Articales


    

 
 

Cairo times
Ending fgm
Taming the court. No more nafie
Luring expat investment
Che's café . Turkish mummy movie
Conflicting dreams
Egypt's different visions at the Venice biennale
Street talk
Sabah Nairn comes back to her home city and tells Richard Woffenden
about taking visions of Cairo to Venice
early spiral shapes made out of newspapers, or the photographs where she isolates figures in the city, there is a very distinct vision present. And when the two mediums are combined Nairn is at her most suc­cessful, presenting an aesthetic view of her city that is simultaneously abstract and realistic.
Judging from the art, particularly the rather harsh simplicity of the newspaper shapes, a viewer might expect a determined, intense and possibly hard artist—taking photographs of people in the streets of Cairo is not for the faint hearted. Instead, Nairn is an understated, shy woman. She is happy to talk about her work, but at first is rather nervous—it is initially hard to imagine that part of her time is spent as a university professor.
Artists and critics often comment upon this aspect of her personality. In a world of giant egos, Nairn stands out for her self-effacement. The other fact about Nairn thai provokes comment from some sec-lions of the art world is that she is veiled. For some it is simply something unusual, as there are very few veiled arlisis, particularly in tin' private arena. But there is iilso the fact that the veil is something of a selling point—a novely in the arch-liberal art community that provokes curiosity. For Naim, this attention is irritation that distracts from her work it.
fresh from a successful visit to the Venice Bien-nale, where she sold all the work she exhibited, Sabah Nairn is a very happy artist. One of three selected to represent the non-official side of Egypt­ian contemporary art, Nairn relished the chance to go to the biggest art show of the year. Along with Wael Shawky and Moataz Nasr, Sabah is strongly linked with the Townhouse Gallery, where her repu­tation was initially cemented. The Townhouse artists are generally seen as a vanguard of sorts on the Cairo art scene—a group that is perceived as being in opposition to the state-sponsored artists that have long represented Egypt abroad.
The contrast in Venice between the establish­ment—in the form of the soon-to-retire, state-spon­sored Ahmad Nawar—and the new blood of Shawky, Nasr and Nairn was seen by many to be a microcosm of the situation in Cairo, where tensions
Sabah Nairn searches the city for inspiration
between public and private sector art are often high. But the enthusiastic Nairn says that this is simply not the case and plays down any rivalry in Italy.
"It is very important that artists like us [Shawky, Nasr and Nairn] are sent to Venice, as we never used to do this before. People need to see that there arc people who are not just from the government," explains Nairn, "but it wasn't a competition between us and them. We visited their work and they came to see us. There was a relationship between us and everyone tried to do their best as artists and as rep­resentatives of Egypt."
Back home in Egypt, Nairn is keen to capitalize on her success. She has been showing her work in Cairo for ten years now and most people who fre­quent galleries can recognize her work even if they have never met her.
If you look at the Nairn's work, whether it's her
Judging from the art, particularly the rather harsh simplicity of the newspaper shapes, a viewer might expect a determined, intense and possibly hard artist—taking photographs of people in the streets of Cairo is not for the faint hearted. Instead, Nairn is an understated, shy woman. She is happy to talk about her work, but at first is rather nervous—it is initially hard to imagine that part of her time is spent as a university professor.
Artists and critics often comment upon this aspect of her personality. In a world of giant egos, Nairn stands out for her self-effacement. The other fact about Nairn that provokes comment from some sec­tions of the art world is that she is veiled. For some it is simply something unusual, as there are very few-veiled artists, particularly in the private arena. But there is also the fact that the veil is something of a selling point—a novelty in the arch-liberal art com­munity that provokes curiosity. For Nairn, this atten­tion is an irritation that distracts from her work. It therefore came as a relief for Nairn to travel abroad, where she felt it was no longer an issue. "People did­n't know me, didn't know what I looked like or any­thing—they just looked at my work and were impressed by what they saw," she comments. "They wanted to talk about the technique involved, and the concept—the relationship between the newspaper work and the photographs. I didn't expect that peo­ple would like the work as much as they did."
The link between the sculptural and the photo­graphic sides of her work has developed over the years. At first her work was much more traditional and included painting and figurative drawings. Nairn's experiments with newspaper sculptures came about when she was approached to produce an installation.
"I was supposed to do an installation, so I decided that I must do something very simple that could deliver an idea without using large formats," she recalls. "So I searched for simple symbols that everyone sees, without resorting to Islamic and Pharaonic symbols."
She selected circles, squares and lines to make up
shapes. The idea was that the first thing that people would encounter when they looked at her art was the abstract level and then afterwards they would see that it contained words and colors. Yet it was impossible lo read anything from the newspapers them­selves, as they were folded lightly into forms, preventing access to the con­tents. This suggested to many that Nairn was making a statement about the media's tenuous relationship to people's everyday lives. This was per­haps further implied by the fact that, while she juxtaposed the newspaper sculptures with the photographs of street life, they rarely intruded into the actual images of daily life.
Nairn agrees with this interpreta­tion. "It is part of the meaning. I take photographs of normal people who are focused on the actual living of life— what they have to do and what they will eat. There is a big contrast between the data that fills the newspa­pers and the normal life and the nor­mal people inside the city."
Dislocation is also one of the themes in Nairn's work, both in terms of the dislocation that people feel from the world around them and in terms of the process that takes place in Nairn's art, when she visually isolates one of the people in her pictures. In order to express the individual  situation amongst the swarming life of the city, Nairn blocks out backgrounds, changes colors and uses other techniques to make the viewer home in on a certain part of a photograph. "I take people away from their environment lo show their inside meanings, so v.'v can see their emotions," she t.wtiiin;i)l.s,
In the piece of video ml that she piv pared for (he Venwi gteinsite this was
and one individual or a couple of peo­ple. who become the focal point of the screen, are colored in. The background fades and the main figures are left as a visual soliloquy, standing out in the middle of the busy street. It's remark­able how similar the images are to Nairn's photographs—an animated extension of her other work. She man­ages to capture an array of different emotional states suggested by the pos­ture of the figures, but she also high­lights the variety of people who inhabit the same space. Observers are led to focus on details such as the clothes that the people wear and the manner in which they physically interact.
In the subsequent sections of the video, Nairn again tries to capture uni­versal experiences around the city, but doesn't do so with the same intensity as in the first part. However, through­out the video, she manages to evoke a clear understanding of city life.
Nairn believes that if she showed the video on the street where it was filmed, "people would see—I don't know—themselves and they would think, 'it was not bad since she focuses on the real things without making a negative image.'" She says hesitantly, ''1 would like everyone in Cairo to see my work, for it is made for them. It is a part of the streets and everyone can understand my work. It is not riddled with complex meanings."
This confidence in the accessibility of her work has come partly from her experiences abroad. "In Venice they liked my work and understood it. I didn't have to explain my work and I think this is very important, that it is a concept easily delivered to people she says "in Italy, they felt that these are real people and they could feel the tant part of Naim's other professional role. As a teacher at the college of art education.
In the piece of video art that she pre­pared for the Venice Bieiinale this was very clearly displayed. The first and most impressive section took its lead from her photographic work. On one of the Cairene pedestrian thoroughfares, Nairn films in monochrome the people passing by, going about their regular business. Suddenly the film freezes
she says. "In Italy, they telt that these are real people and they could feel the experience of the people but they couldn't really tell which city it was in. They could see that there were dif­ferences in the people but they focused on the mood, which was the more important part of the work."
Resume
BORN IN CAIRO in 1967, Sabah Nairn has just returned from a suc­cessful opening at this year's Venice Biennale. She is famous for her sculptured newspaper forms and distinctively distorted photographic images of everyday life in Cairo. She first exhibited in Egypt in 1993 in the Salon of Youth, in which she has participated several times since and where she won a jury prize in 2000. She has taken part in group exhibitions at Cairo Atelier, the Gezirah Arts Center and the Goethe Institute. Her first solo show in 1998 at the Cairo Atelier was followed by two shows at the Townhouse in 1999 and 2000. She has already exhibited in France, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, China and Lebanon. She received her doctorate from the Faculty of Art Education this year.
sional role, as a teacner at the (-'01-lege of Art Education, where she herself was educated. Some artists feel there is •S hierarchical difference between this college and the Faculty of Fine Arts, which is perceived as superior. However, many successful artists beg to differ with this urban myth. Nairn says it is simply not true and, if anything, the education she received at the College of Art Edu­cation is part of what makes her the artist that she is.
"There is no difference between an artist who graduated from one college or another. Rather, there is a difference between those who try to make an evolution in their work and some peo­ple who don't change. My college pre­pared me to be an artist," she explains. "I was happy with the college as we were always sharing new ideas. And the good thing about teaching is that it makes you flexible—when you are trying to teach some one, you have to read new books and try to explain things in a new way and this in turn affects you. Contact with young artists also keeps you fresh."
The only problem that Nairn faces in combining the two aspects of her career is time. "It all requires a lot of time—teaching requires lots of time, while the art itself requires intense concentration from you. But teaching is like giving something to another person, while art is like taking some­thing. So I want to have a balance. Teaching is very much a job, but it does give you the element of human contact, in contrast with the very pri­vate world of art."
So for the moment, that balance will continue as Nairn, now Doctor Sabah Nairn, continues to work on keeping herself alert and revitalized both as a teacher and as an artist. But if her Venice experience is anything to go by, it looks as if the demands of the art world will eventually dominate her pro­fessional life.