From public to personal: A discussion with artist Aya Tarek

Adham Youssef
15 Min Read

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

In this exhibition, Tarek is taking the concept of sprezzatura from the fashion world to her own visual world. She is expressing 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.

Photo Handout to DNE

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.

Photo Handout to DNE

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.

Photo Handout to DNE

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?

Photo Handout to DNE

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 middle-class 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.

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