One of Egypt’s most exciting artists, Hazem Taha, is opening a retrospective of his work at Albareh Art Gallery later this month
Time Out Bahrain staff
Describe the theme behind your exhibition at Albareh Art Gallery. My exhibition at Albareh Art Gallery will be a retrospective show, and so will include a range of work. The theme of my new work is ‘Varnishing Things’, which is based upon hiding elements of the painting. This idea can more or less be considered Oriental. It reflects our cultural and ideological beliefs. We cover ourselves with long wide garments, we hide behind windows with mashrabiya. By putting layers upon other layers, which are based on Islamic grids, the painting delivers a new visual language. It might be called the language of paradox: that of East and West. On one hand, the Islamic grids are geometric forms; their main function is to create an optical confusion for the viewer. On the other hand, the hidden elements have been painted in abstract semi-figurative western styles.
A lot of your work is based upon symbols and signs, how they relate to the culture from which they came, and how they translate across regions and cultures. Why are semiotics important in this region?
Semiotics is the theory of signs and symbols. It helps us to understand the meaning behind situations, objects, artwork and so on. I started my career as an artist in 1983 by using signs and symbols in my work, integrating within them religious themes such as heaven and paradise, the Holy Book and so on. Semiotics depends upon the communication process within a culture. Its importance, especially today in the Arab world, is to be able to analyse and understand our heritage. It also helps us to read foreign codes from other cultures, before accepting or refusing them. Without semiotics it would be difficult to create anything, be it a car, shoes, glasses and so on. Semiotics allows the artist to give a new dimension to his work, reflecting on economic, religious, cultural and aesthetic codes.
One of the things you are particularly renowned for is your use of hieroglyphs and other ancient forms of communication. Why is pre-Islamic iconography not used more often in the work of Middle Eastern artists, particularly when the tradition is so rich?
The reason why a lot of Arabic artists neglect or avoid using pre-Islamic and even Islamic iconography is because of the radical movements in the Islamic world. For example, some radical elements object to the use of the key of life symbol because it looks too much like a cross. One famous gallery director in the Arab world asked me in 1999, ‘Why are you using lots of crosses in your paintings?’ I answered, ‘Because the painting is called “The Last Supper.”’ The radical elements in our society want to re-write our history, and pretend that the history of this region only started from the Islamic period.
Some of your most famous work has been photomontage. How is technology changing the way you work? Digital technology is helping me to finish my work in a very clean way and in less time. These two factors are advantageous to any artist. Using the computer language means using light, screen dimensions and so on, and without a computer it would be difficult to achieve what I hope to achieve. That said, the computer is a very cool and stupid medium, and the work can be easily distorted on screen. In fact, I always do the preparatory work in sketches before I sit in front of it. What I have not experimented with yet is integrating social media and chat applications such as Skype in my work. I would love to do so one day.
You were educated in both Egypt and Germany, so in many senses straddle the Middle East-ern/European traditions. Both traditions borrow heavily from one another, but Middle Eastern art very often resolute in its Middle Eastern-ness. Do you see this as a strength? Or as a sign of the art world in this region is somewhat insular? In fact, from the beginning of the last century, many Arabic artists studied in Europe especially in France, Italy and England. Later on a lot of these artists transferred their experiences in Europe to their home countries. Some of them followed western modern art literally; they even taught it in the faculties and art institutions. Others tried to find an overlap between West and East, such as the Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar who used Egyptian motifs with European concepts. There are lots of examples like that, and in my work I mix the Western and Eastern traditions. Today we still find some Arabic artists who are greatly influenced by western contemporary art or are only using Arabic, Islamic or Coptic themes and iconography in their work. Both directions sometimes are successful in the region, but not internationally. My advice for my Arab colleagues is to search and rediscover our modern art history before looking to the West. As the art world becomes more diverse and less focused on one region, it is good to take a global perspective, and not just a European one.
Bahrain’s home-grown art world is incredibly vibrant, but not all that developed. What needs to happen in this country to give it a creative reputation equivalent to that of Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon? Bahrain first needs a faculty of fine arts. Secondly, it needs more culture centres, art galleries and artist residencies. Bahrain should also start to market its artists nationally and internationally.
Hazem Taha will be opening the retrospective at Albareh Art Gallery on September 26 at 7pm. The exhibition will run until October 16. For more information, call 17 717 707