Interview with Small Art Press (October 2011)
What question do people ask that you hate more than any other?
“What do you do? ” and subsequently after categorizing myself as an artist- “What kind of art do you do?” Why should I help you put me into a box? Not just a box, but a box that you have in your head that I didn’t make.
Who are your influences?
My grandmother, the street sweepers, my one year old neighbor. But also there are a great many others. Arundhati Roy, Wangari Mathaai, Emory Douglas, Alfredo Jaar, Andrea Bowers, Emily Jacir, Mona Hatoum, Adrian Piper, Frances Alys, Rick Lowe, the list is growing daily.
Where do you see art today?
It’s funny. While this might be one of the scariest times to be alive-what with advances of global capitalism and privatization of much of our lives-we are also living in a time where the internet has really leveled the playing field. We are able to self-publish, self-produce, self-record and communicate quite cheaply and quickly. Art and art production has become much more available to more of the population. And the boundaries of what defines “art” have been almost completely torn down. In some ways artists have more freedom than any other worker. --Whether they have the time to make or enjoy it is another question.
As artists and observers I believe we have a responsibility to really push boundaries in the way people think and behave. We have a gift and curse of keen perception. No wonder so many artists kill themselves. It is not an easy road. But the ability to communicate effectively- because essentially isn’t that what art is? Communication? Whether your audience can understand you is for me, the marker of a successful piece. Of course formally/aesthetically there are other criteria. But for me if Magritte said “This is not a pipe” and people didn’t get it-this would be a failed piece. Might as well not show it. Art that aims to exclude just out of arrogance-this I can’t stand.
Do you consider your work site-specific?
Very much so. Both the space the work is exhibited in, the audience for the work and the city are all considered in the work. In fact, my environment dictates the nature of the work to some degree. For example, How Do We Deal with Now, When Then Isn't Over Yet would have been a very different piece if I had been living in Chicago, or Houston or something. Likewise, the Recycled Flower Garden intervention in Dakar wouldn’t have made sense if we were to do it in Singapore or somewhere that garbage isn’t ubiquitous. But other works like my photographs of Palestine could be exhibited anywhere-however the events and text surrounding the piece would change based on the exhibitions location.
Being an artist from both the Middle East and the U.S. where do you see your work positioned?
I suppose these categories are unavoidable and while I think that my racial identity does inform my work, they aren’t everything and cannot be essentialized in that way. I like the way Stuart Hall writes about identity as a slippery and often evolving process and less a fixed universal that applies to all people that fit into a certain racial or class category. I identify very much with Adrian Piper’s early work addressing her ability to “pass” and her access to the white world through the way she was perceived by them. Until quite recently I struggled with this idea of needing to figure out my position, my identity, and to “fit in” to a certain category. I think many mixed-race people face a similar dilemma. We have the gift of slipping through the cracks, but perhaps the curse of not being perceived in a way that matches with our own self perception. Or an identity imposed upon us by others. I can’t count the times when I’ve heard “You don’t look Egyptian” by people that have never met an Egyptian person in their lives. The idea of Can You See Me Now? comes out of this dilemma in my own life and artistic work.
Of course I do feel a certain responsibility and sensitivity towards the current political situation between the United States and the Middle East. The Arab Spring, Summer and Fall have created an interesting and new dynamic between our countries. The people have spoken and have demonstrated their new vision and this wildfires are unpredictable and hard to contain by the Empire. I feel like I can offer some sort of bridge between these worlds, not on a large scale, perhaps a bit of a cultural ambassador, or in a small way offering a more nuanced perspective, or making space for a voice normally marginalized to speak. For example, the storytelling nights that I’ve facilitated allow for people to meet and connect through a simple story, not in a large political discussion, or in a taxi, or from watching the news but just sitting together and listening. There’s a lot to be learned by listening. I’m still learning that.