Culture

Purple ink, a beating heart, a wedding dress on fire

Interview

BEIRUT: For the past five years, Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy has been producing work at a prodigious pace. Since 2002, she has created more than five major pieces involving video, performance, drawing, photography and animation. Taken together, Kenawy's works carve out a self-contained system of images and ideas that echo off - and elaborate on - one another like variations on a set of inextricable themes. The fragmentary repetition of electricity pylons, trees, beds, tables, chairs, rats, infants, pools of purple ink, a beating heart and a white wedding dress cohere into sustained ruminations on life, death, marriage, alienation, freedom, entrapment, joy, sadness, violence, power and pain.

In addition to creating what some artists manage to achieve in a lifetime, Kenawy has been exhibiting extensively as well. Her work has featured in several biennials - Cairo, Alexandria, Dakar and Singapore - and high-profile group shows - "Nafas" in Berlin, "Some Stories" in Vienna," "Flight 405" in Beirut and the blockbuster "Africa Remix," which debuted in Dusseldorf before touring four cities.

Two weeks ago, Kenawy presented two video animations at the Creek Contemporary Art Fair in Dubai. She is showing a new piece entitled "Do the Angels Sh*t, Mama?" (inspired by a dream her son her described to her), in the group exhibition "Convergence," on view at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo through March 21. The arts foundation Darat al-Funun in Amman is exhibiting a veritable retrospective of her work - including the videos "Frozen Memory," "The Artificial Purple Forest" and "You Will be Killed," along with a performance of "The Room" - until May 3. Later this month, Kenawy is participating in the Moscow Biennial. Early next month, she is unveiling a new performance with projections for the Sharjah Biennial.

Such high levels of artistic activity and exposure seem logical enough. Kenawy is an Arab woman from a Muslim country and these designations are nothing if not fashionable. But Kenawy's work - as attractive as it is repulsive, as intriguing as it is deeply, utterly disturbing - so thoroughly trashes notions of "representing" the Middle East, the Arab world or women in Islam that any curator seeking an easy cliche would probably wither in confusion before her art.

The sheer weirdness of Kenawy's visual language - which strives to materialize the mental spaces of dreams, desires and doubts - frustrates expectations of what her work should be like, given her biographic and geographic profile. Instead, Kenawy insists on a fluid, dynamic artistic practice in which nothing is fixed yet everything is there to be read, connected and understood, even if only on gut instinct, emotion or intuition.

Still, what is perhaps most striking about Kenawy's prolific streak is that had you asked her more than five, 10 or 15 years ago, she may not have said she wanted to be an artist at all. Even now, she is shy to say: "I am an artist," and prefers to fall back on the more technical aspects of her work - "I am a filmmaker," she says. "I make animations" or "I do performances."

Kenawy was born in Cairo in 1974 and attended government schools, which she remembers as being rudimentary and lackluster. "The problem with education in Egypt is that it's not about what you learn," she recalls. "There is no way to discover yourself ... I mean, we would draw for every occasion. We would draw the Pyramids. We would draw for the Eid. We would draw for Ramadan. But it didn't really matter. Whether you were good or bad, art wasn't added to your marks." Her first real embrace of creativity came not through incidental art classes but by designing her own clothes.

"I designed my first uniform for school," she says, smiling. "My uncle had a clothes factory for mass production, and he did it for me. I was 6. It was very beautiful," Kenawy laughs. "Really, it was different from the others. So I wanted to be a fashion designer."

When Kenawy finished high school, there was no place in Cairo to study fashion design except a cinema institute that included historical dress in a section devoted to animation and decor.

"That's why I went there and I was so disappointed," she says. "I decided I should study directing but it was too late. I stayed [at the cinema institute] for two years and then I went to study in a faculty of fine art."

In the meantime, she had grown close to her brother Abdel-Ghany, nine years her senior and an artist through and through. "Abdel-Ghany is the kind of person who has art in his blood," says Kenawy. "Even when he was very young, you could see it in his handwriting." Later, it was obvious in his sculptures, which incorporated a wild array of materials.

Kenawy followed her brother around everywhere, and especially to museums and galleries, which, in the 1980s, were just beginning to exhibit modern and contemporary art in Cairo. Absorbing new forms of artistic expression on the move became her education, such that when she turned 18, "I realized studying art in Egypt was a waste of time. I decided to do my own research. From my first year in the faculty, I decided I'm going to start my work and I'm going to show."

At the time, the art scene in Egypt was for the most part state-controlled. Kenawy and her brother began collaborating on ambitious, sprawling sculptures. They rented out garages or worked in the street. They collected money from friends and family to complete all the finishing themselves. They won prizes and critical acclaim. But they had no hope of selling their work, and so they remained outside the system.

By 2000, Kenawy was ready to reconsider whether or not art was worth the effort. She was also, by that point, married and had just given birth to a son. She stopped working for two years.

"Me and Abdel-Ghany had something very special," she reasons. "But to keep working like this for seven years without any financial support or sponsorship was too long. I thought to myself: Shall I continue? What am I going to do if not art? What do I want from art? Why am I doing art?

"This time was very important for me. Maybe I wasn't very happy but I had the time and space to look at what I had done and what I wanted to do."

To think things through, Kenawy started keeping a diary. She never imagined it would become source material for her work, but it did. When Kenawy returned to work two years later, she did so with a vengeance.

"Frozen Memory," from 2002, marks Kenawy's last collaboration with her brother. Enigmatic and precious, it consists of a four-minute video and photographs that explore the transformations of birth, marriage and death through the symbols that stick in one's memory.

Since then, Kenawy has been working on her own. "The Room" and "The Journey" followed close on the heels of "Frozen Memory." The labor-intensive video animations "The Artificial Purple Forest" and "You Will Be Killed" appeared in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

It is tempting to read these works as an ongoing narrative that adheres to events in Kenawy's personal life. But she insists that while there are autobiographical elements at play, her pieces strive to code a more universal language.

"The Room," for example, is ostensibly about the restrictions of marriage but it also grapples with classic themes - the self versus society, the skin as a boundary between interior and exterior, the dialectic of beauty and ugliness. "You Will Be Killed," set in a military hospital built by the British in Egypt 30 years ago, takes obvious cues from war imagery but it also pares down the essence of violence to a power dynamic that pervades all human relations.

"Sometimes I wonder: What am I doing?" says Kenawy. "If it is wrong that my art comes from a personal perspective, then why do people in so many different places respond to it? I mean, I'm not a prophet, but when you deal with human experiences, this is what we call a universal language - outside of the cultural, the religious and the political - because in the end what we have are feelings about our lives and about ourselves. It's a reflection of what we are living but in the end pain is pain and joy is joy. Art is only the medium."

 

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