On Dispalcement, Chromosomes and Big Macs: A Trialogue

Online conversation between Alexandra Seggerman, Omar Donia and Khaled Hafez.


*This inteview was conducted as two separated dialogues between Alexandra Seggerman, Omar Donia and Khaled Hafez for different purposes. This fused conversation was approved by the three protagonists for the publication entitled Portable Nation, produced by the curatorial collective Chamber of Public Secrets for the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th International Exhiboition, Venice Biennale 2013.


OD – On Noise Sound & Silence, what a name! with seven solos in 2013 in seven cities, all projects with names like Moving Forwards by the Day (Meem gallery, Dubai) and Berlin Chromosome (Naimah Schutter Gallery, Berlin), you seem to entitle your projects in such a way since we were children. At the age of 42, and after 35 years, I can ask you why now.

KH- Books, books and more books, I guess the start was like that. But as ai grew older, I think traveling and writing added to this type of need to create a visual image just with a phrase. The power of the word is humongous I think; I am a firm believer with the power of the word. You may contemplate: then why not write a book? I would argue: I published three, two more in print, and two in the make. I think the word and the medium of text is getting to be an indispensable tool in the technical arsenal of the visual artist. I started drafting/scripting On Noise, Sound & Silence in Porto Allegre, Brazil in 2011. I did a smaller single channle version that explored briefly the notions of sound in withing urban, martime and inddor invirronments. I was quite happy with the work and planned to show it whnever the chance arised. For the 55th Venice Biennale, I could ot show it as I wanted to create a site specific piece that would express notions of personal memory and their fragility.  I juxtaposed fading memories that exist on islets in the mind to physical islands that are threatened by the inevitable forces of nature. I worked on travel footage from my linear memory; footage shot in two Egyptian shore cities, Hong Kong, Manila, Porto Allegre, Male, Venice, Turino and Dubai. The title of the work had to take you to those places.


AS – How did you select the works for exhibitions? Like for your last solo Moving Forward by the Day

KH – I am a studio artist. I maintain a military discipline and long studio hours. Since 2005, I go to my studio around 8.30 am every day and leave 12 hours later. I write a video/film a year, use installation and photography frequently, but I paint every day. Selecting the works is not a problem, as I usually— or almost always—exhibit works from one series of paintings or one project. For 

The Moving Forward by the Day solo all the works were executed within the six months prior to the show. Two large-scale works from an older (2010) project entitled Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements (& Overture) that were part of the site-specific installation commissioned for the 12th Cairo Biennale 2010 were also shown, as they shared the same reference as the whole set of canvases for the solo, all drew inspiration from the ancient Book of the Dead. The selection was done by Charles Pocock, Meem’s  managing partner and director and myself in my Cairo studio, though we had settled the production plan months earlier in Paris.


OD – And how does this process drive you as you work for a much solicited event like the Venice Biennale?

For Venice it is a different story; some events favour some mediums over others. I had to create something in a medium like installation, video installation, or develop a project that transcends a traditional medium. I had to resort to the studio pipeline, i.e. written projects that are delayed for production costs, then start a process to solicit such costs. I developed the project On Noise, Sound & Silence out of footage bank I have been collecting for several years now. I selected footage of the sea, sea shores and maritime communities. I wanted to explore issues of childhood memories and nostalgia. This is the third project that hovers over this terrain, after Visions of Contaminated Memories (commissioned by Sharjah Biennale 2007) and The Third Vision: Around 1:00 PM (2008 production, 3rd Guangzhou Triennale 2008 & 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale 2009). I think my studio pipeline has several written projects in the same line that are delayed for a reason or the other. I also think that one reason for my delayed video and photo-projects is my addictive daily painting and drawing practice.


OD – I was reading this article on a Middle East “sister” publication about “Arab Representation” in the 55th Venice Biennale. How does it make you feel when referred to as an Arab artist?

I think –and this is strictly my very subjective opnion– that what applies to me as Egyptian, and perhaps to certain artists who come from tangential points and from melting pots like for instance Turkey that lies withing Europe and Asia, you can describe from a geo-biological perspective. I am in fact Egyptian; which implies that I am African, Arab, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Egyptian (i.e.ancient roots); I am tainted with judeo-christo-islamic genes and whatever God (or whoever is up there) put in me and/or my chromosomes. I actually am an Arab artist after all; I am who I am with my Egyptian specificities. I guess it makes me feel like a mobile bank of ideas, thoughts, complexes, humour and an insatiable desire to live, to share and to learn. I am also African artist, Mediterranean artist, Middle Eastern artist, international artist, local artist, and just an artist. You remember our stories as kids: we were born Muslims, but our parents put me in an Irish catholic only-boys school because it was good education. Many years later they shifted you to a mixed school because it became a better education. at that time we all had Egyptian names, I mean secular names, Moslems and Christians alike shared similar names because the idea was to be Egyptian. It was a different time then, it is a different time now, but I believe that this is the beauty of being Egyptian; you are everything, Arab is only one part. 


AS – You recently moved your studio from the Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis/Nasr City to a new, larger space in Obour City. Do you believe that working spaces impact the work, if at all? What do you envision taking place in this new space?

KH – I kept my old Nasr City studio for twenty-five years; it was my first studio that I entered in 1987 shortly before my first solo show at the French Cultural Centre. In that studio I produced the first immature works, and later the works that launched my international career. It was a gorgeous space but small. That small 130 square metre apartment saw my twenty-one solo shows, twelve international biennales and at least twelve museum group shows. Everything has a lifecycle; spaces have lifecycles too. Before the revolution of 2011, I received younger peers every Friday for exchange and mentorship, hosting around an average of eight artists each Friday. The period after the uprisings of 2011 saw my small space transform into a political studio where artists, musicians, writers and actors came informally to talk about art, life and certainly politics, and many times we exceeded forty-five people in the small studio. The space was generous enough to tolerate my large paintings, my friends and me. My paintings grew bigger too in the past four years, precisely since 2009, when I started to exceed the 500 cm to 700 cm in horizontal dimension for some paintings; I needed a bigger space. So, the decision to move came in perfect timing; I have a two-floor studio now with a little garden, and my painting surface support is a gigantic wall that measures twelve metres horizontally and is almost three metres high. The second floor is for my video and photography, I have two small office spaces for administrative and archiving, plus my office for editing. I guess, as I grow older, I paint bigger, I use more mediums to express and I do a diversity of hybrid projects that require ample space. I craved for a larger space when I was working my gigantic Manifesta 8 project that was split due to space over two small studio spaces; for the 55th Venice Biennale, the space was just perfect for the production fo the three channel video and for the sculptural elements.


AS – In your particular case, do you see the importance for a working artist’s studio to be able to accommodate a growing community of artists who gather almost regularly? And, how do you see your role within this dynamic?

KH – Well, it is important to share best practices, especially that we have now in Egypt artists who move in the international art scene. My studio is not the only initiative that mentors younger peers. There are Shadi el Noshoukaty and Wael Shawky, but the three of us do three different models that vary between the formal and the informal, the way the studio perceives the artists and the way the artists operate/interact with any of us. There are other formal initiatives like Darb 1718 that host exhibitions and workshops, and other older models / initiatives that are more and more contested contested by many now as regards ethical practices, especially with funding. The younger peers who come to my studio informally move freely between the three studios and with other initiatives as well. I am neither a cult nor a sect and I do not like to be perceived like that. I never attempt to “teach” any of the younger peers. I rather work on the strengths and the individuality with each practice, and exchange with the artist who comes her/his concepts, sometimes techniques, and certainly of how to push the boundaries of the mediums they use. What I try to get them involved in is how to improve their extra-studio skills: linguistic, information technology, basic management skills, and how to employ these skills to present their work better. I wish I had found someone to guide me to those extra-studio skills twenty-eight years ago. I developed the skills over the years, by serendipity and through much harder channels, by doing all sorts of jobs: from radio announcer to TV translator, from graphic designer to advertising art director, from doing videos and printed material to the corporate to art producer for development projects in underserved areas of Egypt. I want to share those skills with artists at an early age to help them become full-time artists much earlier than I did.


AS – How have the Arab Spring and the political upheavals in Egypt over the last two years impacted your work? 

KH – As everyone else, I was seduced at the beginning, and I produced some painting surfaces immediately after the uprisings. We (everyone in the art community) have lost two artists, namely Ahmed Basiony and Ziad Bakir. Basiony was a friend and colleague, and this closeness led everyone to think that it could happen to any of us or our siblings or children. Feelings were mixed and confused: from frustration to the desire for vengeance, from pride and dignity to distress and tears, from instant happiness to a successful revolution, to overt hatred to its kidnappers. I was seduced like others to create revolution art; I succeeded at times and less at others. I am proud to have done The Video Diaries, the video work that has been shown at the Mercusol Biennale, Brazil (2011), the Havana Biennale (2012) and at a solo video programme at Hiroshima MoCA, Japan. I stopped using uprising imagery in my painting very early, as I personally did not like the results, my own results, as I was never a believer of tailoring art or physical representation of events. Today, I have lost interest in the uprising events, particularly since late 2011 when I felt that the revolution was kidnapped by regressive forces. In 2012, I created the series On Codes, Symbols & Stockholm Syndrome, where I reverted back to exploring elements of the complex Egyptian identity: the African, the Middle Eastern, the ancient Egyptian, the Arabo-Islamic and the Mediterranean. I call this complex identity the ‘Big Mac Theory’ of Egyptian identity: cumulative layers stuck between two layers of bread; I am/we are the bread. We carry this cultural overload in layers: we host it in our bodies and our minds, in our collective memories and in our conscience. The series did not include any direct visual reference or insinuation of revolution or any similar collective actions. 


OD – Your works, especially the video works were not always politically correct. While your painting –and I here am statistically speaking—thrived with the Egyptian contemporary art scene, or at least it did till 2012. How do you see yourself as a part of this almost renaissance-like movement?

KH – if you look at the story form the beginning, I think it may make sense. I believe it is not a coincidence that the interest in Middle East contemporary art practices started after September 11, 2001. With the –then– American administration and the decision to lead a new “crusade” of the “free world” against “terror”, I think the “real people”, and I mean by those the whole world who is not in the American administration, anticipated the disaster, and tried to look for activities and event that would initiate a dialogue and enhance bridging between East and West. The 9/11 disaster was just the peak of misunderstanding between “components” of certain cultures, and sage voices would look then for methods to dialogue, while some interested parties would ignite war. The question then was: As an artist, where I am in all this?. I had been working in my studio for over 20 years. I started my career within a state-funded art movement, what we in Cairo call now “the official establishment”. This establishment became futile as we progressed in our careers. I personally could not just answer questions about “ local aesthetics”, or enter in debates of “the heritage versus modernity” and similar obsolete critical termes that still in fact prevail today as they did fifty years ago. I wanted to probe the social changes happening in the nineties, the new behavioral traits in the society shaped and marionetted by the bombardment of media propagated imagery and the advertizing universe. In the nineties, then among others, I decided rerain from counting on this official establishment. I started exhibiting in private galleries in 1996 with the then Cairo-Berlin gallery (now closed down after the demise of Renate Jordan, the German owner). This early “weaning” from producers and funders forced me –among others—to be autonomous and finance our own art productions that was not always, as you say, politically correct. My videos since 2001 addressed consumer behaviors, democracy issues, subjugations, political leadership, revolutions, funamentalism and elements of the sacred, all in an ironic approach, but not forcibly in a manner favourable by neither the old nor the new regimes. I personally do not care. I will do as I want even if I get in trouble, I cannot do otherwise. I do not think of myself as resistant to anything. For years I approached my own political and social observations with irony, and that was harsh to some, but it does not make me a freedom fighter, I am just an artist, and this is part of my role as an artist.

Painting is a different story; by default, painting has unique aesthetics, and is accessible to painting collectors who are not always the general public. The general public, across all age groups, interact more with video and film.


AS – You mention that you appropriate icons from local, regional, and international contexts. Do you envision these having different meanings/messages in each context?

KH – I have for long attempted to break what I perceive as the barriers between ‘East’ and ‘West’ and between ‘Past’ and ‘Present’, as well as between the ‘Sacred’ and the ‘Ephemeral’. So I appropriate images from contemporary advertising and film and morph modern iconography into ancient hybrids. I believe we live in a period of cultural recycling: recycling historical pictographs, ideograms and iconography and transforming those into modern forms accessible a to contemporary audience, and vice versa. Certainly it helps to create a personal and an accessible narrative, comprehensible to audiences from the East and from the West, or in other words: both local and international audiences. Age groups is also an issue, as I believe that we are having a technological revolution reminiscent of the industrial revolution. Generations born after such universal moments have nothing to do with generations that were “programmed” before. 

OD – Do you think that the international interest in the Arab / Middle East art exist today to stay for some time, or will it wear off after some time?

There has always been a pattern for this “interest”. I personally could always sense a three-to-five years pattern, especially that the international art scene gets new players every few years too. Twenty years ago there was nothing called “independent curator”; the game involved only the artist, the gallery and the critic. Today there are curators and there are museums and there are major collectors and the giant insttutions. Remember that Germano Celant in 1967 was introduced as “critic” when he proposed the Arte Povera movememnt artists, the same applies to Achile Bonito Oliva when he introduced what he described as Transavangardia. They both were playing the parts of curators then. Roles and names and titles change, and powerful players enter followed by auction houses. There is a whole new economy there, and only time can tell. If a powerful Arab / Middle East  infrasctructure, with galleries, museums, collectors and major institutions is created, the interest will be self suffcient and sustainable. Only if.


AS- I very much appreciate your ‘Big Mac Theory’ of Egyptian culture, as this multi-layered heritage also drew me to study Egyptian art in 2008. You mentioned that the people are bread in this metaphor. In Egyptian, ‘aish means bread and life – do you see any connection between this linguistic similarity and your metaphor? Also, in your opinion, what or who is the ‘special sauce’?

KH- this is a very important reflection, indeed. Bread means ‘Aish and this hosts the layers of the Egyptian identity that cumulatively weaves and forms ‘culture’. The layers of the Big Mac in my theory are the geographical position that no one –and I mean NO ONE—can deny as this has been the map since the beginning of written history. Hence, Egypt is African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and partly Asian as Sinai (one eighth of the country) lies in Asia. Then layers of history that are also undeniable: Ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Arab. To me the juicy sauce comes from the cumulative layers of faith: pagan, Judeo-Christian, Islamic. There are additives, and those are spices that come from invasions. in fact sometimes when I reflect from a cultural anthropology perspective, I refuse to call them invasions: I call them “comings”. Those comings have enriched and left traces on the Egyptian language. Twice Persian in ancient times, twice Greek at two different parts of history, twice Italian as well, Turkish, French and British. The Egyptian dialect has several to several hundred words from each invasion, no matter its length.


OD – Back to On Noise, Sound & Silence: what are those to you? 

KH – those are the exact and very precise sounds of the mind. You have your memories in color and in sound, but those pass by a strict cosmetic surgery filter which is the storing mechanism in your memory centers. The retreival process has clean sounds and has perfect images in vivid colors. How does that happen is what I try to represent in this three channel installation. I used small areas of projections on the wall to simulate family projectors. The projectors and wires are assembled in the middle of the room just like any family projection, far from the white cube effect. I must confess that this was not at all how I designed the site-specific video installation. It is through in situ dialogue with Alfredo Cramerotti that this final assemblage was attained.