ART & CULTURE
By: Alexandra Kinias
The MENA region is experiencing an explosion in the Digital Arts thanks to the growing number of talented and innovative young artists who are making their mark in their respective areas of expertise. “I see real growth for digital art in our region in the coming years. You can feel it already. Most artists are using digital media to create their work, and as technology is growing, so would the digital art movement. I believe so. What makes digital art in the Middle East special is that the artists choose unique concepts and ideas to reflect their own culture”, says 37-year-old Egyptian art curator Elham Khattab.
Following are the inspiring stories of four digital artists from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
ASPIRING TO BRING CHANGE TO THE ART MOVEMENT IN MENA
A graduate from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, Elham Khattab started her career in arts management in 2005. Working mostly with Egyptian visual artists, she realized their needs to develop their projects professionally. Khattab stepped in to fill the void, and her work has evolved since then to become an art curator, organizing displays and exhibitions in Egypt and around the world. With a clear vision, belief in change, perseverance and hard work, Khattab not only made a name for herself in curating, but has also contributed in shaping the visual and digital art industry in Egypt.
Khattab founded Out of the Circle (OOTC) Organization, “to help young artists get out of their circle to explore different environments and experiences.” The brainchild of this initiative was a collaborative project between Cairo and Damascus. Together with Syrian Curator Abir Boukhari, she organized a ten days’ workshop in Damascus, in 2008, “before the war.” “The idea of the project was to offer Egyptian visual artists an opportunity to live outside their normal circles, explore a new culture and environment and produce visual work inspired by this experience,” explained Khattab. OOTC was attended by six visual artists, three from each country. The artists worked side by side for ten days and an exhibition for their work was held in old Damascus at the end of the workshop.
The success of the project propelled Khattab to pursue a curating career. With the absence of curating studies in Egyptian Arts Universities, she studied art curation in Europe for four months. She received a two-months’ internship in arts mediation and curation in GFZK Gallery for contemporary arts in Leipzig, Germany. She also received a grant from the British Council for CLI program (Cultural Leadership Program) to study curating at the University of the Arts London, for two more months. “It was a great experience for me to learn about curating with practical ways as well as academic ways,” said Khattab.
The curating process is long and very challenging. Organizing a show starts with an idea in the curator’s mind. Then comes the research to develop the idea into a concept and a proposal. The curator writes a proposal, select the artists, prepares the concept, implements the plan, chooses the venue and finally selects the date. Parallel to that, the curator follows up with artists and their work and their needs to produce it, which sometimes include grants and funds. “I believe the process to bring an exhibition or a project to life is like a plant you have to take care of daily until it starts blooming. The fruit is the exhibition.”
With her wide international exposure and exhibitions under her belt, Khattab is not only impressed with the performances and shows she attended, but also with the overwhelming high attendances, “Audience are in the thousands, which doesn’t happen in Egypt very often.” Khattab takes it upon herself and assumes responsibility as curator to bring change to the art movement in the Middle East. She supports new talents and helps established and aspiring artists to explore, create, excel and receive international recognition. International exposure builds bridges between world communities through art, and inspires new generations of artists to also evolve and grow. Khattab highly praises the competitiveness of the Middle Eastern artists in the international arena, “Our digital arts concept is really compelling when it’s given the chance to be shown abroad.”
While organizing the Di-Egy Fest, a digital arts festival, it was easier for Khattab to find international artists to participate in the festival than to find local artists from the region. Not because their numbers were limited, but rather it was hard to find them. That’s what sparked the idea of Digi MENA, a mapping research and online platform for digital artists and organizations in the MENA region. “I believe artists from MENA region need more visibility and good marketing for them online and abroad. That is why I started the Digi MENA.” With the support of Goethe Institute and the German Foreign Office, and the assistance of curators Toufik Douib from Algeria and Noha Ben Yebdri from Morocco, the first phase of the project, North Africa mapping research was completed.
In spite of the changes and slight improvements in the art field in the region, Khattab believes there is a long way for art education in the Arab countries to go before it can really make an effect. “But I started to see a light in the new generation,” she notes, however. Among her priorities, she would like to see digital art and curating studies become available for students in art schools in the Middle East.
The future looks very promising for Khattab. She has many projects in the pipeline, on top of which is organizing a group exhibition in Germany for artists from MENA in 2019. She is already working its details with a German curator and promises it will be a pleasant surprise for digital arts connoisseurs. We wish her the very best, as she deserves it.
A 21ST CENTURY RENAISSANCE ARTIST
When you first approach (virtually) renowned Moroccan sound and digital artist Abdellah Hassak, you may not
realize that he is not just another successful artist. But as you go past “what” his art is, not an easy task in itself, his beginnings, his accomplishments, and his goals and ambitions, and as he starts to explain how and where he gets his inspirations and what motivates him, you realize that you are dealing with a humanist with deep connections not only to his ethnic roots but to the cosmos in general.
Hassak has carved his name worldwide as the innovator and only music maker who combines Electroworld atmosphere with Moroccan culture. The electro-ethnic artist, known to his fans as Dubosmium, also keeps a dynamic music-making activity; recording and interpreting electronic music and renovating folkloric music. “Art for me in general is a way to experiment and to give a point of view by the individual to his environment, except that in my practice I often invite the current moment to meet with the archive of the past to create a single common reflection. That’s why often in my sound works there is the idea of archiving or reactivating and also in my music there is the idea of disassemble a culture to assemble it back in a current desire,” Hassak explained his concept of sound art.
With a passion for music since a young age, Hassak’s journey to capture sounds started first by collecting music when he was a child. He produced his first album at his home studio and released it when he was just 20 years old. “I was always in a sound and musical experimentation, but one day I told myself to separate between producing the music and producing the sound, even though each element inspires the other.” His sound work focuses on the use of digital technology and computer coding to create a transformation and sound activity related to various concepts and approaches that allow him “to create a remixed version where the means of contemporary communication are employed to promote more sharing and to bring people together.”
Hassak listens to the world around him attentively. He incorporates and utilizes the surrounding sounds in his work, which emerges in the forms of poetic and interactive performances. “My artistic work is intimately linked to the city and its heritage, whose sonorous and anarchic chaos is fertile ground for creation. Exploring the sounds in the manner of an acoustic architect, the city enables me to develop a contextual approach of sound art in relation to the dimensions of social transformations as geo-cultural,” Hassak explains what inspires his creativity. “I create my own sound narratives that question the immortalization of the moment and the memory.”
Not Casablanca, Hassak’s home town, but the city of Tangier was the subject of one of his projects. Cosmopolitan Tangier in the sixties was a literary hub. It was a “rallying point between beat generation, international and Moroccan authors such as Mohamed Choukri, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg” and others. Its rich heritage is still evident today, inspiring artists like Hassak to explore. “Tangier is a city full of stories. It is a city rich and inspiring enough, but also ambiguous. I find in this city a perfect context to reflect on the social relations between the individual or his group that unfolds through space.”
With over 30 collaborations with artists from all over the world, Dubosmium name became known worldwide in electro-ethnic sound. Hassak’s music is universal, “I do not have a particular audience for my creations,” he says. He’s not interested in personal recognition, but in a creative one. “Each work deserves recognition and rewards.” Hassak is concerned more about the ability of Arab artists to present their work internationally, “For me, it is more important to have the free mobility and equal chances as other artists. This is more important than just recognition.”
Presenting his work outside of Morocco creates discussions about the sound identity and its relationship to its environment. “The sound is an immaterial expression and in my work, I try to keep a form which allows the audience to develop a new imagination and thereafter develop a collective discussion about this social relation with the space. For me personally, it’s a way to reactivate my reflection and develop my research.”
The future looks quite busy for Hassak. He is developing his research on his new project “A Symphony of Cities.” His radio platform Mahattat Radio, in collaboration with other entities, will work on a rehabilitation project of architect Jean-François Zevaco’s “Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath”. On the music level, Hassak is in the final stages to produce his new album Guedra Guedra – Sons of the Sun. He is also launching a new label of innovative music.
Sound is important in our lives, noise is not. Unfortunately, we are living today in a world polluted by noise, among other things. “The urban soundscape generally gathers sound nuisances, and sound-induced pollutions can cause physical alterations that can range from temporary inconvenience to serious repercussions on human health and quality of life (anxiety, depression, stress, irritability or even aggressiveness, sleep disturbances, insomnia of fatigue, a decrease in concentration, effects on the cardiovascular system, acoustic trauma, etc). Sound pollution can also alter the ecosystems.
“Having art in our soundscape is of considerable importance, whatever the taste of each and every one of us is. Art has always been an innate part of human civilization, recognized for its reparative and transformative virtues. Soundscape also allows the exploitation of the artistic potential in a humanitarian and therapeutic aim,” Hassak concluded.
FUSING PHILOSOPHY AND ART, WORDS AND IMAGES
The relationship between word and image, how reality and fiction are encoded within each form, and finding balance between writing, reading and imagination are the core subjects that Tunisian multimedia artist Farah Khelil focuses on in her aesthetic research. She blends various techniques to give diverse expressions about existence and coexistence, and manipulates images and words to create new meanings and representations of reality in her viewers’ perceptions. “In my work, I use several media. I think every project has its medium. That’s why I’m trying different languages such as computing, video, photography and painting. I think it’s possible to break down barriers between technology and the arts,” says Farah.
Born in 1980 in Cartage, Tunisia, Khelil lives and works between Paris and Tunis. A graduate from the Institut des Beaux-Arts in Tunisia, she obtained her PhD in Art and Art Science at the Sorbonne in Paris in 2014. She has also been teaching at the Visual Art Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris I since 2010. Moreover, she has published several books via La Bibliothèque Fantastique, Paris, including Légendes in 2012 and Un Livre Aveugle in 2009.
Khelil tries to address reality and language through hybrid media that show diagrams as dynamic representations of reality and not as a static event. “My work is performative, like a dynamic trace of my experience of reality. The viewers of my work are often surprised by the formats and at the same time they are attracted by the interactivity. It does not refer to their image or identity but to their everyday life. The commonalities are in the languages and techniques and that is what unites and separates people,” explains Khelil.
“Art as an attempted representation of reality is not a simple matter of mimesis,” says Khelil. She questions the relationship that may arise between the visible or readable data, between words and things. To hide the image, to suggest it or to tell it, is a way for her to emphasize its paradox. Since 2006, Khelil’s work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in Spain, Tunisia, France, Algeria, UK, Senegal, USA, UAE and Italy. It was in 2012, when she was invited by curator Cécile Bourne Farrell to participate in a group exhibition “Shuffling Cards,” in Marseille that she met audience “curious to know more about my approach.” It was then that she realized that people were noticing her work.
Khelil affirms that in her work she always leads the sensation to the meaning of the artwork. Her work is often based on theory of art and inspired by philosophical readings. “This material allows me to reflect my mode of creation and exhibition. Then, intimate or topical elements come as a pretext to give a content to these devices of thought.” She also incorporates her own philosophy in her projects. “Listening to intuition, as developed in philosophy, allows me to escape a certain determinism and empowers original creative associations.”
Khelil works using a variety of techniques and media. Her latest show, Graines de Pensée (Seeds of Thought), included installations made from documents, objects, refuse and plant elements. There was also a slide show, collages, and a new take on wallpaper. The show, which was held in Tunisia in October 2018, was based on Boudhour (Seeds) a text by Tunisian author Bachir Majdoub, the elder brother of the artist’s grandfather.
When asked about which media she is most enthusiastic to work with, Khelil said, “The question of the media is at the heart of my practice. I like the idea of mixing formats and arranging them without any hierarchy, in a ‘flat aesthetic’. I think technique is like a language, it serves to convey meaning and make intuition visible. I am still learning a new technique for a new project. But I remain sensitive to the tension between painting on one side and new technologies on the other.” She describes her finished products as a ‘landmark in thought’.
As an artist from North Africa, Khelil finds geographical, material or political constraints stimulating, “I always work with constraints and not against them,” she explains. “In Tunisia, when I was studying at the Beaux Arts, in the first decade of the 2000s, the constraints were related to the lack of places dedicated to the exhibition of works of art, like museums and galleries. Today things have evolved a lot. The country has several places dedicated to art, and not only in the center of Tunis.”
It’s not the constraints that Farah finds challenging, but the concept of art itself; its history and teachings and what it means outside the western countries. She questions the forms and methodology of how art is taught in MENA and its impact on artists from the region. “In my case, this issue related to the transmission of art forged my very practice of art. It is essential in my opinion,” she adds. “Maybe we should create a proper method of arts education instead of using that of other countries.”
Khelil is preparing for a solo exhibition in Milan, Italy, in 2019. She will also be participating in a group exhibition in Venice, as well as working on a research for a new project. For Khelil, research is an essential phase for her projects. “Research is one of my most important activities. I approach my artistic subjects as research objects using methodologies that allow me to see more clearly and to further enhance the intellectual and artistic potential of the object of study,” she explains.
HELPING ARTSISTS IN MENA REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL
Necessity is the mother of invention. And it was out of necessity that Egyptian visual artist Mohamed Allam and Mohamed Abdel Karim conceived the concept of Medrar for Contemporary Art in 2005. Medrar which means generous, flow of giving, is a Cairo based artist initiative to support, assist and offer space to young artists to optimize their work. With an objective to develop contemporary art in Egypt and create a more dynamic and inspired movement, Medrar also provides the artists with local and international exposure.
An artist since 2001, when he was barely 17, Allam mostly works with video and digital arts. In 2005, while still in college, Allam and a group of his colleagues who shared his passion for video and media arts participated in a media art workshop at the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University, where they studied. The summer workshop was led by contemporary Egyptian artist and Art Professor Shady El Noshokaty. “At that time, there wasn’t much art spaces and opportunities for emerging artists to show their art, learn and practice,” says Allam. Due to the challenges they encountered to find a space to work and exhibit their art, Allam together with Mohamed Abdel Karim started Medrar as an artist collective initiative.
Through Medrar, they brought together a group of artists with similar interests and aims, and under the artists’ own management they launched their first project, Cairo Video Festival. The festival showcases innovative, low-budget video art productions and experimental films. It is also a platform to start a conversation between video-artists, curators and the public. In its first year, the festival was attended by local artists, after which it opened for international submissions. In February 2017, Medrar celebrated its 8th Video Festival.
Two years after the inception of Medrar, Diaa Hamed came on board. In 2007, Allam and Hamed, co-founded Medrar as an organization and art space. Allam became its director. He struggled to find balance between being an artist and Medrar’s Director. “Management and administrational work consume time and energy, so does working with art. It doesn’t make sense to work on both of them, unless you have a superpower.” Recently, Allam started working at Mardrar as a part timer so he can focus on his art. “It works better for me now to have my own time, also sometimes I apply for art residency abroad for 2 or 3 months so I can work on new projects and produce as well.” In 2015, Allam received a Tokas Residency. He spent 2 months in Japan as a participant in International Creator Residency Program to acquire expertise in the fields of visual narrative of video art. “My artworks have different frameworks and media. I find freedom in moving between ideas, using appropriate tools or modes of expression. That’s what encourages me in general to pursue this experience and travel to Tokyo, to learn about different art forms and develop new intellectual interests, to enrich my art as well as my thoughts in general,” he explained. He has also been received an art resident in St. Gallen, Switzerland in 2011 through the Prohelvitia Residency Program.
Born in Assiut in 1984, Allam obtained a BA from the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan, University, Cairo in 2008. He started his career as a performance artist. Since 2003, he has participated in numerous live events and exhibitions in Cairo and internationally, which gave his work a wide exposure and name recognition in the art field. He has produced artwork using diverse media and techniques including painting, photography, sounds, performance arts videos and moving images. Moving images is the medium he works with the most, “I do video art, experimental films, sometimes I do live video and performances. My recent projects have different products with different media, book, film, installations. etc.”
With the fast pace of current events Allam takes it one day at a time. Nonetheless, even with his inability to make long term plans, he still believes that Arab artists today have better opportunities to practice and produce and attend more international shows, exhibitions and competitions “more than European or Asian artists, because there is less competition. Maybe the only challenge Arab artists encounter would be the freedom of expression, if the artist is concerned with political issues.” Allam explained.
While global recognition is every artist’s dream, yet, the road to fulfill this dream is filled with more challenges than just the lack of “freedom of expression.” Art education plays a paramount role in shaping the artists. Allam asserts that art education varies from one country to the other, and it is unjust to judge all artists as one entity simply because they belong to the same region. “It is very confusing,” he says. “Arab countries are not the same, Libya is not like Lebanon, and Egypt not like Emirates, Tunis and Morocco are totally different. Tunisia, for example, has the best education program in the Arab region, and now the Emirates is investing a lot in their education system. They are importing the best teachers and building the best schools in the world. You can’t compare that with the education system in Egypt. Art education is part of the whole educational system. It’s an issue related to the country’s development program. If education is a high priority for a country, it should also include art education.”
Allam is in the final production stages of two new video projects. He plans an international tour in 2019 to show them, “and maybe work on a new project,” he concludes.