Arts + Culture

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.

Luxor Temple. #Egypt #ancientegypt #ancientart #art #history #ramses2 #statue #luxor

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.

Keep up with Ibrahim Ahmed and his latest exhibitions on Instagram and via Gallery Nosco.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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