“Let’s play”: Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam on the credibility of images – interview

Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam captures the farce of stereotypes in contemporary mashups. 

Nermine Hammam challenges mass media and the slippery slope of myths and fantasies with her bold series depicting a decidedly new narrative on “Orientalist” art. Art Radar spoke with the artist to learn more about the importance of an image’s credibility and the many “micro-violations of truth”.

Nermine Hammam, 'An Akmee's Admirers' by Francesco Peluso from the “Wétiko ... Cowboys and Indigenes” series, 2013, hand tinted digital collage, edition of 3, 67 x 80cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘An Akmee’s Admirers’ by Francesco Peluso from the “Wétiko … Cowboys and Indigenes” series, 2013, hand tinted digital collage, edition of 3, 67 x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam (b. 1967, Cairo, Egypt) graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Filmmaking in 1989. After graduation, Hammam worked in the film industry for Simon & Goodman and Egypt’s Youssef Chahine, and then became a graphic designer before moving on to the visual arts and photography.

Hammam’s work has been shown widely throughout the world, including solo and group shows in Denmark, Egypt, France, Italy, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, Singapore and the United States. Cairo/Texas: A Photographer’s Diary, a monograph about Hammam’s work, was released in 2014 by Rose Issa Projects. The artist’s work can be found in both private and public collections, including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and Italy’s Parco Horcynus Orca.

Art Radar caught up with Hammam, who spends time between Cairo and London, to learn more about her experience as a photographer during the unrest in Cairo in 2011, why the artist thinks that street art is effective, and how the intersection of East and West plays out in contemporary art.

As mass media continues to have a significant impact on contemporary society, how do you view the “strategic editing and micro-violations of truth for the sake of the narrative”?

These things are not new or only happening now. They have been happening for hundreds of years. Only now, the medium has changed. If you look back a couple hundred years ago at Orientalist art, it was doing the same thing. The images were not real. These images were from the fantasies of the men who drew them.

In the past, artists would use paint. Today, they use mass media and images in the news, but the content is constant – how they view the ‘other’, how they want to have a second narrative that’s been built on layers and layers, over hundreds of years, to create a certain mindset.

Look at the BBC and what they have done with images in the past several years. For example, they have shown images of people running over corpses and have proclaimed that “we have to bomb Syria”. Then, it was discovered that the images were in fact from Iraq, two or three years earlier. This causes one to lose truth and credibility in an image.

Nermine Hammam, from the “Cairo Days” series, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, from the “Cairo Days” series, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

How do you use images or narratives from mass media to bring to life what is happening in the world without portraying the “second death of victims” or further desensitising the viewer?

I don’t go about just portraying anything. I do the opposite. My mindset is, “Let’s go all the way and let’s play around and take it further.” Everyone is saying it’s not a farce. So, if you throw it in people’s faces that it is a farce, maybe the idea will come through.

This whole thing started when I went to Rabaa Square, where the Muslim Brotherhood were all sitting against the government. This is where the idea for the Wétika series came. I went with a French journalist. The others thought I was also French, and they were speaking in Arabic. I could hear them saying “Lie down and just pretend that you are dead at the end of the road.” So I kept telling the journalist, “This is not true, they are playing you.” In the end, I realised that the journalist wanted to hear that story. It was a game between the two of them – an unspoken game. When I wrote about this, I got so many letters asking me how I could say these untrue things about journalists.

So, I said to myself – let’s play. There’s nothing real. Whatever is portrayed is a kind of Orientalist art, a reflection of the portrayal of the region from a couple hundred years ago.

Nermine Hammam, 'Dreamland', from the "Upekkha" series, 2012, digital photography, Epson Ultrachrome K3 ink on Hahnemuhle FIne Art Pearl Aper, Edition of 3 + 2 AP, 67 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Dreamland’, from the “Upekkha” series, 2012, digital photography, Epson Ultrachrome K3 ink on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl paper, edition of 3 + 2 AP, 67 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

In 2015, how are Arab subjects portrayed in art? Is there a connection to Orientalist painting of the nineteenth century? Does this image impact East-West politics and policies and how people in the West view the populace from the Middle East? 

We end up seeing ourselves the way we are portrayed. After a few hundred years, we look at ourselves as such. Always, when a dominant culture starts portraying another in a certain way over time for a few hundred years, it is my idea – although I may be wrong – that the “subjects” start seeing themselves as such. Look at the history of a lot of people that have been dominated. I hate to talk about politics all the time! Whenever one talks with an Arab or Middle Eastern artist, it always ends up being about politics.

According to Jack D. Forbes, a Native American scholar and writer,  “modern civilisation has suffered through many decadent times” and is faced with ‘Wétiko’, a psychosis at the heart of civilisation, first spoken of by the American Cree tribe. Does your series “Wétiko … Cowboys and Indigenes” challenge myths to “propagate a new way of seeing”?

I think we are now entering very deep waters, because what exactly is a myth? I think the way that we are using a myth now is something that is not real, while in the past a myth was a story that enhanced society and tried to make society better. Today, we’re talking about a myth being something that is not real. Joseph Campbell talks about this a lot and about how the word has changed in society. We have to be very clear and if we are using myth as something that is not real. In this case, it is more like a fantasy.

Nermine Hammam, 'Armour 1' from the "Cosmos" series, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Armour 1’ from the “Cosmos” series, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

What is a “myth consumer”? What myths do you depict and investigate in your artwork?

The whole idea of myths in the past included things like African or Native American myths. These are stories that deal with the psyche and the subconscious to enhance society. Right now myths have become more like a fantasy, or how we’d like to view others based on how we’d like to fantasise about them.

In the “Wétiko … Cowboys and Indigenes” series – those are not myths, they are fantasies. For example, the West fantasised about how the Orient would be. If you look at the images, you’ll find that all the women are voluptuous, lying there smoking a hookah. I haven’t seen that during my lifetime and I don’t think that a couple hundred of years ago they were living like that. I don’t believe that one hundred years ago, my great grandmother was doing those kinds of things. This fantasy in the modern world took another form. You have the fantasy of the barbaric Arab. I have a feeling that after some time, we start seeing ourselves as that image. I believe that Edward Said said a lot about that as well.

I look around and at these images and think these are not me, these are not my people. Who are these people? Who made these people? These people are fabricated by Austrian or French people who hung out in Egypt for a couple of years.

Nermine Hammam, 2013, 'Audience Chez Un Kalifat' by Eugene Fromentin (1859) from the "Wetiko Cowboys and Indigenes" series, hand tinted digital collage, 63 x 80cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, 2013, ‘Audience Chez Un Kalifat’ by Eugene Fromentin (1859) from the “Wétiko … Cowboys and Indigenes” series, hand tinted digital collage, 63 x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Can art play an important role in challenging the nuances of culture and belief? How?

Sure. Art and other things – not art only. Often, those who appreciate art are from a certain educational background. Art in itself does not trickle down. For example, in Egypt there was a huge movement of graffiti. It was fantastic! Of course, the government was trying to paint over it and then the artists would come back and do it again. I think by itself that [street art] is a fantastic form of art, which can reach the masses. It is very direct, very playful. How many people have seen the graffiti on the streets in Cairo and how many have seen the “Wétiko” series? I feel that street art reaches more people and has more of an impact.

You were in Cairo during the revolutionary upheaval in 2011. What did you see there regarding stereotypes and myths that surprised you?

When I was in Cairo, there were no foreigners and no foreign press or photographers, just Egyptians. What was very interesting during that time was that there were very few people with traditional cameras – maybe me and a couple hundreds other people. There was something very equalising about the situation in 2011. The whole uprising, if you want to call it that, was photographed by phones. There were millions of people in the streets and you would then have millions of images. People would be holding up their phones and taking videos and photographs. There was no high art or the expert photographer, who would come and take the picture and then tell everybody how to interpret it. Everybody was part of it!

Nermine Hammam, 'Fauna' from the "Unfolding" series, 2012, digital photography, printed on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Rice Paper, editions of 3 + 2 AP, 26 x 20 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Fauna’ from the “Unfolding” series, 2012, digital photography, printed on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Rice Paper, editions of 3 + 2 AP, 26 x 20 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

You blended Japanese scenery and aesthetics alongside military personnel in riot gear in your “Upehkka” and “Unfolding” series. Do you think that power and the construct of military might are often revealed through similar choreographed performances and imagery regardless of what country they are happening in?

Yes. For sure. But a lot of these images were taken by ordinary people and their phones. It’s a purer image. This person is walking down the street and he sees something and takes a picture of it. These aren’t professional images. These are for the people, by the people. For example, if you have one image or one scene and twenty people are taking the image from different angles, it is difficult to adulterate that image.

Please tell us more about “Upehkka” and what it means.

Upehkka means steadiness in one’s mind in the midst of turmoil. An indifference to gain and loss. Being focused.

Nermine Hammam, 'Armed Innocence II', from the "Upekkha" series, 2012, digital photography, Epson Ultrachrome K3 ink on Hahnemhule Fine Art Pearl Aper, Edition of 3 + 2 AP, 60 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Armed Innocence II’, from the “Upekkha” series, 2012, digital photography, Epson Ultrachrome K3 ink on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl Paper, edition of 3 + 2 AP, 60 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you feel that at its very core, contemporary art has the ability to bring people together and achieve a state of equanimity or is it, by its very nature, exclusive and self-serving? How?

Unfortunately, it is self-serving. It is exclusive. When I sell my prints, each one is worth “x” amount, it is in itself “exclusive”. The message is exclusive, the text is exclusive, the gallery is exclusive. In a way, maybe yes. However, if the press takes it and puts it out there with no thinking of gain and it reaches a wider public, then that can be more inclusive. But unfortunately, it is [primarily] exclusive and self-serving.

Nermine Hammam, 'Days on the Range - Hands Up!' by Frederic Russell (1900-1904) from the "Wétiko…Cowboys and Indigenes" series, 2013, hand tinted digital collage, edition of 3, 80 x 54cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Days on the Range – Hands Up!’ by Frederic Russell (1900-1904) from the “Wétiko…Cowboys and Indigenes” series, 2013, hand tinted digital collage, edition of 3, 80 x 54cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Any upcoming solo or group shows, exhibitions or biennales that you will be participating in within the next six months?

I will be participating in the “Intimate Transgressions” group show this September in New York City at the White Box Gallery. Currently, my work is part of “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” showing at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center through 4 May 2015.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: art and activism, Egyptian artists, art and mass media, photography, political art, art about war

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