Dressed in a dapper blue black suit, crisp shirt with briefcase Haled Hafez sits at odds with the riotous surroundings of his studio – where tables, cupboards and chairs – almost all available surfaces are plastered a dense papier mache of images. We see pinup girls placed alongside ads for Ponds face cream plastered over headlines such as “Privacy Issues” and “Boiling Point” worlds which look as if pulled from a tabloid version of Good Housekeeping.
Hafez creates powerful body of video, painting and installation, (is) powered by juxtaposition, and he is as fluent in the language of popular culture and as he is in the socio-political history of the region. Even a five-minute conversation will easily spiral off into a spirited discussion of Egypt’s role vis-à-vis Soviet-US relations or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ role in helping to preserve the cultural relic of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt.
A visual communication instructor and a founding member of the Middle Eastern art journal Contemporary Practices, Hafez has earned strong reputation as both an artist and a thinker. His works are part of the Saatchi collection, and he’s shown in the Singapore, Sharjah and Dak’Art Biennale (Senegal) at in This Day at the Tate Modern. Middle East-based art critic and writer Rebecca Catching spoke with him in his studio in Heliopolis, Cairo.
Rebecca Catching: Your film Idler’s Logic features several characters that are wasting time or idling. What interests you in the concept of “idlers” and who are these idlers are they based on characters you know?
Khaled Hafez: my initial research involved Egyptian films, theater and soap operas. The film and theater institutes were nationalized by the state for censorship, but they developed a way [around the censorship] – they went into satire comedies to critique the official military establishment in the sixties and early seventies. There are so many subtle phrases, such as, “Whoever marries my mother, I will call my uncle”. It’s not my uncle but the husband of my mother. Immediately when we kicked the Russians out in 1972 we became married to the Americans.
[In the film the] the two characters don’t talk but play with the image-of-the-Arab in some Western perception. One is playing with handguns; the other smokes marijuana: the typical clichés of consumption in American movies. All the Chinese and the Arabs smoking loaded cigarettes. It’s an Arab today but could have been a Hispanic two years ago.
In those ten shots you don’t see a single word between the people, one singing one playing a didgeridoo; he is the guy with the marijuana and this guy obsessed with Hollywood who plays with the guns. Here I put the formula with Hollywood movie, the shot of guns, hot sex scenes, but there are no women so I have this guy holding the didgeridoo between his legs and trying to massage it and saying here is your formula, and does it work to make a movie? using Arabs who didn’t invent marijuana didn’t invent handguns.
The idea started after September 11, 2001. I took my first trip to the US in July 2001. There were four artists and one curator. It was six weeks before September 11. We were so impressed with the US because we learned that the American people have nothing to do with the American foreign policy; Americans have nothing to do with what we see on film – where everyone is thin, blonde and perfect. You discover that this is a country like anywhere else. I have been travelling in Europe since 1984, but not the USA; of course what you see in film has nothing to do with reality. It’s not a cliché like Dallas and Falcon Crest. It was a paradigm shift for me. We stayed three weeks, New York, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Los Angeles and Springfield Massachusetts. Why did we go there? Because the international visitor program was doing it before for engineers and agricultural people before and they did the same program for the artists. Basically I love Massachusetts; my father loves Kennedy and he believes that if he had survived the whole Middle East would have been different. The person I sort of idolized was definitely JFK long before the polemic of the film with Oliver Stone. My father felt that Kennedy and Khrushchev would have been friends, and Egypt should not have been part of the cold war. Back in 1958, when it was clear that they [the US] would not finance the [Aswan] high dam and military regime, Egypt went to the Eastern block; After JFK and with LBJ, Egypt continued to stay in the Eastern block.
When I came back I was so positive about the US as a country of potential, not like the images we see with Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but then with 9/11 we get this shock. We saw the tower collapsing on TV. I, among other artists, spontaneously sent faxes to the US embassy expressing condolences, hours before there was any news about Islamic groups. After 9/11, there was Bush and Giuliani, the neo-cons of the Republican retaliation and the crusade of the clash of cultures. Then we start to hear about Arabs having troubles in airports. Because of the fact that I am called Khaled Hafez, in Greece I had to strip off half-naked because there were metal buttons on my shirt. I am an artist so I never took it seriously and I never made a scene, but I can imagine how this can be painful if you have nothing else to worry about. There was this discourse everywhere of what it is like to be an Arab in the West.
But the problem is not within the West the problem is in me, it is in us. There are the Irish with the IRA, Spanish with the Basque people, and many other groups all over the globe, all devising bombing and no body talks about them. Then definitely the problem is not only in the West, definitely there is something else, very local that intimidates “the other” and labels “me” as terrorist. The global perception is that we are regressive or backwards.
I always talked to my father about the coup in 1952. The Egyptian Pound was two piasters higher than the British at the time. Several countries coming out of the war [WW2] were in debt to the flourishing Egyptian economy. We were a rich country with poor people; today, after sixty years of military-political experimentation we became a poor country with poor people.
Now the Egyptian pound is one tenth or 1/11th of the British pound. Egypt is always looking for aid – in similar conditions eventually you cannot sustain yourself, you cannot cultivate your land; anyone who is not autonomous cannot claim to be cuddled when you pass through airports.
Throughout the whole world passports are treated differently. I was in Pennsylvania and had to go to Italy; there was me – green passport – and two Chinese with red passports and this beautiful African American lady that says, “Ladies and gentlemen this is a random check,” and only the one-green-and-two-red passports are checked; all blue passports are left to proceed. With Idlers’ Logic, the critique in the video claims that it would be a lost cause to improve from outside; we have to improve from inside.
RC: Your research into francophone creative communities in Africa sounds fascinating. Did it ever find its way into an artwork?
I have a whole project called “African Memories” – after my first trip to Senegal in 2004. I work a lot with symbols and iconography; the project was more painting than collage. I felt full of energy to work.
RC: Iconography plays a strong role in your work. Can you tell us a bit about some of the symbols you use and how they found their way into your work?
KH: I trained formally with figurative curriculum and with two Egyptian painting gurus: Zakaria Al-Zainy and Hamed Nada who were brilliant professors as well. I did nudes and portraits and I adopted the painterly habits. I worked in total abstraction abstract until 1995; when I lived France from 92 to 95 I was flooded by photo-culture imagery: photogenic, photographic, photophilic, whatever. When I came back in 1995, I found Egypt flooded with a similar phenomenon of imagery, but more chaotic. The visual culture in Egypt changed when those new cable networks came over. Something clicked and I started using figures from advertising.
Eventually I moved in to mixed media paintings using advertizing iconography. I believe that had ancient Egyptians discovered photography they would have used it.
Back in the eighties at the evening classes of the fine arts school, my professors were stingy with colors; every color had to be studied and tested before application on canvas. They were very sophisticated. I owe it to Africa in 2004: colors were everywhere, and my painting practice went colorful because of my visits to Dakar in Senegal, Douala in Cameroun and Bamako in Mali. Before my colors were studied and subdued and subjugated, then they became full-blown red, full-blown blue full-blown green. My local inspiration sources also played a part: these newly discovered tombs in the Saqqara site of the step pyramid. There are three discoveries full of color and intact. The ancient Egyptians used to sketch in red and the draughtsman would come in black and correct and the sculptor would use the chisel on the black.
Years ago in my work I discovered that I don’t forcibly like the post-renaissance rules of composition. It’s like “what’s next?” In the post-renaissance system you have dynamic symmetry laws and rules, composition, light and shade, form and so forth; while the ancient Egyptians did two dimensional painting which was very simple and extremely aesthetic: the paramount importance was to create a narrative.
You have movement that it is very flat. For 3,500 years artists and artisans did flat graphic-like gigantic paintings that were two-dimensional; in my own theory, they didn’t want people to fall into the trap of aesthetics. The painting had to convey a message, and it should transcend the trap of over-beautification;
The movement and the narrative played the most important part. In the ancient Egyptian painting culture every single part of the wall has to be painted. There was movement from one side to the other and there had to be a story.
In my painting practice I try to adopt the samce conceptual framework of the ancient artisan: I extract the images from advertising and give them another life, another role and another part to play in a different league, on my canvas. My painterly techniques are inspired and derived from painters whom I consider GODS in capital letters: Robert Rauschenberg and Jena-Michel Basquiat; I believe that with or without knowing it, they attempted to break the post-renaissance laws of painting, and they approached, somehow, the ancient Egyptian spirit of painting. Their brush strokes that they adopted and developed from Picasso: the controlled drip, the brush print, the texture and the raw visual nature of color, I use those a lot. To me they are my inspiration and I am adopting their almost patent techniques.
RC: In “Halfway Home Electronics Gods” what is the significance of fusing the keyboards to the mirrors?
That was my 1999 installation; there were keyboards and the screens were replaced by mirrors, there was also a golden halo suspended from the ceiling; when you looked and attempted to type on the keyboard, the natural relex is to look at what would be the screen; in the mirror you see yourself with a golden halo around your head. This was what makes you an electronic god for a second. I was basically playing with the idea that anything you have in life, even religion is marketable or salable. I am not criticizing; I am just observing. You have this “electronizing” of religions, with the “Islam online” and similar websites, as well as conservative Egyptian orthodoxy church cable channels; you have all of these DVDs that promote religious stars, all promoting fanatism.
RC: You are an artist but also a writer as well; how would you say the two mediums compare stack up in terms of self-expression.
HH: in the nineties I wrote about contemporary art in lay publications; I have over 200 articles published about the local Egyptian younger generation of artists of the nineties, but then I realized that I was losing a lot of my time and creative energy; artists started to treat me like a lesser artist, and like I were a-sent-by-God-to-serve, so and I said, “Okay guys you handle your own shit”; It’s not my fault that I have an extra part of my brain working. Today I am in the Saatchi collection.
Recently I went back to be published in the Middle Eastern art journal Contemporary Practices, mostly because my brother became the GM, and partly because my career today is not at risk. My writing today is more academic and referenced, much different than what I wrote back in the nineties at the Middle East Times.