My country is where my opinion is respected

When you arrived in Florence, in an extremely hot August, you quickly began researching images and postcards from World War Two, and German-Italian relations during this period. Could you tell us something about your interest in these materials, and the point of departure for your research?

When I was in Kassel, Germany, I had the good fortune to come across some postcards from World War One and World War Two which had handwriting on them. They were interesting for me, as I love intimate things like this, which carry traces of former human feelings and contain part of their owner’s soul. But what also made them interesting is that there are people in many of them, like they were photographs more than postcards. I asked some German friends to help me read them, but they were not able to, which made them mysterious and even more interesting to use as material and as a starting point. Then, after returning to Alexandria, I was working on a project called Fiction, dueling on the interplay between memory, knowledge, image and our awareness of time and space. It was a video which presents personal history as a collective narrative. The text, culled from both real and fake testimony, alludes to the subjective construction of memories, and is overlaid onto wide shots of an empty building, its features firmly placing it in the past. At the same time, it is animated by a lonesome child who skips along hallways and down steps. So history started to be an interesting subject for me, and as what was basically my first long trip away from home took me to Germany and then Italy, I started thinking about the relationship between World War One, World War Two and Germany, Italy and Egypt. I began reading about the subject, visiting places around Italy where there was combat during the war, and shot some videos there, hoping to be able to develop a whole project out of it.

When we met briefly last January in Alexandria, you told me that your only previous trip abroad had been to “Thessaloniki Biennale”. But a lot has happened in 2012: you participated in a very active way at “dOCUMENTA” in Kassel as part of the Cairo group of art assistants, and then, just a few months later, you took part in the “Cairo Seminar” [“The Seminar”] in Alexandria. What was your experience of this busy period in the eye of the storm?

It has been a really intense year for me. I helped to coordinate the start of the 2012 MASS Alexandria programme(1), and also working on preparatory studies for my MA, and being a student in MASS Alexandria, which meant attending lectures, talks, workshops and critical sessions by super smart and active artists, curators and art educators, besides working on my own project. Then I was selected as one of the students to go to Kassel to be an art assistant as part of the Cairo Seminar [Studium], which gave me really great experience, being close to all those great, talented artists participating in dOCUMENTA 13. I was helping with Theaster Gate’s Hugenottenhaus project, which was indescribable… absolutely amazing! All I can say is that I was so pleased to be part of the house family. Then, as you said, I went back to Alexandria to prepare for The Seminar, a really great opportunity that took place in Alexandria, which was especially important given the critical phase Egypt is going through. The seminar participants were curators, art educators, philosophers, writers and artists, and the talks, lectures, presentations and screenings were limited to those participating and to us art students, except for two public sessions at the Goethe Institute in Alexandria and in Cairo. After the seminar we had to finish our project to mark the close of MASS Alexandria 2012 with an exhibition, which was the video I also showed in the Open Studios at Villa Romana. Then I packed my bags for Villa Romana in Florence, Italy.

One of the most shocking statements you made in Florence was that you liked Kassel – or the people in Kassel – much more than Florence. Can you explain what you mean by that?

It was kind a shocking to me more than anything else, as I thought Italians would be so much like Egyptians, I mean helpful, and that the language would be easier and that this would facilitate my being there. But what I really found was that I liked Kassel more: everything was more organized, easier and quicker, and the people there were not all practical and with no feelings, as I thought before I went to Germany. Maybe it is because Kassel is a small city, but I think it is not just the city but people’s behaviour. Anyway, I liked it more, and found the people more friendly than Italians. I do not know, but if I were to chose to move to another city to live, work and study, I guess Germany would be my choice.

In your portfolio you describe very precisely a point of no return, when you hated everything: education, painting, yourself … and then you found new tools, new questions, new means of expression. Was it all about a rather restrictive and conservative concept of art which surrounded you?

When I was still studying at the academy and before MASS Alexandria started, I was kind of confused and I did not know what to do… I was rebelling against the education system but with nowhere to go, and the fixed image, which is the standard in college, no longer interested me, or maybe it was just that I could not express myself anymore through painting, and other media were just for fun, not for art.. I had not had any other access to contemporary art before MASS. Actually, I had not even heard the word before, as everything stopped at modern art, and I did not know what came next! Everything and everyone, even all the books in the college library, stopped at the modern art era, so as a reaction to my conservative professors and the whole academy system, I began to hate everything. After graduation I tried to find alternatives, though the college hired me to work as a teaching assistant because of the excellent marks I had received throughout my five years as a student. So when MASS started I did my best to find my own way, though it was unclear to me, and I used all the tools I found to explore myself and to discover what I really believed, far away from any pressures or prejudgments. That was my starting point.

In your recent video you reflect an image of yourself through the eyes and voices of others, mainly your former teachers at art academy. It combines social judgement and text with images of the institution’s architecture and a little girl wandering along corridors and down staircases. Why did you use the figure of a little girl?

When I think about doing a piece of work, I spend a long time researching it, and asking myself questions like: Why am I doing this? What is the point? But when I start doing it, I feel like I want to do this or that, I am visualizing things and start becoming excited about it, and when I get to this point I just do it and then think about it later, because I believe that after all the reading, researching and thinking about the whole thing, my subconscious knows best, and after finishing it I start analysing things and saying: Why did I do that?
But after all it is just art, not science, it is about sense more than words. As for the girl, maybe I felt that she is very similar to me when I was young, maybe she represents what I feel now about being small and still being a child inside. Perhaps she represents all the pure meaning I lost in the various educational institutions I have been to, especially the one where I filmed my video (the academy). There is no particular meaning or certain explanation.

You have been back in Alexandria for ten days now, and in your recent email you wrote that you are going to take German lessons and want to emigrate. That you feel, you no longer belong in the place where you grew up. Now, at the time in which you feel like this, less than two years has passed since the fall of Mubarak. Is there a link between your personal situation and the politics of your country?

Sure, there is a link. Of course it is not that after Mubarak things are better or worse. It is just that before the revolution I had kind of lost hope, or did not think that people would revolt one day. So I was kind of hoping to leave my country, but with the feeling that it was the government’s fault. Now it is different, because everything is supposed to have changed. But there have been long years of bad education and poverty, of people making the wrong choices, driven by their own needs, and no matter what is tried, the problems are deeper than you might think. So it is not just about revolution, it is about the people themselves, and after electing the Muslim Brotherhood party as a governing party talking in the name of god (who they do not know), I really hate the situation. We have always been a moderate country, and now they want to change it into Saudi Arabia or something like that, so it is getting really hard for someone like me. I hate to be told what to do, or to be governed by people who just want money, but in the name of god. I am far removed from all of that. What is also confusing me are the people themselves: they want nothing more than food, and have forgotten everything we dreamed of and were almost on the point of achieving. And you can apply this not only to normal life but also to the academy! So I feel I do not belong here anymore. My country is where my opinion is respected and I can find an outlet for my work, not where my family was born.

One final question: you spent three months at Villa Romana. Did it feel like a long time? Is there something you took away with you from here?

It did not last so long that I felt settled, but nor was it so short that it felt like a trip. But it was peaceful and productive, and it enabled me to get to know more about myself, what I really want and what I need to work towards. I guess the inner peace I felt at Villa Romana will strengthen my will to pick myself up again whenever I feel down. That was the best thing I got from that really nice little German-Italian place.

(1) MASS Alexandria is an independent study and studio program for artists in Egypt, founded in 2010 by the artist Wael Shawky.