Interview with Gemma Tully

GT- Firstly what do you think about the divide in Egyptian art between Assala (traditional) and Mu’assara (more avant-garde) artists that Jessica Winegar referred to in Her book?

KH- Let me attest here that Jessica Winegar’s work is extremely important on several levels: first it is important to study those critical terms that were created and articulated at a certain period of time by local Egyptian critics and art writers, and on another level Winegar’s work raised the question if those critical terms are still valid today in the early years of the twenty first century, and could be applied on art practices of artists who lead today international careers in a continuously changing world, after September 11, the Afghani and Iraqi invasion by the USA, and the ever-rising right wing religious fundamentalism.

Egyptian critics in the sixties and early seventies created the sophisticated already-juxtaposed term of “Assala (autheniticity, with a meaning of safe-guarding historical heritage) and “Mu’assara (simply “being contemporary”); no one can trace the term to a particular author.

In the sixties, after the 1967 military defeat in what is known in the Western literature as “the six-days war”, and known in the Arab literature as the “military setback”, the theory and practice f Pan-Arabism started to collapse entirely. During the rise and fall of this theory, from the fifties and for a decade, there was (what we know now as) a Behavioral-change cultural program called “the National Project”, in which all artists and artwork in all arts had to serve the nation, serve the “revolution, serve the people; it was something like what is known in art history as “socialist realism” or “formal art” that flourished in the ex-eastern block since the Bolshevik revolution.

After the defeat, most artists of all realms of art abandoned this representational “National Project” and started to probe other experimental mediums; it was a period of total creative disorientation; there was a need for critical terms to guide the way or design a new structure for art criticism.
The term, Assalla and/versus Mo’asara, was then articulated in the eighties by critics like Ezz Eldin Naguib, Mahmoud Bakshish and Mokhtar El Attar, all trained as painters and critics in the fifties and sixties, only to criticize what was perceived then as too-experimental trends and new media, especially after the creation of the Salon of Young Artists in 1989.

During this period of time, the most widely used critical juxtaposition in the international art scene was “aesthetic versus the intellectual”, and the “sacred versus the ephemeral”.

GT-Do you think that this division exists and where do you place yourself in the grand scheme?

KH- For me the term can be still used, though it means a totally different thing today than in the sixties, plus, today there are a diversity of issues that Egyptian artists address today other than the old-fashioned term of Assala-versus-Mu’assara; today artists, including myself, address issues of identity, gender, social change, migration, etc, and we address those issues in sometimes totally different mediums and media.
In my painting work, I probe the notion of identity through the use of ancient Egyptian references and iconography, together with today’s consumer goods codes of icons. In my videos, I address my identity as a versatile entity of Egyptian-Arab-Middle Eastern through actors and choreography known in the local culture.

GT- I would imagine that with your photographic and video work, your other artworks that I have seen and the fact that you display internationally that you are more on the side of the Mu’assara.
KH- Indeed I am; the fact that I use today’s deja-vu advertising elements and I metapmorphose those into ancient Egyptian iconography, plus the diversity of mediums I use, all place me in this category, though I still have certain “Assala traits” in the choice of motifs, perhaps.

GT- I was also wondering why you think this divide exists and if those on the Mu’assara side feel that they have to consciously move towards the canon of Western art, and may in some sense lose a little of their Egyptian identity or expression of authenticity?
KH- This is tricky to some artists; see, definitely there are so many, in fact the majority of art graduates and many of the older generations of artists, still practice “safe art”, politically correct and all. Still TV and printed media cover portrait shows, landscape shows and stuff like that.
On the other hand, not all contemporary artists succeed in making and international career, not financially and not for fame. Only ten or slightly more can make it, and this is because they managed to move to the Western art system and NOT lose their identity; in fact I personally think, from my own practice, is that my very existence and sustainability in this system is linked to the “Egyptian” elements woven into my work; I guess the same applies for the others too.
What must be said here too, is that those local elements are not enough: there are rules of engagement in this field, namely the quality rule, and the continuous development and progress rules.