Yasmine ElMeleegy: Rituals of Healing
Written by Nadia Mounier . Published on..
Yasmine ElMeleegy (*1991) is a multidisciplinary artist whose work traverses a range of media, including sculpture, video, and multimedia installation. She often engages with found objects and sculptures. In her research-based practice, she creates installations and participatory events to instantiate counter-narratives to receive histories in site-specific contexts. Memory and Repair permeate ElMeleegy’s work as she navigates the private sphere and the public sphere with her methods of inquiry. Indeed, she uses domesticity as a touchstone for further explorations into broader contexts such as the history of architecture, the choreography of infrastructure, and the cycle of renovation and repair, amongst others.
I met Yasmine in 2015. We had our first contact through a messenger call as she was doing her residency in the Egyptian center of art in Rome. I invited her to participate with her work ‘The Cactus Dress’ in the exhibition project called ‘The Egyptian Spring’ that I co-curated with the Finnish curator Anna Ruth shown at ‘Akkigalleria’ in Jyvaskyla (fi). I got to know Yasmine as an active and productive artist who works intensively on her projects. Exploring different materials stands in the center of her practice. For her recent work, she investigated notions of repair, and she relates them to historical narratives and memory, building different multimedia installations. I find her approach to artistic research as interesting as her installations.
NM: What influenced your work before and now?
YM: I would answer that there is nothing specific but many different aspects that can inspire me. It could be artists that I follow, places that I stumped into spontaneously, or objects that I found. All of these could lead me to new research, kicking off a new project. For example, the historical part of Cairo, or as we call it, “Old Cairo”, is a place I usually turn to when looking for motivation. It serves as the main area for handicrafts in Cairo where there are markets for all materials and technical tools. My family’s background links me strongly to handicrafts, so I go there to connect with craftsmen and I execute my projects at their workshops. They teach me a lot about the nature of different materials, putting me in direct contact with the technicalities and tricks of various tools. This is the more physical influence on my practice, whereas, on the other hand, I follow museums, galleries, and artists, often online, to nurture my vision and motivation.
NM: You have worked with different materials, like rubber, cement, wax, glass, marble … How do you transfer your ideas into mediums? How do you decide which form is needed for the ideas you are working with?
YM: With each project, I grow interested in a different material. I connect to the main concept by searching for materials that could fit. It’s, for me, a kind of emotional relationship I build slowly with the work. Every project looks vague in the beginning, with no trace to follow, but only going following my passion towards a certain form, a certain materialistic structure that I have in my mind. It’s a process of exploration more than anything else.
I follow objects that I find, or I look for materials that have been used in the past, or where and how they were fabricated. I explore structure and form-giving. Upon my findings, I move forward. It’s a two-way process where each side helps the other to move inside the cycle of production. For example, while working on my long-term project ‘A Cup of Tea with Fathy Mahmoud’, I tried different forms of production. It all started with a set of cups that were owned by my mother. I was taken by their quality and form. It brought me to search from where they were made. The moment when I turned the cup upside d
own, is when the project started.
I started my research on ‘Fathy Mahmoud’, the Egyptian sculptor who owns a ceramic brand that most of the Egyptian middle class, restaurants, and hotels seem to use. He makes affordable ceramic tableware where the material intersects with his design and character. I found it very interesting to engage with his mass production pieces and look at the borders of what’s considered artwork and what is not.
The early phases of the research focused on the motives of his designs, working on reproducing some of his cups and reconstructing them in a way to fit my research narrative, but with time, the process has changed completely, and eventually, I decided to work on a publication side by side with my video work. Both are new art forms for me, but this is how I like to move freely through the whole process. I wanted to treat the project differently this time than what I am used to doing every time.
NM: Based on our earlier conversations, I’d love to refer to the high cost of installations that can work as an obstacle for you.
YM: Yes, true. I have been thinking recently about the short life of installations. Finding opportunities that cover the production costs is not an easy task. I spend a lot of time putting much effort into writing applications and applying for grants that are not easy to get and are not generally available in our region.
Once I get one, my chances of finding other grants shrink. It doesn’t stop at the production phase, but the budget issue continues for the shipping of the work, the hard procedures of showing it abroad or reproducing it again. It is a strain, but on the other hand, it brings up new ideas. A good example is how the research for ‘A Cup of Tea With Fathy Mahmoud’ drove me to the idea of a publication..
Although it needed a lot of work, it is kind of a relief to me. It opened up a whole new process of production that I had never dared to tackle. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I treat it as a sculpture piece, too. Working on texts, editing them, and formulating my research into words is like crafting a new piece.
NM: But aren’t you afraid that reacting through publications would not be felt physically, unlike artworks within the context of an exhibition?
YM: Not really, I aim for a kind of publication that shares more of the story behind ‘Fathy Mahmoud’, the sculptor, and the businessman. It will include various narratives, some of which will be historical, such as his famous site-specific sculptures, which can be found in most Egyptian city squares, but others will be fictional, such as my imagined conversation with him, in which we will discuss the status of objects we share. The same way he claimed his sculptures to be “art for the people الفن للجماهير”, the same way I wish to adapt the publication project.
NM: Your recent project ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’ is based upon collaboration; how did you manage it?
YM: ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’ was a site-specific installation that was an intervention in the historical pharmacy of Stephenson in downtown Cairo. It involved a lot of work in the back of the project. It’s not easy to go to people to introduce yourself and your project and get them involved with what you have. I’d sometimes go home after a long day, very exhausted and desperate about how it would go.
Stephenson Pharmacy was founded by George Stephenson in 1889, during the British occupation of Egypt. Its aesthetics, with its embossed cabinetry and medical tools collection, brought from England at the time of its establishment, reflect its colonial history, begging the question, after all these years, if it is a pharmacy or a museum.
Starting the research, trying to have access to archival materials was not an easy process. I had to invest a lot of time building a relationship between myself as the artist and the owner of whatever entity I was approaching. This, connectes to the core idea of interventions. It can sometimes be very bad, losing the common ground between us, but other times it can produce amazing, unexpected results.
This project involved a lot of other people to realize it. I wouldn’t have been able to do the whole process alone. Renovating the pharmacy and scanning its historical context through its artifacts and architectural structures that were shaded with dust involved different craftsmen. This project involved a lot of other people to realize it. I wouldn’t have been able to do the whole process alone. Renovating the pharmacy and scanning its historical context through its artifacts, and architectural structures that were shaded with dust involved different craftsmen. For example, I worked closely with the last watchmaker in Cairo, Ashod Papazian, and together, we were able to repair the built-in watch inside the interior shelves of the pharmacy.
NM: Resonating with what we have talked about earlier, ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’ is a good example of the short life of the installation. Can you see what I mean?
YM: Yes, this project was a one-time show. Once it’s over, there’s no option to see it again. I can only show and share its documentation and video work that accompanied the project along with the handicrafts I produced. But to put it on view as it was, that will not happen.
Also, the kind of audience that experienced it was very different. I was trying to expose the installation to various audiences. It’s not limited to art and cultural practitioners, but anyone who is passing by the pharmacy to buy his or her stuff would get involved with the work.
NM: How did you find a space for your mother in your installations?
I find it satisfying and relieving to follow her trace in my projects. I explore notions of absence through her. She was the main inspiration to ‘Rites of Passage’ and ‘A Cup of Tea with Fathy Mahmoud’. ‘Rites of Passage’ investigated the process of repair. The repair of a doll that was gifted to my mother on her wedding day. She was always passionate about repairing her collectibles. Since then, I have been attached to the idea of repair as a ritual, a process that you do and repeat to find healing. Repetition helped me accept her absence. Then, with ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch, I trace George Stephenson, the owner of Stephenson Pharmacy. What I started with my mother a few years ago; continues to resonate with each new project.
NM: I like the idea of healing through repetition and repair.
YM: When I started working inside the pharmacy, the early process of cleaning it, having it prepared for the renovation, was my favorite part of the project. It heals me in a way.
NM: Where do you see your work 5 years from now?
YM: With the presence of Covid, it is difficult for me to imagine how it’s going to work. The current situation makes it not clear what I can plan and accomplish. But I have a general perception that in the coming years I might need to do a master’s degree in one of the universities that I follow and aspire to join. Also looking for a long-term artist residency program is a good opportunity to develop my work. It’s all related to the global situation of travel and movement, Mobility is getting more difficult now, and consequently planning my work gets more and more difficult. If we talk within the framework of 5 years, this is a very short time because any application requires a lot of work, until I get accepted and manage to secure myself financially is not less than a year or two. On the other hand, having a gallery supporting the artist remains an important matter, but in the circumstances, it is difficult to achieve.
I am trying to use this time in a positive way. With the lack of work opportunities, we must get out of the occasional spaces, the white cubes. Being in Cairo right now helps elaborate this. Egypt is cheaper in production. I’d love to use this period to work in a calm atmosphere where I am able to focus and experiment without the rush of showing off new work.
If I was in a situation where I was traveling consecutively between an exhibition, an art residency, or a grant, I would not have got the chance to work on a project like ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’ that needs much time to develop as I have mentioned.
In general, I am very passionate about projects that are built upon interventions with site-specific spaces and narratives. I’d use this time of traveling difficulty to boost this more in my practice. It’s also easier to work in a city that you are familiar with. I can easily get access to places, and materials and have a common sense of its culture. Better than going to a new city with new aspects for a limited time to develop a project and produce it, which is what the majority of programs and art festivals usually do when they invite artists.
Speaking about the production, It is cheap in finding materials in Egypt and using workshops. It makes it more effective to try and experiment with more ideas rather than being careful with executing any of what comes to your mind in order not to waste money from your limited production budget. But at the same time, it’s a bit desperate when you feel that you are left alone. The art market and world are structured in a way to be around big cities, centers of art. It doesn’t really allow the space for local artists to find a meaning to work where they choose to live. It doesn’t allow the decentralization of artworks.
NM: Yes, I can totally relate to what you are saying and it takes me to the next question, regarding the travel ban because of Covid 19, how do you think artists can survive? Would you be able to work from your home city for that long? I mean, how much is traveling connected to artistic practice, especially in an art medium like yours that is centered on installations and sculpture?
YM: Travel and movement are really a very important part of any artist’s practice. It has its advantages and disadvantages like everything. I keep thinking that it makes the artist busy, continuously, with no time to take a breath. I wouldn’t have done my lastest projects if traveling was the same as in 2019. I’d have still been busy with moving around, following my work here and there. Looks like it needed a world crisis to allow us to slow down a bit!
But again it’s very essential, It renews my energy, the way I look at things, if I hadn’t been to the museum of pharmacy in Basel, It wouldn’t have led me to ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’ and this is where everything move and handover to the other projects.
It also works as a good source of money especially when you are considered as a young and an emerging artist.
Unfortunately, mobility restrictions are increasing every day more than before. It might be hard to continue the same, especially with the hard and long procedures of obtaining a visa besides the complicated process for shipping work. You need strong support from art institutions to be able to knock on the doors of embassies in which they can insure your work and cover all the additional costs that have to do with the costumes system inside or outside Egypt.
This goes back to the limited scale of showing work in Egypt. It doesn’t resonate further when you show your work in a gallery or in an exhibition in Cairo or Alexandria, as the two main cities of the Egyptian art scene. You feel like it’s out of the map of opportunities and cycle of exhibitions. So, we find ourselves in the discussion here, of whether it is a matter of the quality of the artwork or the lack of display that excludes us from the circuit of opportunities in the contexts of art.
NM: Have you tried online exhibitions? After 2020 they were explored in a totally different way by a lot of artists and institutions that worked as a falling rock in the still water.
YM: I was invited to a few online exhibitions which I found hard to participate in. They need a new mindset to accommodate my work into the online format. I wasn’t that fast to cope with their style. It involves new ways of high-quality professionally shooting of my installations and sculptures, which actually changes its concept in a way. So, it’s again what pushed me to work on interventions in public space. It’s easier to share and produce work in this format.
NM: Now after being a mother yourself to a 2 months little girl, you might be following the recent calls and writings from mother artists around the world discussing the working conditions within the art world in relation to being a mother and the decision of having a family. This is a very long topic, but in brief, before we finalize, How do you think motherhood will affect your path and practice?
YM: I gave birth to my daughter one day after the opening of my exhibition ‘Scaffolding a Familiar Epoch’. I had to continue promoting it on my social media accounts the days after, otherwise, I’d lose the required exposure before it ends. What I missed was to follow up with the audience during the show and have the project documented as I wished.
Right now it’s hard to decide how it will go, I needed some headspace, and get my time with my baby. Meeting you over zoom now is already an achievement I will celebrate for the whole day. I don’t know yet how much it will affect or change my career as an artist. The only condition that threatens my practice is the lack of income that accompanies the whole economic status of the art world. Having a child is more like a change of my time plan and schedule of work, whilst the lack of money is enduring my energy and potential to produce.
Art for Millions – Fathy Mahmoud
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Yasmine ElMeleegy: Rituals of Healing