Interview with the Egyptian artist Omneia Naguib
Written by Rania Atef.
I am meeting with Omneia Naguib. She is a visual artist and illustrator based in Cairo. Her practice spans drawing, collage, and photography. She focuses on parodying and exaggerating certain formal aspects inherent to our contemporary society, while reflecting on the everyday aesthetics and values. I am going to discuss with her the living and working conditions of an artist in Cairo.
Being an artist myself, we want to reflect on how to manage the tense reality of artistic productivity and economic existence in present-day Egypt. The field of contemporary art may appear to be broad and wide, brimming with possibilities, talent, and ideas from various directions, but it has another face that burdens those who work in its framework. It is vulnerable, sometimes harsh. The infrastructure of this field seems somehow unfair; it is a long process that begins with conducting research, hours invested in readings and discussions, thinking about how to produce, and is often accompanied by long months of filling out forms and applications to obtain a grant or funding. Not only this, but there are also the factors related to forming a network of connections in order to be visible, heard, and exist either on a local or international level.
When discussing the situation of contemporary art in the MENA region, we have to address an important issue: the precarious financial situation faced by artists. This is in addition to the research, development, and production processes, without even mentioning post-production, its importance, and its impact on furthering the artist’s practice. When it comes to budgets, it seems that there is no proper valuation, not to the creative process nor the time invested, but they rather only account for the physical production in terms of materials, technicians, tools, and sometimes, if available, artist fees for the time being consumed on production. In addition, we must juggle the dynamics of opportunities, methods of representation, material capabilities, and other factors. This harsh nature of the field of contemporary art led to the fading out of artists that could not keep pace with these dynamics and found themselves ‘tweeting outside the flock’. Unable to handle the uncertainties of this framework, a lot of real potential gets lost.
This problematic framework and missing infrastructure in contemporary art led me to search for artists who produce art while working on the side as employees and to investigate how this affects their visibility and their ability to be seen.
Omneia Naguib is one of them. She is an artist, a designer, and an art director. When I approached her, she said to me, “I am an artist far from the cultural and artistic community, so I don’t know if this will work for you,” and I replied, “that’s exactly what we are going to talk about”.
RA: I want to start from the point of duality; that you do work as an artist and a graphics designer. How do you compromise between working in those two positions? Does this dual role allow you to sustain a stable path in art? Or how does it affect your position as an artist? From my position as an artist, I can tell that the dynamics of this dual nature are not easy at all.
ON: This has been my problem for years; I am trying to hold the stick from the middle. It used to work somehow, but for the last 3 or 4 years, I have been feeling exhausted, and my energy is low. My work as a full-time graphic designer consumes a lot of energy and time, so this situation is not sustainable. I have to work though because it generates income for my daily expenses, and the art field with its financial dynamics does not allow you to sustain the minimum wages needed to cover basic expenses needed to survive as human beings.
So I feel like I am out, but I can still produce artwork. I can’t, however, persist in writing applications, applying for exhibitions, residencies, and funds. The situation is somewhat depressing. The result, though, is that I am suspending my practice because I do not know what to do or how to proceed under these conditions.
I always feel that I am not capable of writing about my practice in the right way to represent it, where I am satisfied that it truly expresses what I do. I have scattered thoughts, but I don’t have a clear artist’s statement. And I don’t feel that I have access to the proper writing tools that would help me develop texts about my work, maybe because I am not fully involved in the art scene. But I can’t focus on this now, along with my full-time job. I only apply for opportunities that I come across by coincidence and that do not ask for a long list of requirements.
RA: To be honest this part of writing and applying for opportunities needs effort and dedication. Writing itself is a long process especially as it needs constant re-working according to how your practice develops. But still, it is a very important stage to be able to move forward in one’s art career. I completely understand that you can’t find enough time and energy to go through it if you have a full-time job.
ON: Maybe the reason behind not being able to write is that I need time, much more time, and practice too, to write about my practice and how different works are connected to each other, but my work as an employee does not leave enough space to go through this process.
RA: Speaking of your work, I see that your art practice is based on the idea of production first, then comes the stage of weaving the threads and linking the ideas within what you have produced, so that the concept becomes clear. This is different from the research-based practices that are common in the field of contemporary art. Do you think this affects your ability to write about it?
ON: Many times, I was busy figuring out and writing a concept, research, and stuff. And that always left me stuck and unsatisfied. And in one of my conversations with a friend, she drew my attention to the fact that I am the type of artist who starts with production and then allows the idea to emerge and form from it. I think that the process-based practices are a bit difficult to articulate in words and they need persistence so that you can always find the big ‘umbrella’ that you are working under. But again, where is the time and energy to do so?
RA: But I think this is normal, or that there is no right or wrong in this method of working.
ON: No, it is not wrong. I am just always busy with the ‘process’ and how I can translate my ideas into drawings and sketches. But I can’t deny that I always have questions regarding the art scene as a whole, and my position as an artist in this context. I began to question: what is contemporary art? And what is form or shape in this kind of art? Am I part of this scene or not? These are some of the questions that I always ask myself.
RA: Do you think this mode of questioning and the idea of belonging to a specific way or approach affects your practice and that’s why you stopped producing for a while? By the way, I am sad that it has been a while since you have produced new work.
ON: I feel sad too, but there is a feeling of depression that makes me unable to produce again. The question is: what will happen after I produce? It is hard to find bigger steps than what I am doing now, where I feel I am stuck. Speaking of guidance, I need to discuss the work with more people and see how it can develop. I try to situate my work in a framework and push it further, that’s why I see mentoring as an essential part for an artist to develop work. It is important for the whole art process, especially for emerging artists.
RA: Still on the subject of your practice, I can tell that your works revolve around women, their bodies, and their relation to the public sphere; portraying suffering, stress, and the dominance of restrictions. So I would like to find out more about your process: do you plan before starting to sketch these drawings? Or how does the process start?
ON: I don’t know! Everything happens within seconds. It is a completely spontaneous process, like a diary. I don’t know how it starts; I draw women, parts of their bodies, sometimes distorted bodies. I mean I don’t bring the pen and paper and say, “I will draw a woman that looks like that.” My line leads the process along with my mind, and that results in these drawings. I know there is always something common among them; they sometimes resemble the situation women find themselves in, they talk about limitations and restrictions, sort of expressing bodies in a specific way with certain feelings. I always try to discover what is beyond my body and my personal experience with it.
RA: And do you mainly express yourself or just other women?
ON: Of course, I mainly express myself! And maybe this resonates with other women’s situations.
RA: I understand that you don’t have a decision or plan prior to production. But I notice that you lean towards the use of black and white in your sketches and drawings.
ON: Every project has its own nature and style. For example, the “Flamingo” series is a completely experimental process. I started drawing them and then I decided to color them in this manner. So they became a series of their own with their own themes. Every time I try something new, it appears with a new series. Maybe this is what makes me feel that I don’t have a general structure or specific framework.
RA: Back to the public sphere, and your great interest in the space that appears in your work. I know that you like to take walks in the streets, and it is obvious to me since I was raised in the same region, and know very well that the relationship between women and the public is full of many restrictions and strains. Does the process of walking help you draw?
ON: I love walking in the streets, and I used to do so on a regular basis. I can’t do it now as intensely as before. Walking in Cairo was very important to my practice and production process. My eyes were enjoying seeing tentative details. I consider walking as a kind of meditation.
RA: Art is considered a platform to vent ideas, fears, and feelings, so I was also thinking that maybe because your practice is personal – as you say you always express yourself – so it is somehow difficult to speak about it in text, not in drawings? The text puts you in a confrontational position with what you expressed through your work. Especially if you are not talking about trees, global warming, or climate change. Sometimes you produce work and don’t want to see it again because you are not ready to face certain feelings.
ON: Yes, you are right, I won’t lie if I told you that sometimes I freak out when I see what I have drawn. I have a hard time understanding how I reached this point. I don’t want to be using complex words or ideas now, but I am often faced with a huge amount of pain, struggle, and fears that I am usually not able to recognize in my daily life; I don’t even know that they exist. For example, sometimes I get shocked by the sharpness, of the positions of bodies and I wonder, “What exists within myself that needs to vent in this way?”
RA: Did you try to write text in the form of diaries along with the drawings?
ON: I tried, and I wish I could do that more often. One of my projects titled ‘The noise’, which I produced as part of the ‘Photo Cairo’ event, was the output of a workshop I attended with Heba and Ghada Khalifa. At this time, I felt that I wanted to write, write more, but I was afraid it would take away from the value of the drawings. It is very tricky to put text beside a photo or drawing. It either adds great value, completes the idea, or can totally ruin it. So I am trying to find a way where I can include text with my works so that it brings added value or that it allows them to complete each other. My hands are always driven towards drawing, but I’m not sure about properly translating my feelings into text, although I do have a strong wish to do so.
RA: Maybe you can do both but separately?
ON: This takes me back to the idea that we talked about a while ago, that writing can further strip or expose people. You can’t run away from this situation. Maybe I am not brave enough to start writing and expressing myself completely with words.
RA: As far as I remember, you used to work in a studio, when did you leave it? And why? And how do you see the next steps regarding your practice as an artist?
ON: I left it almost two years ago. It belonged to the family, and I stopped going as I told you, so I had to give it back to my family so they can use it. I moved all my belongings to a storeroom that belongs to the family too. But to be honest, the existence of a studio helped me a lot to produce and work. The space gives you more time to experiment with ideas and work on projects.
RA: And don’t you consider having another studio now?
ON: I really need one now, but it would be too expensive for me, especially that I am searching for a place close to home or work, so I can easily get to it. But this is definitely my next step!
instagram.com: Omneia Naguib
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