Born in 1961 in Alexandria (Egypt), Nasr lives and works in Cairo. After studying economics, he decides to devote himself to art, soon becoming one of the leading exponents of the international art scene. The artist has obtained widespread recognition for a practice that includes sculpture, video, film and installation and delves into the cultural and socio-political processes that continually reshape world geopolitics.
However, his art also carries a strong spiritual message inspired by Sufi mysticism, imbued with personal memories and references that make his visual vocabulary understood universally. In 2008, he created Darb 1718, Contemporary Art & Culture Center in Cairo, a multifunctional space, to bring out contemporary creativity in all its forms from art to theatre, music and dance.
I reached the artist via Zoom in Cairo to talk about the exhibition at CONTINUA, and the state of contemporary art in his country.
TECTONIC SHIFT, title of your exhibition at GALLERIA CONTINUA, addresses the idea of movement and change. How do the pieces on show engage with this concept?
Moataz Nazr: The title of the exhibition is related to what I’ve been working on lately, which is the idea that everything keeps changing. We may not see the earth moving, but in the northern and southern hemispheres alike tectonic shifts are happening. There’s movement everywhere in the universe, everything shifts, it’s the law of nature itself and the very structure of matter.
I started thinking about this issue some time ago, while reading the fourteenth century Tunisian philosopher Ibn Khaldūn. He wrote that human history evolves in loops and also described the three steps of nations’ evolution: the rise, a period of stability and then the fall.
I thought it would be good to split the exhibition in two parts to show that there always are a positive and negative side to change, and that we have to learn to live with this alternation of good and bad times, to be open to what life gives us.
To illustrate this concept, I placed at the centre of the exhibition two coloured wooden sculptures, geometric shapes inspired by Arabic sacred iconography, that are complementary and can fit perfectly into each other.
Let’s talk first about the side of the show where works critical of contemporary society and politics are found.
Moataz Nazr: The textile pieces titled Propaganda were conceived in 2003, when I asked a friend from Iraq to send me some of the propaganda leaflets that the Americans threw from the planes during the Iraq war. The leaflets are a kind of warning: they show an action and the consequent American reaction. But I called them Propaganda because in fact, the reaction will happen regardless.
The first time the leaflets were sent to me they didn’t make it across the border into Egypt. It took a year to finally get them, I had to have them sent to Berlin to a friend that brought them to me.
They were shown for the first time in 2006. I got the idea of how I could use the pamphlets from the tent market in Cairo. It is an old tradition, still alive now, that when people go on hunting expeditions, they use this type of textile decoration on their tents: I put two things together, as the Americans in Iraq were out for a hunt. Every war in fact is a hunt.
There is a wonderfully mesmerizing piece, a video titled At Death’s Door (2009), in which a pita bread is filmed heaving in the oven as if it was breathing, accompanied by the sound of a gasping breath, which makes it even more effective. Can you tell me about it?
Moataz Nazr: In 2009, just before the revolution, Egypt was suffering from a dramatic shortage of bread to the extent that people would fight and die in riots in front of the bakeries. Bread for Egyptians is the essential element of nutrition, it’s in our culture. Bread makes you fill full. The bread rising and falling also links into what I was saying before, everything moves, goes up and comes down, over and over.
What about your craquelé crystal map (Shattered Glass, 2019) of the Middle east and the one hanging opposite to it, made up of coloured matches?
Moataz Nazr: The glass map of the Middle East is borderless, and it shows how I felt about what was happening over there at the time. The idea came to me when a glass broke in my studio. I suppose that now the whole world is crackling.
The map made with matches is about fragility. Each match is like a human being for me: fragile, but at the same time holding power and energy, just like a match holds the power of fire.
And many matches together can start a big fire…
Moataz Nazr: Exactly.
You also address the recent pandemic with four neon works, featuring words . Can you explain the collective meaning of these words?
Moataz Nazr: The first I made was the word Democracy a few years back, but it stayed in my house and I only thought of using it when the pandemic started. In the show, it appears by the words Covid, Human Rights and Media. Democracy refers to the present crisis of Democracy and of the meaning of the word itself today, with all the issues of control that have arisen during the pandemic.
I also mention Human Rights, because some countries like Egypt are accused of infringing them, though it goes under silence that other leading countries violate human rights all the time without suffering consequences. The work also addresses the role of the media, with all the fake news pushing people around I was looking for a title to bind it all together, and I found the perfect word which is “Truth-i-ness” a neologism emerged in America. It refers to what is a lie according to known facts, but that is told in a way so likely that it seems true.
In the more metaphysical side of the exhibition, the large installation Barzakh is composed of geometric elements covered in mother-of-pearl mosaics of Arabic inspiration. You explained that the work is inspired by the architecture of Castel Del Monte, in the Puglia region in Italy, where you exhibited in 2019 in a solo exhibition curated by Achille Bonito Oliva. How does this work reflect your idea of spirituality?
Moataz Nazr: When I was researching the Castel for the exhibition I was reading a lot about Federico II di Svevia. I wasn’t quite sure about what had been the real purpose of this octagonal fortress, because, surely, this extraordinary man with his intelligence, sophistication and culture must have had something special in his mind when he was building it. I finally found an answer in Sufi mysticism, where the number eight and the octagon, that recur everywhere in the Castle’s layout, are important symbols of purification.
But why building it on top of a mountain and what about the towers? Then I realized that the building had been conceived like a Hammam, a Turkish bath, a place to relax with friends, purify and converse. I was also intrigued by the unusual shape of the windows, all different, large on the inside, then narrowing inside the thick walls and widening again on the outside. Their shape made me think of a liminal space, a concept expressed by the Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi, who talked about barzakh, a space in between two states.
I will explain with an example. Imagine those animals that live in a shell: at some point, they outgrow their homes: to move on, to grow, they have to move out, change. The moment you take the decision to change is the liminal space, that for Ibn Arabi was an ideal state of balance, open to change, where we should always find ourselves. I wanted to give form to this beautiful concept, therefore I copied the shape of some of those windows and covered them in mother of pearl mosaics.
Sufi- inspired architecture is the subject of Come to Light (2019) seven identical architectural models made of crystal in pastel colours, reminiscent of the structure of a mosque. How were those conceived?
Moataz Nazr: In many Sufi-inspired buildings, a square body is surmounted by a dome. The square building represents the body, the dome represents infinity. But you can’t go from body to infinity without going through purification in order to become a better person. So in between these two shapes, there is an octagonal shape.
I reproduced this structure in crystal in seven colors to encompass all people. Due to the working process, there was a change to the work as it was intended, a sort of concave recess at the base of the pieces that added airiness and beauty, and for this I am really grateful to those who made them!
The exhibition wraps up with a graceful hanging alabaster sculpture resembling Arabic calligraphy, that makes one think of a key of some sort. Can you tell me about its significance?
Moataz Nazr: The title of the piece is Ya Wadod, that could be translated as the most loving, and refers to a kind of all embracing, universal love and compassion, that for me are the keys that open all doors in life, even in disastrous times. I thought it was a good way of ending the show.
In 2008, you created Darb 1718, Contemporary Art & Culture Centre in Cairo, a multifunctional space to provide support for young Egyptian and international artists to exhibit their works freely, to organize exhibitions and establish a community through workshops, lectures and public programs. What is the current situation of Darb?
Moataz Nazr: At the moment, we have slowed down a bit, because the political climate is not ideal. The problem is also financial. It is very difficult to obtain funds and I have personally financed most of Darb’s activities for the past fourteen years.
When I have some money, I put it into some project to keep Darb alive, but it takes a lot of money, so the activities have become a little more sporadic than before. I hope to find sponsors, but I’m not very good at going around asking for money, and I can’t afford someone to do it for me.
Darb also brought to Egypt many international artists, I read.
Moataz Nazr: Yes, we brought curators and artists from all around the world. For the opening many of my friends, among them Kader Attia and Martine Pascale Tayou just to name two, came on friendly bases, we had more than forty international artists.
In 2010 the Cairo Biennale was stopped for economic reasons. In 2015, I decided to do a collateral event for the Biennale that doesn’t exist. It was very successful with more than 120 artists taking part, and we reiterated in 2018.
At the outset of your artistic career in 2001, you exhibited at the eighth International Biennial of Dakar, where you won the Grand Prix, just before making it to Europe. Can you tell me about that experience?
Moataz Nazr: Actually, winning the Biennale Prize of Dakar Biennale in 2002 was my entrance gate to the international art world. Salah M. Hassan and Okwui Enwezor saw my work and invited me to the Venice Biennale in 2003. It was the first time that an Egyptian was invited to show outside of the Egyptian Pavilion. There I met Achille Bonito Oliva, who introduced me to CONTINUA. I’m grateful to Africa for this, so any time I get a chance to exhibit in other African countries I’m happy to do so. Paradoxically it is hard for me to exhibit in my own country.
Speaking of which, what’s the state of contemporary art in Egypt now?
Moataz Nazr: In 2019, there was another edition of the Cairo Biennale that for many reasons was disastrous, mainly because many of the artists invited were ‘governmental’, chosen by their governments, and the Biennale didn’t reflect at all what contemporary art is.
The Government exerts control over contemporary art spaces, and all but Darb were shut down. They allows us to work, but we were not given a license, so if we cross the line we can be shut down. Nevertheless, we are always trying to push beyond the limits, I’m not intimidated. The beauty of contemporary art is that through metaphors you can have many layers, you can say whatever you have to say.
You are a self-taught artist, since you come from economic studies. Is it true that one of the first artists to introduce you to contemporary art was Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum?
Moataz Nazr: I met Mona at the Cairo Biennale in 1998, and with her I started understanding the meaning of contemporary art. I learned from her that you can use all sorts of different materials, and, importantly, how to present them as art. I’m grateful for that. Materials can inspire you but you have actually to put them together. Each material has its own personality. Sometimes, if you are using more materials some tend to overshadow others, and you have to make that work, find a balance. What I love about art is that through materials it helps me to be connected to everything around me.
Compared to western artists, a larger number of artists in North Africa and the Middle East deal with thorny socio-political issues. Do you agree?
Moataz Nazr: Yes, because they are surrounded by so much conflict. Artists put a magnifying glass to make visible those issues that other people may not see. This is an artists’ role and responsibility. We master the strong language of art through research to be able to speak to the world, though sometimes our own people don’t understand this language. But in recent years this got better in the Middle East, and Africa, it wasn’t so when I started twenty years ago.
Finally, do you have a dream, artistically speaking of course, that you still haven’t been able to realize?
Moataz Nazr: I have many dreams! Becoming an artist is already a dream come true. I would love to keep on learning more, I’m fascinated by history and cultures. Also, I would like all the good artists that we have in Egypt, and there are many, to come forward and show their work to the world, say whatever they want to say. Whenever an artist who has shown at Darb emerges and wins a prize somewhere in the world, that is for me the greatest satisfaction. This was the meaning of creating Darb in the first place.
Sources and insights: Moataz Nasr: 'TECTONIC SHIFT, SPOSTAMENTO TETTONICO' GALLERIA CONTINUA Via del Castello 11 53037 San Gimignano (SI) 26/03/2022 — 18/05/2022