminating the notion of Past and present, East and West, Sacred and profane. Body builders and top-models metamorphose into gods who were once sacred ; this allows me to mingle fiction with reality too, in an alternative reality.
The contemporary symbols you use are not particularly or typically egyptian, rather universal symbols of standard beauty, glamour coming from the west, is it a way to denounce or affirm the fact that the exportation of culture mainly from the United States has shaped a kind of global popular culture, where batman, superman or marylin belongs to everybody and are not west, or east ?
Absolutely : it is just that i never judge, and as the management guru Dale Carnegie said over 5o years ago « never criticize, condemn or complain »; i have no answers neither in my painting nor in my videos, just loads and loads of questions.
One of the things i find most entertaining whie i create the imagery is the creation of my own personal narrative; one intriguing element is the physical impossibility (or difficulty) of having a perfect body: in glamour as in body building, you get only perfection that has nothing to do with real life ; girls and women all over the world are not and cannot look like top-models; men like myself are not in the perfect physical shape as the images we see in media ; top-models and body-builders become a reality of their own, and a fiction as well. We starve and get anorexic to lose weight to look like this reality, or this fiction J
It is a real-life fiction, perhaps the only time in history. Those perfect figures become icons, become sanctified, and in my painting they metamorphose to Gods, universal ones J
The way you use collage to create another discourse out of the consumption culture propaganda symbols make me think of the artist Richard Hamilton, the British Pop art Pioneer, were you influenced by his work ?
I am influenced and inspired by Pop Art as a whole ; to me i am influenced by Warhol, Tom Wassleman, Robert Indiana, and of course Richard Hamilton ; Hamilton creates his narrative / world almost entirely with collage ; i use a lot of paint as well.
I always say that i have five Gods (since our interview is about gods) in art who influence me : i am obsessed with Robert Raushenbeg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Igon Scihle, Gustav Klimt and Picasso. Most of my painterly techniques are derived and overtly adopted from those figures.
In video, a few film-makers i rank as gods: Stanley Kubrik, Bernardo bertolucci and Claude Lelouche. It is one film of Claude Lelouche that made me one day decide to work in the film/video medium, and that is the 1992 production La Belle Histoire. I saw it even before Itiniraire d’un Enfent Gatte, that also left a massive impact on my visual techniques and writing-for-video.
In la belle histoire, all protagonists who lived during the early christianity, including Jesus himslef, move to the end of the twentieth century, and all assume the same functions and do the same activities they did 2000 years ago. This notion of history recycling fit totally with my own obsessions.
Actually you also sample in your paintings, works or imagery of other visual artists to mix them up with political or religious arab icons, is it a way to say that popular culture is finally ideal cause you can manipulate it to make it speak any language or transmit whatever you want ?
Those elements were excusively well known paintings of Rene Mgritte, Andy Warhol, Joseph Kosuth, Kazimir Malevich and Yves Klein.
The use of deja-vu paintings, distorted according to my very pwn personal interpretation were used only in one painting project of 2002, entitled « Marylin, Kazimir, the president’s necktie and Batman undressing to go to bed » ; this is the title that featured on the advertizing poster of the Townhouse Gallery where the project was first exhibited. Apart fromt he works of Magritte and Malevich, all other works belonged to a part in post WW2 historry happening in New York and financed by US State Department money. Concurrently we, in Egypt, had the Pan-Arabism ideologies, on of only three major Socialist National movements in modern history (two collapsed, Nazism and pan-arabism, and one sustained, the Kemalism of srcular Turkey today).
This particular painting project was sort of visual revisionism, to have an alternative look to my very own history, since i lived the defeat of 1967 (the six days war) which witnessed the official collapse of Pan-Arabism.
The State Department money had to do with the rise of visual trends, and the collapse of certain ideologies ; and remember, as an artist i have no amswers whatsoever, just loads of questions.
Egyptian culture and history is about sacred icons and gods, are they still alive today in people’s mind or just some kind of old legend ?
If you live in Egypt, any where in Egypt, for a year or two, you will notice that i sis omnipresent in the culture, and in some parts it is deeply founded and embedded. The only difference is the type of imagery: we have presidents, ministers, mayors, and what they call in sociology «opinion leaders» and «community leaders» ; those feature today in grffiti, billboards, clumsy wall drawings and the outside walls of mud-brick houses, along side the narative of how the owner of the house went to Mecca for pilgrimage by boat or by aeroplane.
As for ancient Gods, in some parts of Egypt, in the folk mythology of regions in the Egyptian South, some practices are linked still to pagan religions : especially for fertility, longivity and fortune-seeking. With the collapse of Pan-Arabism and the rapid rise of fundamental Islam to fill the ideological void that erupted after the military defeat of 1967, all non-religious folk / culture is fought and crushed by fundamentalism.
In my own painting practice, i revive those icons as a way to revolt against fundamental ideology.
Considering the main media you use, painting and video, you describe yourself as a painter using video, talking about video and as an image-maker talking about paiting?
I personally approach each medium differently ; when i occasionally teach i say that «medium dictates the contents»; though after all i am the same artists and i have the very same obsessions and i tackle particularly the tricky notion of «identity» in both painting and video, but each medium has its ow rules ; identity in my painting revolves around the ancient Egyptian an dits links to today ; while in video i am very much involved in my Arabo-Islamic-Middle Eastern identity.
Technically i use my own old-fashioned approach of filmmaking : i write extensively, i draw or paint every frame, then after weeks or months of ruminating over the text, i start to shoot, and usually shooting takes one or two days.
To me the pleasure lies in the process of making the work, not just the final product, be it film or painting.
It is the act / verb of painting that makes you a painter, not the final painted work J.
Your videos are also composed like a collage, but tend to focus more on the contemporary issues affecting the egyptian society today than your paintings?
Painting to me is very emotional, it is nearly carnal, physical and loaded with ecstasy and pleasure; video to me is very mechanical, industrial and requires certain technical skills and competitive perfection; it is devoid of emotions since i write, write and write again, correct, correct and correct again, shoot, shoot and shoot again and the same for the long process of editing; loads of thinking and little emotions.
Of course there is inspired painting and less good painting : it is like the difference between making-love and mating for breeding J. In video, the audience can NOT see or feel the moments of pleasure ; in inspired painting you can see the pleasure and the relation, the joy and the amusement.
So in my videos, i condense and concentrate my visual messages into few screen minutes, so you get this feeling that it is charged with social issues; it is true in fact.
In painting, messages in visual codes are not condensed in one surface; i paint and tend to elaborate, a process that cannot be done in video because in the process of filmmaking, money is involved: studio time, equipment-rental, and other related issues that requires summarization NOT elaboration.
Again as you see, the medium dictates the approach.
You insert samples of films in your video, sequence or sentence, from the egyptian cinema of the 50’s, How do you relate to the egyptian film culture, compared to american, European films?
First i cannot compare American film, no matter how serious, to any european film J
I cannot compare Federico Fellini, Roberto Rosellini, Paolo Paosolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders or Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Claude berro or Claude Lelouche with any American filma maker of the same period of social and political history. There are fantastic American / Hollywood movies, but european film of the fifties and sixties shaped the whole social map ; egyptian film played the same behavioral change role in the fifties and sixties ; i use though a lot in my video work stock footage from the advertizing, film, soccer of the late sixties, and the early seventies ; post the 1967 defeat till 1975, the time when the official propaganda machine was adopting Gobble’s theories of media brain-washing of the masses. At that time, to force people out of the political mainstream, all official broadcast and printed media were about soccer, soft-core religion, viually-tantalizing film, as well as meaningless talkshows ; this is the audio-visual stock i used for Idlers’ Logic (2003, 24 minutes).
In my 2007 production Visions of a Contaminated Memory, I used the stock images and audio recordings of the same propaganda machine of the last 40 years : i worked on the images of Sadat’s assassination, an event i saw live on TV when i was 18, back in 1981. I used also audio and visual footage of the previous 3 presidents, Naguib, Nasser and Sadat ; i used footage of El Kaeda’s Ayman el Zawahri, as well as of George Bush.
The image of the hollywoodien final kiss scene in commercial movies is a gimmick in your work, why using this image as a signature?
This kiss was my favourite element for my collage/painting project Visions of a Rusty Memory (1996-1999 mixed media on canvas), an dit also was omnipresent in Idlers’ Logic (2003 video). For the painting project, it was to announce that every footage has been seen before, to announce that everything has been seen before, to summarize a whole message in the final conclusion : the kiss.
For my video Idlers’ Logic, the kiss was used differently, to represent « sex » in the egyptian Arabo-islamic culture, one of the three taboos : sex, politics and religion. I tackled the three taboos in Idlers’ Logic ironically. The long kiss in this video, (around 30 seconds) happened 30 years ago between two actors : they girl is veild now and the man is has a beard and dresses up in the standard fundamental dress code ; in real life those two persons went religious ; this still defies all rational thinking for me.
You have also started to work with installation, actually extracting symbols and objects from your collage or videos to exhibit them as icons or fetish star objects, like the gun, the hammer and the knife of your video revolution. Is it a next step for you ?
My first installation was back in 1989 in my forst solo « a tale of two leaos » at the nile gallery (a public space that does not exist anymore) ; i twas also a sculptural installation where an assembled sculpture was attached to every part of the ceiling of the gigantic gallery like a giant spider web. In 1999 i made my second installation in my third solo Prisoner of freedom at the Cairo Atelier (a gallery for the society of writers and artists) ; the installation comprized a real skeleton (decades before Damien Hirst’s skull J) and writing on the wall.
In 1999 i had a solo of two installations at the Guezira Art Center (another public space) : Halfway Home, that was about the past swallowing the Present, and the Electronic Gods, where everyone could look at an installed mirror and see herself/himself as a saint with a halo, be a saint for a second and then leave the gallery with a golden hallo in her/his hand.
Two installations followed in 2000 and 2001 in the first and second Nitaq festivals (Cairo Art Festival), then I stopped installation fro a while ; i had nothing to say in this medium for a few years J.
I came back with my installation Contaminated Belief at the sharjah biennale and the Occidentalism show, both in 2007.
Do you think that the imported cultural flow has prevent the emergence of a new generation of arabic icons?
Not at all ; i believe that if change is stronger than tradition, then i twill eventually prevail ; and if tradition is stronger, then change will never happen ; if we apply this thought to your question, i believe that the imported cultural flow was simply stronger than the prevailing culture, this is why we could not, for centuries, come up with an alternative culture. I believe that this is changing now; this region, the Arab Middle East, has something very interesting to offer today ; new and authentic visual iconography is being created and developed.
I remember in one recent interview i was asked about the inspiration of the West from Eastern motifs in the past ; i see that history is about cross fertilization, like a long-term dialogue : i inspire you, you create and develop something based on this inspiration, i consume it, assimilate it then get inspired from it, then i create my own thing that you start to consume and assimilate.
Today, the Arab middle East is in a phase of production ; for decades it has been in a phase of consumption. That is all ; everyone on earth is equal J.
Sex, religion and politics are hot topics in the arab world and in your work; generally speaking they are the subjects together with money that actually make the world talk, how have these taboos evolved in egypt?
Throughout history this has been the dynamics in every society, in one way or the other.
Back in 1968, Europe then the USA had the luxuary of the sex revolution, with the May 1968 movements in europe, the political assassinations in the USA in the sixties surrounding the anti-segregation movements, then the worlswide red socialist sweep.
Before that, every corner of the world had the same three taboos J.
Though Egypt may seem no exception, yet it is really unique : there has always been this beautiful decadence in the air that allowed a massive mixity and a stupendous tolerance ; everything was (and still IS) allowed behind closed doors, and everyone gets away with it J
During the gloomiest fundamentalist moments in recent decades, there was enough liberty (and libertinage) in private circuits, very well known, and a very tolerant cohabitation protected that. I guess this is the crucial shield that protected creativity, free thought and freedom of expression despite the appearances ; remember the four Egyptian Nobel prizewinners, three of them were/are living in Egypt not outside.
In my work i love to work with those taboos in a combination of subtlty and overtness, only to attain the highest level of irony. I ONLY use deja-vu stock imagery that is VERY accessible to the lay person. I NEED that everyone knows that i touch those taboos and that the work touches the level of danger, yet is never dangerous enough to put anyone in prizon : i crave for the smile of the audience, both in my painting and my videos J
Egypt has undergone many changes and many different influences since the late eighties, from pan-islamism to capitalism, how does the young generation make its way and build its identity inbetween those two loud forms of propaganda?
You must see the six music channels a la MTV; the arab version is much more decadent in content, and much more sexy and sexual. On the other hand you must also watch the hurrendous amount of religious programs on all those satellite / cable channels, all targetting the same age groups as the MTV-like channels ; we see the young generations torn between what is prohibited (by divine laws) and what is very much allowed ; you see a tremendous wave of veiling girls, anda t the same time an equal wave of catastrophic delinquent behaviors. This, in my opnion, is due to the ideological void created after the defeat of 1967, aggravated by the new social realities of changing national and world economies in the seventies leading to rising right wing religious movements ; the eighties and nineties saw a conspicuous decline in Middle Eastern / home values, and today we live in an overt identity crisis and confusion.
I think the tragic events of September 11. 2001, and their equally tragic consequences of clash betwween East-West, may have a positive impact after all on the long-run. Those events drive everyone to wake up and try to see what is happening in the other camp; this will eventually lead to the emergeance of a generation that has a vision to create a language understood both by the self and the other. I see it today with the new generation of mid-career and emerging visual artists, and of the arts in general; those are and will be the new prophets J.