On art and life: Biennale winner speaks out

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T here’s something about Amal Kenawy. Intriguing, warm but with a hint of coolness, open yet reserved, Amal Kenawy is like her living room which inspires wonder the moment one enters. It’s a clearly unique space, with her multi-faceted personality asserting its identity. It’s colorful and playful, a room which draws you in, and encourages you to touch, imbibe the sensory experience, feel.

Born in 1974, this award-winning Egyptian artist says that since she was a child, she knew what path her life would take. She studied Fashion Design and Fine Arts, but was not impressed by the mediocrity of the classes. “I was inspired by my older brother, an artist, who taught me what to learn and what to leave,” she explains.

Inspiration is the core of what Kenawy believes it takes to be an artist. “If you can inspire others through what you do, be it cooking or writing, and if you do it with love, then you are an artist,” she exhorts.

“Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?” is the oft-asked question. For Kenawy, art is life. She rejects the clichéd portrayal of misunderstood artists filled with angst, wanting to live in creative isolation. “The media has created a kitsch, unrefined image of artists. Art is about expressing life, and connecting with life through the audience,” she says.

Kenawy did just that for her performance art piece ‘Silence of the Lambs’ which won her the Grand Prize in the Cairo 12th Biennale this year. In 1998 the Biennale had awarded her the UNESCO Grand Prize. Her piece was interactive and multi-sensory; a living room and kitchen decorated for Christmas, live cooking, a video playing.

Kenawy feels the need to bridge the gap between artist and audience, and to merge life and art. She took to the street for the video installation in her piece. In downtown Cairo, she, together with a group of actors and her 10-year-old son, engaged with people, drawing them into the performance. Her work was a social statement on the condition of Egyptians. The lambs are people, silenced by their feelings of powerlessness. And in the voicing of daily frustrations, there’s only noise.

The silent performance was more potent. She ‘shepherded’ a group of workers, as they crossed the road on their knees. This particular act was met with alarming hostility. One bystander protested, and others followed blindly, accusing her of humiliating Egyptians. The social attitude is that of self-censorship. National Security was called, and Kenawy was arrested, thus exemplifying an artist suffering for their work.

“It was difficult explaining performance art to the police,” she recalls. “They didn’t understand it, and thus didn’t see it as real art.”

Kenawy is visibly shaken recollecting her night in prison. “They wanted to humiliate me too, so I was placed in a mixed prison. Men and women have to share one cell.” She’s also still upset by the lack of support from Townhouse Gallery upon hearing of her arrest. “It’s a sensitive issue, but they could have stood by me. I felt no respect as an artist.”

The Ministry of Culture tried hard to step in to help her but State Security said that it was too late. Kenawy is accepting of this. She doesn’t want to be the person who’s called a complainer, and she doesn’t want to attract unwanted attention from authorities.

Despite the difficulties faced here, Kenawy has not considered moving abroad. “Before, it was because I was married with a baby. But as an artist, I wouldn’t want to move,” she says definitely. “We are all influenced by where we come from. My identity is here, it’s flexible and I have been shaped by the good and bad. I understand Egypt and it understands me.

It takes a long time to find a clear identity in another country. That’s risky for an artist.”

Kenawy’s work encompasses all mediums, and she draws on the laws of biology, nature, physics. “I lean on physics for a sculptural installation. It’s all about unity. Everything has a function, and the form is perfect depending on the function.”

There is also a spiritual element to her work. She studied Sufi arts for a limited time, but does not regard herself as a Sufi. She does, however, find understanding in Sufi ideologies. “There’s a balance in the Sufi way of connecting the soul and energy to life,” she explains.

Just as artists have been portrayed as misunderstood, the general public have been portrayed as not being able to understand art. Kenawy reiterates, “Art is life. People think they don’t understand, but they do.”

She believes we all have an artistic gift within us, we just have to broaden our definition of what art is.

This article was amended for clarification and accuracy on Jan. 11, 2011.


“Booby Trapped Heaven” video animation shown in 2005 Venice Biennale.


Kenawy was arrested while filming her award-winning "Silence of the Lambs."

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