For her commission at the 2007 Sharjah Biennial, the Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna conceived a site-specific installation titled Mirage 07. Based on the boxlike, rectangular billboards shilling for Western products and lifestyle that have been erupting across the landscape in neighboring Dubai, her 26-foot-long rendition in super-reflective gray glass was installed in the middle of a square in the city’s heritage area, where it bore silent witness to the foot-traffic to-and-fro, allowing passersby to watch themselves as if on a movie screen, the banalities of daily life supplanting the exigencies of capitalism. “There’s not a lot of street life in the Emirates,” notes Hefuna, “but in this area there was a lot, because it was near a mosque. And this was like a mural, or a living video.” But come 4 p.m., when the blinding desert light began to settle in the sky, the box went transparent, and one could see the word mirage sandblasted onto its back wall: partly an existentialist gag, but also a serious comment on the contingency of our experience of reality. As is typical of Hefuna’s works, it began as a mirror for her viewers and ended as a kind of lens for normally invisible cultural constructions.
Because Hefuna’s oeuvre is truly multimedia — she works in photography, digital video, sculpture, drawing, and what could be termed participatory installations — the Sharjah commission is as representative as any of her works before or since. It certainly encompasses some of her abiding vectors of inquiry: an anthropological fascination with public space, an affinity for architectural models, and an interest in the effects of passing time and the slipperiness of meaning when context changes. Hans Ulrich Obrist, with whom Hefuna has done projects for the Serpentine Gallery in London (including a tent-based work group at Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner during the 2011 Arab Spring), has described her practice as an exploration of “parallel realities.”
It would be simplistic to state that Hefuna’s work springs from the unbridgeable space between her dual cultural identities, but it would not be false. In fact, the artist herself would go further: “My background is the reason I became an artist,” she says. “I have these two roots.” Her father comes from a small community near Alexandria, in the Nile Delta, where the villagers still trek daily into the cotton and rice fields, their rhythm of life unchanged for centuries. Hefuna, 40, spent the first eight years of her life there before moving with her family to Graz, Austria, nearer to her mother’s native Germany, returning to Egypt in the summers. “I always had this experience that I was the same person, but I was in different places, and people saw me from the outside differently. As a child, this isn’t easy. You just notice something is different, and you can’t explain things.” For as long as she can remember, she has used drawing to express herself. “I drew these themes on paper, for myself, to have my own escape. It was just a tool,” she explains.Susan Hefuna Uses Simple Strategy to Create Perspective-Changing Works
Naturally, she ended up in art school, in Karlsruhe and then Frankfurt, where she studied new media under the semiotics and performance specialist Peter Weibel in the early 1990s. True to this background, Hefuna brings a keen sense of the uses of mediated images and an understanding of how our habitual movements through the material world might be mapped and re-presented to us. Early in her career Hefuna developed an interest in the formal and metaphorical qualities of the mashrabiya, the traditional Arabic window screens that shield a home’s female occupants from the street’s gaze while allowing them to see outside. She began taking photographs, including self-portraits, using a pinhole camera, often with a mashrabiya visible in the foreground or the background. With their blurred focus and incidental intrusions that come from the pinhole’s long exposure, the images, such as 4 Women 4 Views, 2001, tickle the line between faithful documentation of a subjective experience and a kind of nostalgic, orientalized vision of Cairo and the Nile Delta, depending on who is doing the looking. She found that the subtexts that had always been present in her work were thrown into sharp relief when the works were exhibited outside of Europe for the first time. “The year 1992 was really a key moment,” she says of the first time she showed in Cairo, at Akhnaton Gallery. “I became much more aware that it depends on the viewer what they see in my work. There are different layers, which some people see and others don’t.”
In 2004 Hefuna began designing actual mashrabiyas, custom-patterned pieces that incorporate a word or a phrase — in English, Arabic, or both — drawing each one out at full scale and commissioning copies from the dwindling number of craftsmen in Cairo who still knew the ancient trade. These she hangs directly on the wall, like a sign or a gridded Minimalist painting. Hefuna notes that the first time she showed the screens in the West, “people only viewed them as abstract.” But in a different context, “the same work becomes totally different.” (She compares them to the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum’s inflected vocal stylings, in which “words are like images, how they can contain different meanings even in the same language.”) For instance, some of her mashrabiyas contain the Arabic word ana, or “myself,” a claim of subjectivity that Hefuna seized in 2006, when she was teaching at Helwan University and the German University in Cairo and chafing under the social strictures brought on by political tension. “I had the feeling that nobody takes a stand, not even the smallest — we don’t even say ‘I,’ ” she notes. Even “ana,” when uttered by people she met on the street and videotaped, was enough to garner police inquiries when she showed the footage at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery.
The notion of the mashrabiya as a membrane that both deflects and admits meaning would later be echoed in Mirage 07, a kind of live enactment of Hefuna’s “Crossroads” digital video works, which she began in 2002. On a visit home to the Nile River Valley, she made a two-hour film from a perch at her parents’ house above an intersection in town. The effect is oddly mesmerizing: Tunic-clad villagers come and go, greet one another, depart — nothing much happens, exactly, which points up the ultimate inscrutability of “the other.” In 2006 Hefuna upped the ante when she was invited to exhibit in a show in a church in Frankfurt and made Via fenestra, an hour-and-a-half-long video of herself sitting in a chair in the square outside the church, a surprisingly harrowing experience. “If you sit in Egypt on a chair in the street it’s normal; nobody cares,” she explains. “In Germany, it was even scary.” People accosted her, asked if she was a Gypsy, demanded to know what she was doing there, whether she was religious. “I didn’t move, I didn’t talk, I was like a sculpture,” she says. “It was a very interesting experience, and also very tense. You use a very simple thing like a chair and put it somewhere in another culture, and people project on you.” But her audiences are “not innocent,” she adds: “If you view something, you are responsible for what you see.” More recent works actively explore that implication, as in the series of short videos filmed surveillance-style above the Edgware Road street markets in London’s “Little Cairo” in 2010, currently screening at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design through January 20.
In the same way that her videos unfurl in real time and space, so do Hefuna’s ink drawings, where she says ideas for her works in other media begin. Small in scale, about 20 by 10 inches, and usually incorporating a second or third layer in tracing paper, they feature dots and grids or systems of lines that can be read as highly subjective architectural renderings. In fact, Hefuna uses the cities in which she works as references, mood-setters, for the drawings, which, though strictly nonrepresentational, nonetheless betray certain hallmarks of her surroundings. A series done in Istanbul in 2011, for example, seems somehow to contain the narrowness of the buildings and streets, claustrophobia mixed with soaring height. “Before I begin a series of drawings, I do nothing for a few days; I just go walk outside, and I have to have my own atmosphere,” she explains. Once her mind is stilled or lulled into a meditative, trancelike state, she begins to draw. She takes an automatic approach, starting with a thin brush and a single dot, “and then the line is unfolding” in a single stroke — no planning, no redos.
Draftsmanship plays a key role in Hefuna’s first cross-disciplinary collaboration, an exhibition and performance piece with the choreographer Luca Veggetti titled Notationotations, which will be presented at The Drawing Center in New York in September 2013. It takes the dot and sets it in motion. Set against a series of drawings done in New York and a new “Crossroads” video work shot at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street, the first part of the performance has Hefuna sketching on the surface of a stage covered in sand, which Veggetti will overlay with his own interpretive steps. In the second half of the piece, Hefuna draws with chalk directly on the miked floor, only to have her lines blurred by two dancers’ shuffles: a schematic conjured in three dimensions even as it is erased.
Working with Veggetti has been fruitful for Hefuna, pushing her to create at a much larger size. Moreover, she is for the first time working “within” the drawings, an experience that, like her Frankfurt church video, has united her mind and body. It’s for this reason that they maintain a specific intimacy. “I use very simple things,” she says. “Very simple things that show complex things.”
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Modern Painters.