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Interviews

Biography vs. history of art

Hany Rashed (guest artist at Villa Romana 2009) and Mohamed Abla in coversation with Angelika Stepken.

Hany, I would like to start with a question about your works: What inspired your pictorial language with its elements of pop culture and caricature?

HR: When I work with the monoprinting technique, the caricature element becomes more prominent because of the use of drawing and the small area. In painting and in my collages, on the other hand, the colours and the use of newspapers etc give the impression of pop art.

Mohamed, do these aspects reflect the teacher and the fact that Hany studied with you for ten years?

MA: No, when he studied with me, it was not even a question of exerting influence. We approach the studies in a different way. I taught him to see, to observe. There are similarities between us, perhaps one of these is being interested in many things at the same time. For seven years, Hany never worked in my presence. Only, for example, when it came to specific techniques did we get together one week. He must develop on his own; I do not want to influence him stylistically...

What do you mean by being interested in many things at the same time: social life, the public, politics?

HR: An artist is not somebody who just sits in the studio and works, he deals with life and politics.

MA: What I taught him was this: do not follow a style, always be open to new influences, do not stick to one idea, to one technique.

HR: Yes, from Mohamed I learnt to be active and to participate. Art is a part of that. There exists a kind of anxiety to adhere to success. Often it is only later that one realises that it was wrong to adhere and that other things were unable to emerge.

MA: As an artist you are sometimes worried about starting something new because you do not know if you will succeed. However, if you take a chance, the world opens up again.

Returning to pop art. What does it mean to you? How relevant is this chapter of art history?

MA: Pop art as a form of expression does not mean anything at all to us. It is art history, American art history. Indeed, it is only actually in the last 20 years that we have been dealing with American art. We are more influenced by European art, by France and Germany. But sometimes I walk through Cairo and show Hany the adverts in the streets and the way people decorate their houses (we have also carried out joint projects on the walls of houses) and that is pop art. Pop art means observing what people really do. How they shape their own lives, their own art. Pop art is what people do, not what artists do. Artists only bring things together. Pop art is the everyday visual experience of life: movement, colour, calligraphy, photography, painting.

What is the situation like for an artist in Egypt today? You both work in international environments. Hany, you have often worked with Cathérine David.

MA: As artists we try to find our own way. There is of course no ”Egyptian school” in contemporary art. We participate in the international trend, but with the experience of our own environment. And like all professionals we have procedures for dealing with curators, galleries etc. We have the same structure as everywhere else: galleries, collectors, museums, although on a smaller scale, but that is just the global structure for dealing with art. We too work within that structure but we are aware of that and we do not want to copy anything. We benefit from the evolution and at the same time try to create our own things.

You always use the "we" form. Are you referring to the Fayoum Art Centre initiative, where you have been holding workshops for 3 years and where you cooperate with European artists and partners?

MA: "We" does not just refer to Hany and me. We are trying to reach other people, to create something new, but it is still very early days. Indeed, Egypt does not have a strong modern tradition like in Europe. But there are always people who want to give something. That is how artistic movements develop. Many years ago, I decided to use half of my income for such initiatives, for example for artists’ residences. That is not supported by the state of course, on the contrary. But it needs to be done. Many years ago now, I had the chance to come to Europe, to teach in Sweden and at the Salzburg Summer Academy. And I met people who helped me. When I say ”we”, I mean people who share these ideas.

Hany, why did you not want to attend the state academy of art? Mohamed, you have said that you only take on a student every ten years ...

MA: Yes, it is necessary to concentrate. At the beginning, I said to Hany that I would not teach him how to create art but rather how to live. He was 19 years old when he arrived.

HR: I was lucky to study with Mohamed Abla. If I had studied at the academy I would have had to struggle for a long time overcome these experiences again.

MA: I do not believe so much in the history of art but rather in biographies. When I hold workshops in Sweden or Salzburg, there is never enough time to really build a connection with the people. Everyone has a story. Everyone has his own destiny. I have few students and I am very proud of them. Life is precious; you cannot give it to everyone. We travel and we eat together, we share everything. And I know that he must be better than me. Another student, Sabah Naim, who is actually also here at the moment, works in a totally different direction to Hany. I have never told her how to use a camera; instead I said only this: take photographs of things that are connected with yourself. And in the first three days she went out with a simple camera and came back with hundreds of photos. Today she produces very good works and exhibits in Venice and elsewhere. You must be true, to yourself and to others. Create history. Who else is going to do it? In Egypt, the relationship to modern art is still very young. The first academy of art, influenced by the Italians and the French, opened in 1909. The relationships have intensified since the 1950’s. But that means that there is still a lot to do.

Hany, you have now spent two months in Florence, a town with a huge store of art history. How did you approach it?

HR: It was very, very important for me to see the old masters, how they worked. I know enough about contemporary art. But in order to be a good artist, you also need to know the roots. I am very pleased to be able to see all these works, which I knew from books, in reality and up close, to see their real colours. They are very modern. And I am sure that I will benefit from this in my own work.

What is your favourite place, your favourite artist in Florence?

HR: The Uffizi.

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