Basim Magdy talks to curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi about growing up in Cairo, becoming an artist, and his transition from painting to film.
Wassan Al-Khudhairi: Your father is an artist—what kind of work does he make?
Basim Magdy: Yes, he was a lot more active when I was growing up. He worked mostly with watercolors, but earlier in his career he worked more with oil and gouache. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he produced a huge body of work, which he showed in Assiut, where I grew up, in Cairo, and in some instances outside of Egypt.
WAK: What influence do you think your father had on your interest in art?
BM: Before I was born and while I was growing up, my father was constantly acquiring modern art books; I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible amount of information at a time when books were the only source of knowledge. More importantly he acknowledged my right to make mistakes and learn from them. He would let me draw for hours, and then we’d discuss what I did in a noncritical and relaxed way. I was just a child, and he understood that.
WAK: Do you remember any of the artists who inspired you when you were young?
BM: Yeah, the ones who made colorful works, like Miro, Klee, and Chagall. I was fascinated by bright colors; I think that still runs through my practice today.
WAK: Did your father’s library have books about Egyptian artists?
BM: Yes, we had fewer of those but still a decent amount, most of which were published in the 1960s, a time when art books about Egyptian artists as well as translated books about international ones were abundant and supported or published by the government. Unfortunately this is not the case anymore. My favorite Egyptian artists were Hamid Nada, Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, and Ragheb Ayad. They all worked differently, but something about the way they altered reality attracted me and left room for my imagination as a child. Eventually, on a family trip to Cairo, my father took me to the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, where I saw their works. Years later when I went to art school in Cairo, I went back to the museum several times to see their work again.
WAK: So your family was supportive of you becoming an artist?
BM: Yes, absolutely.
WAK: You’ve participated in many residences in a lot of different countries.
BM: My exposure to the outside world began with working as a camp counselor in Maine for three summers during art school, as part of an exchange program. Leaving a city of eighteen million inhabitants to find myself in complete isolation from the complexities of the world, in the woods of Maine, was an intense and educational experience. It made me realize the world doesn’t only look different from what I’m familiar with but also, more importantly, it thinks differently. Fifteen years later, I still believe this was my first real learning experience. After finishing art school and realizing I needed to know more about what artists are doing now, I spent my savings on a ticket to New York, where I spent three months visiting galleries and buying art books. This was followed by a number of residencies in Basel, Cape Town, Istanbul, Prague, and Quebec. It was important for me to be in different places to see different things and meet new people. I always got new opportunities from residencies, but they also helped me reevaluate what I was doing and discover new ways to say things through my work.
At the time I did my first two residencies, other Egyptian artists were already showing extensively internationally. It was a few years after September 11, and among a group of curators there was a clear interest in art coming out of Egypt. They would fly into Cairo, do a few studio visits, and put together shows in European museums that claimed to represent Egypt or the region. From early on I decided not to participate in those shows, and this obviously delayed the exposure of my work internationally. With hindsight, I still think this was the right thing to do.
WAK: Was that when you wrote your essay, “Walk Like An Egyptian”?
BM: No, actually, that was written after a frustrating and eye-opening personal experience. In 2003, I applied to a respectful art academy in Europe, which offered an intensive program of focus on work, exchange of ideas, and discussions with great artists whom I respected. I was shortlisted and invited for an interview. After an extensive interview, during which I discussed my work at the time with American war-movie imagery and its inherent propaganda, I felt that the jury members were constantly trying to direct the discussion towards positioning my work in a more Egyptian context.
Subsequently, I wasn’t accepted, and when I asked the jury for an explanation for that decision, I was told that my work wasn’t in touch with my immediate social reality. At that point, I realized the decision was not about what I wanted to say but about what I was expected to say.
WAK: At what point did you think that they clearly had a vision in their minds of what an Egyptian artist’s work should look like, and they were projecting that on you?
BM: It was during the interview, and it put me off because I felt misunderstood and unheard. There were a lot of expectations from both sides. It was frustrating that they couldn’t understand that the work I did at that time actually very much related to the Egyptian situation: where moviegoers bought tickets to American movies that glorified its military while, right outside the theater, others where protesting the invasion of Iraq.
But at the same time, one of my other thoughts was, Had I known what they wanted to hear, I could have told them just that. I’m glad I didn’t do that, but of course it crossed my mind. (laughing)
WAK: You could have just given them some paintings with pyramids and the Sphinx in the background with a few camels. (laughing)
BM: Yeah, it would have been nice—a couple palm trees! (laughing)
WAK: The Arabic word for artist, fanan, has many different interpretations. Do you feel differently when you are working in Egypt versus when you are in Basel?
BM: It is different to say, “I’m an artist” in Egypt than in Europe or the US because it means different things. In Egypt, if I say, “I’m an artist,” people will ask me, “Do you sing? Do you act?” In Egypt (and I believe in different parts of the Middle East), fanan can mean different kinds of artists. In Europe, people hear “I’m an artist” and understand that I am a visual artist. Of course, there are big differences between practicing in Egypt versus in Switzerland, but they are not necessarily about definitions. They’re more about the excitement, urgency, and challenges and the pace and intensity of surrounding events. Although for the past three years I’ve found myself to be mostly physically based in Basel, I’m definitely more mentally present in Egypt.
WAK: You began with making paintings and later moved to films—can you talk about that transition? I know that some of your paintings and works on paper also complement your films. Is Maybe There is a Message your first film?
BM: Maybe There is a Message was my first and only video; after that I began working with Super 8 film. The starting point was a work on paper called The Night the Devil Had a Nightmare. Then I tried to stretch that idea by creating a setting and a more layered context. The outcome was a video that looked at dreams, out-of-body experiences, and a slightly disturbing and absurd vision of the things we fear.
WAK: Why Super 8?
BM: In my particular situation, Super 8 film doesn’t respond to any sense of nostalgia. In 2009, I decided to buy my first Super 8 camera at a secondhand store in Switzerland; it was really the first time I’d seen one. As soon as I watched the first spool of film I shot, projected on the wall of my studio, it became obvious; I thought, this is something I want to work more with. Working with film made me better understand my interest in constructing narratives. A time-based medium that is far from mimicking reality in all its detail was exactly what I needed to construct narratives full of affiliations and suggestions instead of mere storytelling. My first Super 8 film (partly shot on video) was Turtles All the Way Down (2009). The work began from an attempt to look at what we know about the universe and ended up being about a monstrous and unfathomable entity that is beyond the power of our imagination. So far I’ve shot seven films on Super 8, and I’m currently working on two Super 16 films. It’s just a lot of fun.
WAK: What is going to happen to your practice when film is no longer available?
BM: For now I’m not concerned with what I’m going to do next. I’m always interested in experimenting with new tools. I’m more focused on what I can do with film until it’s gone, and part of that involves experimenting with chemically altered slide sequences. Last year I started working with what I call pickled film. This is an elaborate process that entails exposing different film stocks to household chemicals for varying periods of time. Other stages require a darkroom, which in my case is my bathroom. I’m aware of the fact that many other artists have played with different variations of this particular process, but film is dying and I believe it still has a lot of undiscovered potential. There is still a chance to build on other peoples’ investigations of what it has to offer, but I believe there are also completely undiscovered territories. I’m not really concerned with who has done what, and I don’t experiment for the sake of experimentation. My interest in working with destroyed film came from a need to find a tool to communicate ideas related to loss, destruction, confusion, and the apocalypse. I also like the fact that, unlike digitally altered images, chemically altered film makes the slides tangible objects, a physical testimony to a laborious process.
WAK: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
BM: Stay focused on what you do and experiment a lot, but always remember there are much bigger problems in the world than you not getting exactly what you want. Don’t take yourself or your work too seriously.
To see more of Basim Magdy’s work, visit www.basimmagdy.com and watch Art21’s new film, Artist to Artist: Shahzia Sikander at the 13th Istanbul Biennale, in which Magdy is featured in conversation with the artist Shahzia Sikander.