My practice stems from and responds to street culture and the practices of everyday life in the small village of Sharqiya—where I grew up—and the chaotic megalopolis of Cairo, where I now live and work. Islamic concepts and forms, folk superstition and ritual, and contemporary reconfigurations of both subtly meld into each other, inform each other, and create new visual and conceptual combinations in daily lived experience. The figures, tropes and metaphors of traditional Islamic arts and architecture have melted into the traditional folk and street practices that are the basis of my work.
For instance, my graffiti and sculpture series “Invisible Workings” (2005) consists of abstracted silhouettes of working figures, representing the unseen laborers (such as street sweepers and garbage collectors) who keep the city working out of the sight and mind of passersby. The abstracted, swirling, geometric forms make visible the invisible, combining a social and political imperative with a spiritual one, calling up contemporary realities in a mystical, abstracted language that evokes traditional Islamic forms in a contemporary, politically informed guise.
My video installation “Iftar” (2004) was similarly based on the juxtaposition of street culture, Islamic tradition and, in this case, art history. Each afternoon during the month of Ramadan, workers throughout the cities and towns abandon their activities and gather for the Iftar meal. They sit at public tables in the streets where free food is provided for all those who either cannot afford the meal or are transient workers who have come to the city from the villages. For the video, I invited 12 workers from a backstreet in downtown Cairo to reenact an Iftar. The piece slowly unfolds as the meal is consumed quietly in a naturalistic manner, making a clear reference to a Christian artist’s depiction of a group of pre-Christians dining in a scene that has, across both East and West, become iconic. In the installation, the video is screened before a table around which sit a series of abstract, highly geometricized silhouettes crafted out of metal—a silent testimony to the invisible laboring class that, once again, evokes Islamic forms in its visual language.
A more recent work, “Until” (2011) was a video installation that was a meditation on history, local cultural traditions, featuring a looped video of a man having his face threaded in the traditional manner by a barber from the working-class (and currently hotly contested) neighborhood of Boulaq, shown in a darkened space lined with newspapers dated from my birthday on each year of my life. The work was conceived of prior to the 25 January revolution, and was meant to question the way that historical narratives are enacted upon us by the powers that author them. There is a stark chiaroscuro in the staging of the video installation, suggesting a play between ignorance and knowledge, physical reality and a higher plane of spirituality, that is inspired by Sufi poetry.
In sum, because my work is so deeply rooted in local culture and traditions, even as it navigates contemporary social and political issues, it is inevitably deeply enmeshed in the visual vocabulary of the Islamic artistic tradition.