Growing up in Cairo, I was always exposed to cinema and I adored the fantasy of acting and the storytelling behind it. I loved the concept of creating something that appears to be the reality but that is entirely man-made. I loved the timelessness of each movie; the fact that we can watch it 50 years later and still have an alluring experience from it. Cairo and Egyptian cinema made me want to be an artist, so I started to create scenes and hand-painted images drawing inspiration from it. I was taught by the last retouchers in Egypt to use the ancient techniques of hand-painting black and white photos like they used to do back in the days.
Through these movies, I was introduced to death at a very early age. All these grand actors weren’t alive any longer, even if they appeared to be so on my TV screen. The idea that we will all die one day was something that caught my mind as a child, so I started to preserve the things I love. Most of my friends are in my artworks and I do a lot of self-portraits, as well as portraying the actors from the movies I so passionately love. We are only here for a certain amount of time and I want to use the camera to keep the moments and look at them afterwards. The camera changed my vision of life. I have always been fascinated by how you can preserve something eternally with imagery or film.
My representation gallery in Paris, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, will be showcasing my work in Marrakech for the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, and we chose to present a selection of artworks from various periods of my career. It feels immensely right to have a great art fair in the MENA region like the 1:54. Together with Art Dubai, which is a very important fair as well, they are both great initiatives to promote art and artists in the Arab world. Marrakech feels like the appropriate place to hold this event, as it has always been an essential hub for creativity and one of the most relevant cities in the world of art.
What I hope this fair will do is make people understand that the Arab population appreciates art like the rest of the world. That’s why it’s tremendously important to be exposed to art at an early stage of your life and also to give freedom to artists to create in the MENA region. We need to accept and be more open-minded to artists and creatives in the Arab world. It’s an issue that we’re so strict and still censor art. When people limit and edit your work, it ends up being sterilized and it takes away the focus from creating something powerful and beautiful.
The role of art is to show another vision of the world, but also to be completely free about it. You want to make people think of new issues and see them from a different perspective. We need to be liberated to address topics such as freedom in our work as that’s what keeps the world evolving, making it more accepting and tolerant. Imagine a world without opera, cinema, poetry, and music – how empty wouldn’t it be? I believe you can change perceptions in society with art. My last video project, “I saved my belly dancer,” with Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim, was created out of my eternal love for belly dancers, which I got from watching them as a kid when I was still living in Egypt. Even if I ran into censorship issues while making the movie, it’s an incredibly beautiful ancient art form we have in our culture. I love how the woman was liberated to dance in such an artistic way, expressing her freedom and sensuality. Belly dancing has always been an integral part of Egyptian identity.
Egypt will always be home to me, but for many reasons I can’t go back to living there. I still travel there regularly to visit but right now I am based in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, the inspiration for my art will always come from my home country and Egyptian cinema. The impact of growing up during the golden era of cinema in Cairo is something I will always carry in my work.
-As told to Anwar Bougroug