An introduction to the work of Omnia Sabry
Written by Alexia Alexandropoulou
Let me introduce Omnia Sabry: She is a filmmaker and artist living in Cairo (eg), at least at the moment. She has been actively participating in various exhibitions, art residencies, collective projects, publications, and educational programs. Amongst others, she has exhibited within a collateral project of ‘Vienna Biennale’ (at), at international public art project ‘Kunst Stadt Chemnitz’ in Chemnitz (de), ‘The National Gallery of Fine Arts of Jordan’ in Amman (jr), ‘Qalandiya International’ in Jerusalem, and ‘Contemporary Image Collective’ (CiC) in Cairo (eg). Her film work has been shown at the ‘Arab Film Festival’ in Beirut (lb), ‘Mostra de Cinema Árabe Feminino’ in Rio (br), at WalkTanzTheater in Feldkirch (at), and at ‘Sharjah Film Platform’ in Sharjah (uae), to name some.
I had the pleasure of getting to know her work after scouting for artists from the SWANA region. While I originally come from a Mediterranean country, I realized that I had very little knowledge about the conditions of the contemporary art scene in neighboring North African countries. The virtual encounter with Omnia shed light on the local art scene and introduced me to her manifold artistic practice.
Omnia Sabry is interested in exploring language, addressing surfaces as archival bodies, sites of memory, time, and the everyday. She currently focuses on the politics and esthetics of image-making, green chemistry, and the interactions of light-sensitive surfaces: their ability to sensitize, desensitize, erase memory, give agency to, or take agency from other surfaces, beyond human inputs in the process of documentation or witnesses.
Besides her artistic practice, she has also been involved in different roles as a cultural practitioner in various art institutions by working with archives, educational programs, exhibition production, project management, and translation. Interestingly, this long journey became an integral part of her artistic practice and gave her an overview of the art world by being both an artist and a cultural practitioner.
In the following interview, Omnia speaks about her diverse work and artistic projects, the inequalities of working in the art sector, and the challenges of being an artist from SWANA.
AA: Tell me about your background and education. Was what you have ever studied relevant to your practice?
OS: I moved to Egypt to study image design in the cinematography and photography department in the applied arts faculty. It was my first encounter with in-depth studies of the nature of light, how it behaves, and its interactions with light-sensitive surfaces. In parallel to my studies, I pursued alternative education methods. I remember translating John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ to Arabic in the first summer break of university, as I was very fascinated by it. Through interacting with the local art institutions, I started meeting other professional artists and photographers who introduced me to new ways of making images and working.
AA: How did you start practicing art professionally?
OS: I situated myself and my work within local arts institutions whose work I valued at the time and started meeting professional practitioners and initiating conversations, some of which were more fruitful than others.
AA: How do you define yourself as an artist?
OS: I don’t.
AA: What are your research interests and what themes are you exploring in your practice?
OS: I’m interested in exploring language, addressing surfaces as archival bodies, sites of memory, time, histories, and the everyday. I’m currently focused on investigating plants as film and light-sensitive surfaces, considering them as living witnesses and collaborators of histories.
AA: Tell me about the medium(s) you use? What are some of the challenges or opportunities you encounter when working with them?
OS: I appreciate mediums with the potential of creating states of intimacies, in the making process and within the exhibition space; and often find this more present while working with analog mediums. It’s difficult to constantly sustain, find proper material, have access to facilities, and be able to archive and preserve the work properly. Analog allows for more room for experimentation. Amongst the most magical encounters, I had was when I opened the light to view the results of my work in the darkroom.
AA: What is your artistic process? Could you speak a bit more about how your concepts relate to the medium that you decide to work with?
OS: It is often influenced by the project. For example, the work ‘In Search of the Lost Children of the Pearly Lands’ (2019) was commissioned for a printed publication. Working with text and images wouldn’t limit the possibilities of the lives that the work could have. A written dialog or music notations in a document could be performed in different contexts. In the third chapter of the research project ‘Chlorophyllic Memory: To Blossom Images’ (2019-ongoing) titled ‘A Light Ichor’ (2021), I decided to work with textile alongside the chlorophyll prints.
By sensitizing fabric and sewing an enlarged structure of a plant leaf, audiences could experience the work by walking through an eight-meter outdoor installation. The project investigates plant surfaces as film and light-sensitive material, living archives, and collaborators of histories. The textile is a site-specific work for a castle built at the beginning of the 18th century. It was created within a research residency in a valley in southern Switzerland, commissioned by Pro Helvetia Cairo.
I collaborated with two local women from the nearby village to sew part of the fabric that carried the structure of the plant. One of them spoke English while translating Italian with the other. I first encountered them inside the Castello where they held weekly meetings sewing, sharing stories, tea, and homemade food. Even though the exhibition and festival hosted regional and international guests/audiences, it made sense to create a work tailored and influenced by the language of the people living in the place. You can tell by looking at the work that it carries multiple voices. The work could be used later in the film I’m working on. The exhibition space itself is a medium I’m constantly growing curiosity towards. When changing the medium it’s akin to changing the alphabets with which I speak – whichever medium I work through so far, I often find the need to expand its language, and mine.
AA: Can you tell me more about your ongoing research project ‘Chlorophyllic Memory: To Blossom Images’?
OS: I investigate the materiality of the skin of plants in conjunction with their cognitive behavior.Their communication, memory, and learning processes concerning their light sensitivity and the imagery they could document and capture.
In its first chapter, images of other sensitive surfaces, like human skin, are introduced to the leaves’ skin, and their interactions are noticed. The resulting chlorophyll imprints are then exposed to sensitive colored paper, creating colored prints on archival photographic paper. The chlorophyll prints are ephemeral, while the c-prints are well archived and preserved. One is closer to the events they capture than the premise of the photographic image, while the other industrial-made surface, which employs more toxic energy while carrying the preserved image. In the second chapter, I printed the imagery which accompanied the text ‘In Search of the Lost Children of the Pearly Lands’.
And in the third chapter, I standardized the imprinted image and began testing on various plants’ species while observing time, the chemistry, and individual differences in each plant. Comparing the results while researching how plants think, is an attempt to understand how the plant sees regardless of the human input in the process. The project assumes that plants are living witnesses and collaborators of histories. Throughout the experiments, I’m growing to prefer working with older trees instead of short-cycled plants and younger trees.
The earliest experiments were made during residency time in Amman’s MMAG in April 2019. And the first commission for the project by Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective was in June of the same year. Progress of the work was shown in the MASS Alexandria exhibition at the end of the same year. During the lockdown, I had the opportunity to experiment, develop the work and support it with deep research and the project grew gorgeously. I received an invitation to participate in Locarno’s Verzasca’s Foto Festival and to speak in ‘The Dissident Goddesses Land’ with the assistance of Wijhat mobility grant of Cultural Resource.
This project has inspired the ‘Sacred Blue Lily’ (2020-2021), which is part of the development phase of my upcoming film ‘Seas of the Pearly Lands: Light Conversations’. In this part, one of the film’s protagonists, a botanist investigates the water lily of the Nile, the ‘nymphaea caerulea’ plant: its architecture, social histories, chemistry, and cognitive behavior. The plant influences the structure of the film and its fictional narratives. It’s very nice when each project has a consistency of its own yet weaves threads together with other parallel projects.
AA: How has your practice evolved? Can you recall a particular turning point?
OS: I used to consider cinema and film as my native language. When I started engaging with contemporary arts, cultural institutions, and art practices seven years ago I met different alphabets. I started cherishing and realizing how essential the process is and started reading and making work differently.
AA: Reflecting on the context, what are the challenges you experience as an artist today from the SWANA region?
OS: The region has diverse conditions, economies, and challenges so I will specifically reflect here on the situation in Egypt. In light of the limited funding resources, scarcity of facilities and quality materials, and the uncommonness of governmental support, the subjects which one could explore are usually censored or narrowed according to different agendas.
It seems like I constantly need to think and work in different languages, consumed in acts of translations to be able to sustain myself or produce work. Security threats are constantly present in the background, sometimes finding their way to the frontlines. Difficulties obtaining proper education or accessing data for research. Restrictions on movement and mobility, to be present, to see and be seen-, and inability to experience events, -sometimes even those that I’m taking part in, are becoming more and more frustrating.
There’s no infrastructure or basic support system of health care, public facilities, or social security., the conditions in which artists are asked to produce within are precarious. The economic situation has been very stressful in the past years. With the inflation, while artists are systematically underpaid -or getting paid in exposure-, a lot of artists rely on ‘foreign economies’, they relocate/migrate to other easier-living conditions, and become distant from their subjects/audiences. Some get consumed in commercial work to sustain themselves and eventually withdraw from the artscene.
AA: Do you have any other jobs alongside your art practice?
OS: I have had many other jobs throughout the past seven years and none at the moment. I have worked as a cinematographer and in other roles in artists’ films, produced and assisted in other artists’ works. Translated texts, documented events, and assisted in different research processes. Somehow considered these jobs as part of my art practice at the time. Since April 2019 I have been prioritizing my art projects and research and I currently don’t have any other jobs alongside.
AA: What is your relationship with curators and other practitioners? Does collaboration play an important role for you?
OS: This is often influenced by the investigation and the situations surrounding each project. Through conversations, we construct shared spaces, where exchanges are happening beyond the work we collaboratively create. It sometimes feels like we are constantly exchanging hats. Long-term collaborations play an important role for me; in my learning and growth processes and I simultaneously value making new relationships. It’s like growing vertically and horizontally at the same time. I often initiate conversations with thinkers and practitioners from different disciplines like architects, musicians, scientists, and crafts(wo)men. To grow with and bring this back to film and my work.
MOPHRADAT Bruxelles (be)
PRO HELVETIA Cairo (eg)
prohelvetia.org.eg: Omnia SabriWijhat c/o Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy Beiurt (lb)
instagram.com: Omnia Sabry
TASAWORAT PUBLISHING PLATFORM