From pub­lic to per­sonal: A dis­cus­sion with artist Aya Tarek

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SOMA art gallery hosted the artist Aya Tarek, where she took the con­cept of sprez­zatura from the fash­ion world to her own vis­ual world. She ex­pressed the ease, in­di­vid­u­al­ity, beauty, and sim­plic­ity that come with ma­tu­rity through a monochro­matic scheme.

She started plan­ning for the ex­hi­bi­tion a year ago. Be­fore plan­ning the ex­hi­bi­tion, she was work­ing in com­mis­sioned as­sign­ments and pri­vate work but needed to break from her for­mer meth­ods of work, which usu­ally en­tailed long prepa­ra­tions, and for­mu­lat­ing con­cepts, sketches, and ideas.“This used to take a lot of time so that I can work to mod­ify the draft and pre­pare the needed tech­niques, in or­der to pro­duce the perfect work,” she said.

Tarek is a no­table fig­ure in the con­tem­po­rary Egyp­tian art scene. The Alexan­dria na­tive has been paint­ing since 2008, but in this re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion, her aim was to break away from both the pub­lic and the com­mer­cial ex­pe­ri­ences, which put lim­its and re­stric­tions on the process of paint­ing. Her plan was to paint in a more con­cep­tual way, and to be more ex­pres­sive.For ex­am­ple, not to plan, but to ex­press what­ever mood or idea she had in mind, in or­der to break the fear of “perfect” work.

Daily News Egypt in­ter­viewed artist Tarek dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion Tarek’s Sprez­zatura at the SOMA art gallery.

What was your main strat­egy in this ex­hi­bi­tion? A fol­lower of your work can re­alise that it is dif­fer­ent from your other work.

My ob­jec­tive was not hav­ing a pre­vi­ously tai­lored idea, and to start build­ing some con­cepts based on my own mood. What was dif­fer­ent in this tech­nique is that I was not care­ful to perfect the shapes.It was more about hav­ing an idea or an ex­pres­sion that wants to come out now and that is it. One of the paint­ings, called Shacks Maekes, for ex­am­ple, took 30 min­utes. If it had taken any longer, it wouldn’t have given the same im­pres­sion. I was ex­press­ing with my body, so the idea had to come out no mat­ter what.

I come from a back­ground of street art, where a live au­di­ence is be­hind you watch­ing. So, on this big scale, you have to be pre­pared. When I used to work on smaller scales, it was eas­ier for me.

Men­tally, this ex­hi­bi­tion helped me break away from my own self-im­age, or from the im­age I want to be in.This ex­hi­bi­tion is by far the most sin­cere work I have done.Maybe not the most perfect, but the most sin­cere.This was a very im­por­tant and brief jour­ney, and also a break from be­ing a pro­fes­sional artist who has to give due care to all de­tails.

You started with street art, and then trans­ferred into pro­fes­sional art, then to the gallery scene. How did you cope with this tran­si­tion? And what where the main chal­lenges for you?

When you are a pro­fes­sional artist, the art mar­ket pres­sures you, and ex­pects ev­ery­thing to be perfect, un­like when you are a child, you ex­press in what­ever man­ner you like.

At first, I worked with street art; there were many fac­tors that af­fected the art. In the street, you deal with ar­chi­tec­ture, dif­fer­ent places, and dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. So, you have to keep these fac­tors in mind,re­gard­less of the con­cepts and tech­niques. And my style in street art was more de­pen­dent on paint­ing and mu­rals, not van­dal­is­ing or the other old-school meth­ods.

There are some artists who have their own tech­niques and they ap­ply it to any place or medium they work in. I wanted to break this and al­low the ex­pe­ri­ence to be built on the en­vi­ron­ment.

As for my work with pro­fes­sional art,it helped me to diver­sify my work and to learn and work in dif­fer­ent tech­niques that you have to di­gest ev­ery time. I learned new things and worked with other tal­ents to learn more.What was in­ter­est­ing in this is that I didn’t stick to one school or one tech­nique.

This helped me even when I am pro­duc­ing stu­dio work, as the diversity I learned has taught me to con­trol my tools, which ben­e­fits the process of ex­pres­sion.

You said that this ex­hi­bi­tion was the most ex­press­ing and sin­cere. Which paint­ing did you feel you were at­tached to the most, or you felt deeply ex­pressed an idea that you had in mind?

I would say Shacks Maekes. It is named af­ter an Egyp­tian pop­u­lar techno rap song (mahra­gan) with the same name.I lis­tened to the song and liked the name.This tech­nique is more re­lated to hav­ing to make an in­stant de­ci­sion. I didn’t want to fol­low the mun­dane method of sym­bol­is­ing ev­ery paint­ing with a name that al­legedly re­flects it.

Also, there was the Ci­ti­zen Erased paint­ing. This was a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. It took a lot of time, as I kept re­vis­ing how I will de­velop the whole ex­hi­bi­tion. If you take it and an­a­lyse it un­der a mi­cro­scope, you will find dif­fer­ent lay­ers. I kept ex­per­i­ment­ing four or five times.Af­ter I fig­ure out the tech­nique I want to use, I am on what you can call an au­topi­lot sys­tem. I dealt with the ex­hi­bi­tion like this, as if a com­puter has the code and it is gen­er­at­ing the shapes.

I want to prob­lema­tise the is­sue of ‘sell­ing art’. This is a ques­tion that I usu­ally ask in­di­vid­u­als who pro­duce art. The an­swers I get when I ask ‘how you feel when you sell your own art’ vary a lot. Some say that they are artists, but they also have to eat and have bills due. Some say that when a per­son buys a piece of art, they take a part of them, but this part is alive with another per­son. How do you per­son­ally in­ter­act with the dilemma, if you see it as a dilemma?

When I started with street art, I had to ac­cept that some­one can come and paint over it. And in the same way,you can­not be an­gry about it be­cause the street be­longs to the peo­ple.I have been at peace with this no­tion, not only that some­one can come and copy this, but also, they can sab­o­tage or to­tally erase it. Even when I travel and paint some­thing, I travel back and leave it be­hind. I don’t take it with me.

My phi­los­o­phy in life is let­ting go. Any­thing that breaks or gets lost; what­ever hap­pens, hap­pens. It is same with sell­ing paint­ings. And keep in mind that who­ever buys a paint­ing has found part of them­selves.They buy it as they found an in­ter­pre­ta­tion.To me,this was never a dilemma. I al­ways think that this is an or­ganic process. I never keep my work in my stu­dio for ex­am­ple. Nei­ther in my home; I don’t like see­ing work that I have pre­vi­ously done. For me,this is the past.I ex­pressed it and that is it.Eas­ily put,it is my waste. I flush it and don’t want to see it. For me, the act of build­ing a port­fo­lio and gath­er­ing pic­tures of my work is dif­fi­cult. I al­ways look for­ward to next projects.

Does the cur­rent art mar­ket, if it is cor­rect to call it a mar­ket, put re­stric­tions on you? Or on the other hand, does it gives you space to do things that you could not have done be­fore? And what were the chal­lenges that you faced dur­ing the study of art?

Be­fore I started with street art, which al­ready ex­isted glob­ally, there were three scenes that ex­isted: the vis­ual arts ex­hi­bi­tion be­long­ing to the state, the pri­vate sec­tor gal­leries, and the con­cep­tual ex­hi­bi­tions which re­lied heav­ily on the­o­ries and text and philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. At the time, if you want to work in­ter­na­tion­ally, you had to go with the text­books, phi­los­o­phy, and con­cepts. For me, I didn’t be­long to any of these scenes.When I was in univer­sity, be­ing taught and hav­ing my work judged by pro­fes­sors didn’t make sense, as I al­ways be­lieved that that there are no rules in art.

The cur­rent scene has one school of art which is heav­ily re­ly­ing on texts and the­o­ries, hence fol­low­ing the global trend, while in the lo­cal fine arts schools, we are fol­low­ing out­dated cur­ricu­lums. So, I de­cided to break away from that do some­thing else. It is all about free­dom. I shouldn’t be obliged to use and read phi­los­o­phy so that peo­ple come and buy the art.This is es­pe­cially im­posed in the grants and funds scene, where you are obliged to write and en­gage with cer­tain points and an­gles.The lan­guage of grants ap­pli­ca­tions has a spe­cific lan­guage which is very elit­ist and limited to cer­tain peo­ple.

So, I had to go com­mer­cial to fi­nance my own work. I was out in a sit­u­a­tion when I should have been the artist, the cu­ra­tor, and the or­gan­iser.This worked, as peo­ple who pre­vi­ously fol­lowed my work in the street are be­com­ing more en­gaged with my work in gal­leries, for ex­am­ple.

Re­gard­ing your work abroad, I no­ticed that some artists, es­pe­cially women com­ing from the Mid­dle East, are de­manded by for­eign or­gan­i­sa­tions or funds to fit in a cer­tain cat­e­gory or are de­manded to dis­cuss and en­gage with cer­tain top­ics, like fem­i­nism, wom­an­hood, democ­racy, and lib­er­a­tion from op­pres­sion. This trend reached a peak, I think, af­ter the 25 Jan­uary rev­o­lu­tion when there was an in­flux of Western jour­nal­ists com­ing to Egypt. For ex­am­ple, in film, grants are given to, or fes­ti­vals fea­ture, scripts with fe­male pro­tag­o­nists, with se­quences about sex­u­al­ity, les­bian­ism, and hi­jab, or scripts with no mid­dle class, just an op­pres­sor and an op­pressed. How was your ex­pe­ri­ence with such en­coun­ters?

Of course, I have dealt with this a lot. Es­pe­cially dur­ing the time of the rev­o­lu­tion. I was 20 years old. Dozens of re­porters wanted to in­ter­view me, and they all seemed to have a pre­con­ceived no­tion of me, and what I do. And they wanted me to con­firm their ideas.They have a box for women, a box for ac­tivists, and they want you to con­firm their ideas so that they can sat­isfy the fetishes of their read­ers who have ori­en­tal­ist thoughts, such as the ‘op­pressed women’ so they can feel good about them­selves.

If you are an ed­u­cated mid­dle­class woman who is not op­pressed by your fam­ily, then you are not a good story for them.This could be my story; how­ever, where the in­ter­est­ing as­pect is dif­fer­ent from their imag­i­na­tion.

I was al­ways asked whether the rev­o­lu­tion came and ‘freed’ me, which I found to be ex­tremely stupid.Who made the rev­o­lu­tion? The peo­ple, and I am part of the peo­ple. If we hadn’t been free, we would not have had the rev­o­lu­tion.These jour­nal­ists were not in­ter­ested about my artis­tic jour­ney, they were very in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, and other things that I am not ex­pe­ri­enced in. They wanted to box me as the ‘artist/ac­tivist’.

What do you think of the ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness in Egypt?

It is ‘shit’, sorry about that.They take the best tal­ent from the fine arts fac­ul­ties.They take them, suck their blood,and turn them into zom­bies,and they be­lieve it is art.It is sad to see peo­ple I used to know,artists, and they are now very ma­te­ri­al­is­tic. This is fine, no prob­lem, but my is­sue is that they judge ev­ery­thing based on these ma­te­rial morals.

You should have money,of course, but through re­ward­ing work. I am an artist my­self and my work is not cheap. I passed many lev­els, un­til my work be­came prof­itable so that I can live a com­fort­able life. I don’t agree with the mis­con­cep­tion that the artist has to live in poverty.But in ad­ver­tis­ing, the val­ues of ev­ery­thing are sur­rounded around profit.

Shacks Maekes by Aya Tarek

Tarek’s work ex­hib­ited in SOMA art gallery

Aya Tarek

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