A Cairo Art Story: On Moving To Egypt And The Hoax Of Authenticity
Okayafrica sits down with Cairo-based mixed media artist Ibrahim Ahmed.
In 2013, Ibrahim Ahmed quit his job as an art handler to become a full-time artist and travel the world. His journeys led him to Cairo—a city he visited every summer as a child. The son of two Egyptian parents, Ahmed was born in Kuwait, raised in Bahrain and moved to the United States in 1997.
In the two years since arriving in Cairo, Ahmed, now 31, has become a rising star in the city’s art scene. He took up a residency at Artellewa, an independent art space in Ard El Lewa where he lives. His mixed media work explores topics from transnational identity, migration and borderlessness.
This month, his art was shown at the Derrick Adams-curated section of the prestigious New York Armory Week show, VOLTA NY. We caught up with Ahmed in Brooklyn.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alyssa Klein for Okayafrica: Why did you move to Egypt?
When I first came to America in 1997 as a 13-year old boy, I got all these weird questions, like, “do you guys have cars? Do you ride camels? Do you live in the desert? Do you have TVs?” So I was taken aback, like, what the hell do you think we are? Of course, when I later starting reading about Edward Said's Orientalism, Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, Audre Lorde, and all these writers who speak to this otherizing of people of color, it made more sense.
In Egypt my humanity isn’t questioned. Outside of Egypt, for example, Homeland Security was waiting for me in London before I boarded the plane en route to JFK. They “interviewed” me. Then when I landed in New York, they "interviewed" me again. And they do this whenever I land at JFK. They always take me aside. So when I went to Egypt—now I’m not saying it’s all pretty because people question my Egyptianness—but they don’t question my authenticity as a human being. In America, I’m racialized, and I’m not seen as human.
What was the political situation like when you got to Egypt?
The police force had sort of dissipated [after Tahrir square]. When I got there, they had just come back—it was pretty intense. I think there’s a whole generation of young Egyptians who saw things that the average civilian shouldn’t see. There’s a lot of people in the country who have post-traumatic stress syndrome. Psychology exists in Egypt, but only for certain classes. The average Egyptian doesn’t have access to facilities or therapy. You have a lot of people who are traumatized; when you see a tank running over a couple hundred people, that’s pretty intense.
A photo posted by Ibrahim Ahmed (@ibrahimahmediii) on
What’s Cairo’s youth culture like?
It’s fucking interesting. There are certain things that happen there that didn’t exist six years ago, eight years ago, let alone ten years ago. You have these interesting fusions of hip-hop culture meets European meets its own Egyptian culture.
Not to say that it’s all pretty. There is also a sense of defeat, being tired, wanting to get out of Egypt, and of course not being able to. But the youth culture is rebellious. It’s also conformist. It’s everything you would think of youth culture that exists anywhere in the world. Parts of it are very fruitful and very keen on looking at what’s out there. I think with the advent of the Internet and YouTube, it’s a free-for-all. There’s kids there talking about things that I didn’t even know about when I was their age. It’s doing its thing—evolving constantly.
Egyptians don’t sleep. I don’t believe in stereotypes, but in summertime, nobody sleeps. Even in wintertime—nobody’s in the streets, because it’s cold to Egyptians—but everybody’s up until four in the morning. Then everybody finally sleeps and wakes up for work nine or ten in the morning. It’s really fun to be around, and it’s refreshing.
The language, certain ideas of space and community, they vary, but it’s all very familiar to me. I guess, to answer your question, the youth culture is very similar to say if I were to go to Newark or some parts of Harlem or Brooklyn.
You mentioned that in Egypt you deal with people questioning your Egyptianness.
One of my first memories is of being asked me about my nationality in a hospital. As a kid, I was very aware that I was born in Kuwait, raised in Bahrain, and I had Egyptian parents with an American passport. I told them, “I’m American, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Bahraini,” and they laughed, and they said, “No, no. You’re not any of those things. Your parents are Egyptian but you’re American.” And I remember feeling embarrassed and rejected.
Growing up in Bahrain, even though I had never lived in Egypt, I was always Egyptian. “Ibrahim the Egyptian.” And they would mimic the way Egyptians speak. Then I would go to Egypt and they’d be like, “Wow, you’re so Bahraini.” Go to America in 1997, and then it’s, “Wow, you’re so Egyptian.” Stay long enough in America and go back to Egypt, and the would say, “Wow, you’re so American. Your name’s ‘Ibrahim USA’.”
I’ve realized that this idea of authenticity is a hoax. There is nothing that is authentic in regards to identity. Cuisine, language, it’s all borrowed. It’s all exchanged, it’s all stolen, it’s all appropriated. Being in Egypt there’s a very stagnant idea of what Egyptianness is. Which is kind of funny, considering Egypt is one of the centers of the world where every empire has had its stake. We’re this amalgamation of all these things and yet Egypt is very rigid in its identity.
Ibrahim Ahmed at his Pressing Fallacies solo exhibition at Townhouse Sodic, curated by Sars El Adl. Photo: Eto Otitigbe. Courtesy of Ibrhaim Ahmed/Gallery Nosco, London.
How is that manifested in your art?
I’ve made it a mission of mine to question the notions of authentic identity. If we pull out a word or a piece of fabric and say this is so Egyptian, I guarantee you, I will be able to tell you—if I do the research—that this comes from somewhere else. I guarantee you, just like blues or hairstyles or words that it all comes from somewhere else. In my work I highlight these meeting points of cultures by creating architectural tapestries with various motifs with fabrics from countries involved in the silk road trade. We didn’t necessarily have borders at that point, so there’s a fluid notion of identity of language and cuisine that influence what we still see to this day.
Textiles were one of the major import/exports of that [silk road] era. Wherever I go and wherever I can go to markets, I recreate this all-inclusive narrative to show you that, okay, you think this is Bahraini identity. Bahrain has had Portuguese, Congolese, Angolan, Iraqi and Iranian heritage, and yet they have this very nationalistic “We’re Bahraini.”
Egypt is the same thing. America is the same thing, with Trump and “Oh, we’re American.” I don’t know what the fuck that means. What does that mean to be something and one thing only? I think it works different for brownness and blackness. It’s very rigid, because if you ask a white person where they’re from in America, they could say, “I’m a mutt. I’m French, Swiss, etcetera.”
If you were to live by stereotypes, a white person can claim five stereotypes, and an Egyptian can only claim one. So even if you want to follow that format, there’s still this fluidity that’s allowed within the parameters of American and European whiteness, but is not allowed in say, Africa. And even the idea of Egyptians claiming Arabness and not claiming Africanness, because African means that your dark-skinned, wide nosed, big lips—it’s like, no, Africa’s pluralistic also.
To tie it back to the work, I highlight these architectural references, these borrowed motifs. What looks like Baroque, Rococo European, I got from Turkey. Because the Ottomans were bringing in Baroque, Rococo designers and architects to build their modern homes.
What is the work that you brought to Volta?
It’s actually the series called Ard El-Lewa. It’s an ode to the area that’s allowed me to do what I do. It means land of the general—military general—but I also wanted to play with the idea of land of the general, as in ‘in general’. The are many refugees there and also immigrants. So you have Indian and Chinese merchants that live there as well as Filipinos, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Ugandans, you name it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they integrate, but it’s there, and there’s access to this, the cuisine, the words.
Ard El-Lewa #9, 2015, 5 ft. x 4 ft. (left) and Ard El-Lewa #4, 2015, 8 ft. x 6 ft. Photo: Hamdy Reda. Courtesy of Ibrahim Ahmed/Gallery Nosco, London. Private collection Rio de Janeiro.
Can you speak at all on “Africanness in Egypt”?
I consider myself an African. Egypt is African. Depending on who you talk to, however, there are Egyptians that pride themselves on their Italian heritage or their Armenian heritage—some have British or other identities that are not African, and they don't want to claim African. If anything, they see themselves as Egyptians. But it depends who you talk to. I can't speak for 90 plus million people.
But from what I know, from the areas where I live, the young kids will say, "We're African." "We're Egyptian.” They're proud of it. You go to other places and people are like, "No, no. We're Arabs." And other people are like, "No, we're not Arab, we're not African, we're Egyptian." It's very complex, but I think it's definitely informed from colonial teaching, colonial thought. Even the kids that claim Africanness, it's a form of rebellion in a way.
To answer for myself, I claim myself as an African, and it's just the tip of my identity. I’m African. I also have Arabness in me. I know for a fact I have Turkish blood. It's very complex, our identity, and so is Africa. Africa is very complex. It's all these things.
I met somebody who's literally fifth generation Uzbekistani in Egypt. There’s Armenians who have been there for generations. They don't know how to speak Armenian, they just speak Arabic. There's Coptic Christians who claim themselves as Coptics. It's a whole other identity. It exists within the frame of Africanness. It's complex. So when we flatten it, when we reduce it to just one thing and one thing only, it doesn't acknowledge the complexities that is Africa. Even depending on where you are in Egypt, nuances change. If you go to the south—Luxor, Aswan—it's different. If you go to Siwa, which is an oasis closer to Libya, they speak Amazigh, it's a completely different language. It's a different culture. That's all within just one country. You go to the Sinai, there are Bedouins. That's Arab culture. It's very complex. Like I said, I can’t speak for the 90 plus million Egyptians.
How are Africans from the rest of the continent treated within Egypt?
Once again, that depends who you talk to. But pretty shitty from what I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate. I’ve seen young and older Egyptian men and women treat Sudanese or Ethiopian folks like utter shit. It’s surprising, and at the same time, it’s not surprising, because I see the same things here [in the United States]. I see the same things in Italy. It’s the same thing. The people in the back of the kitchen cooking, the people working odd shitty jobs, they’re all people of color.
It’s unfortunate that we mimic this, although some would say we've created it, I’m sure it depends on what side you’re on, and you can say, “No, this is your own constructs.” I think that the intensity to which people treat darkness in Egypt and this whole bleaching skin creams, I think that’s all indoctrination. I don’t think that that’s homegrown, not at all. But I’m sure if you spoke to people, they’d say, “Oh, you’re fucking crazy. This is Egypt’s own doing.” I don’t think so.
The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, 2014. Courtesy of Ibrahim Ahmed/Gallery Nosco, London.
What are you currently working on?
For my residency in Egypt, I did a piece called The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It's based on a book by a Ghanaian writer [Ayi Kwei Armah], and the book has these constant images of decay and hierarchical structures that oppress, and people who are indoctrinated by European thinking and Eurocentricity. The piece is something that I want to come back to.
This piece was inspired by the blackouts that occur(ed) in Egypt. When I first arrived, the electricity would cut a lot and we’d constantly use candles. They started piling up, the melted wax looking like decayed structures or remnants of a building that is falling apart. And something about that was this weird, poetic metaphor for when, in the absence of colonial power, because of the traumas that were inflicted on the Egyptian people—and we now know that trauma can be passed down through DNA—we reenact these oppressive hierarchical structures on our own terms, in our own way. So in the absence of electricity, a quote, unquote, “metaphor for colonial power,” we sit there and make our own colonial hierarchical structure, so the candles symbolize these homegrown structures.
I created a chandelier because Baroque and Rococo design is still a thing in Egypt. You have money, you get Rococo furniture or Baroque furniture. It’s very floral, over-the-top and excessive. And so we emulate it, although these designs were created at the expense of countries that were not in Europe; the jewels, the crystals, diamonds and the silks, all this was found in Asia, and Africa. We still, somehow, want to emulate that symbol of oppression.