Ahmad Hosni was among the first group of resident artists at Dar Al-Ma’mûn (DAM) in 2010-11.
This transcript is an excerpt of a conversation between Carleen Hamon and Julien Amicel, co-directors of Dar Al-Ma’mûn (DAM), with photographer Ahmad Hosni who was among their first group of resident artists in 2010-11.
DAM: Could you tell us about your background and your work in a few words?
AH: My work is based on photography and its limitations. Photography is always seeking a context or label in order to be cogent, be it the documentary ‘story’, the anthropological ‘study’ or the fine ‘print’. I believe that photography is promiscuous in nature, and my mission is to do photography that is unfaithful to the subgenre or the discipline.
You can say I do photography outside of Photography.
DAM: What do you expect from an artist residency?
AH: All residencies provide a new work environment that helps to defamiliarize the artist with his or her own environment. Some residencies on the other hand tend to be more specialized, with a focus on particular medium, topic or practice.
A residency can also provide logistical means for realizing projects or doing research in a different geographic context – that was my case with Dar Al-Ma’mûn. I was thinking of doing some work in the Atlas region and was looking for ways to stay there for some time. It happened that I came across Dar Al-Ma’mûn’s call for applications.
DAM: What did the experience of a residency at Dar Al-Ma’mûn bring you?
AH: I have always been interested in tourism in ‘peripheral’ non-metropolitan areas, and my work is usually about a specific place. I needed to know more about the [Atlas] region and research the development of tourism in the area. Being at Dar Al-Ma’mûn gave me an opportunity to visit the Atlas extensively and to walk down the common tourist tracks, as well as less trodden ones, to know the place, and to locate nodes of interest.
DAM: In your project, “Go Down, Moses” you speak of the South Sinai as a way of reflecting on tourism in the geo-political south. How did that affect the way you approached your residency?
AH: I am interested in the social and spatial formations of tourism in the “south”. Go Down, Moses referred to the southern part of the Sinai peninsula but the word “south” connotes more than the physical geography of the place. South is a condition that is understood in relation to what we call “development”.
In places like Egypt and Morocco, tourism and urban development do not necessarily follow top-down planned scheme. There is something that grows unruly and organically in places like these that molds not just the topography but social spaces in very idiosyncratic ways. Development aims to control that state of entropy. You don’t find that in places in Spain, for example, where tourism is an extensively regulated activity. There, development still exists but at an almost-zero entropy level.
Yet things are not that innocuous; the use of the term “south” here connotes an inequitable relation to the “north”. Any examination of tourism can’t escape that coming across that.
DAM: The notion of tourism as you refer to relates, in a way, to the concept of a residency and the 20th century notion of the ultra-mobile artistic community with”‘the world as its studio”. I wonder if you could comment on the ethics of residencies in the age of environmental challenges. How might artistic practice and residency structures respond to these issues?
AH: I am deeply occupied with the environmental question, but as important as it is, I am interested in the articulation and the production of a unique spatial reality.
I think that the environmental issue is not very present on the art agenda these days and seems to be confined to a documentary practice highlighting shallow end-results on the surface of land and people – or of what tourism ravages. We need to get beyond this campaign approach and probe dynamics where ecology is implicated in processes of development and not simply a sensitive plate onto which effects can be made visible. We also need not forget is that while the environmental issue is a worldwide one, such challenges develop differently in local contexts. We need to probe the local and not restrict art practice to an advocacy mission for a global apocalypse—a paradigm that is to a great extent articulated in urban centers miles away.
The artist arrives to this new corner of the world with transnational assumptions about global issues (such as the environment and tourism). You mentioned the transnational artist where the world as his studio; the artist is in many ways another tourist particularly in the case of the retreat model, common in the so-called nature residencies.
To this end, a residency could be an opportunity for the host institution to acquaint the visiting artist with such local conditions. The residency structure should aim to tap into these local conditions. I think the appropriate residency model would be a production-oriented, protracted residency that builds upon an initiatory project or workplan set by the host institution (and notwithstanding the possibility to remodel the process as it progresses). Here the codes of the relation are of partnership between the artist and the institution rather than of host-guest. To put it in aphoristic terms, it is not the artist that can respond (in this age of environmental catastrophes) but the artistic process.
DAM: During your residency at Dar Al-Ma’mûn, Arab countries experienced a particularly rich and turbulent state of affairs, questioning the place of politics in this environment. Did these events change your plans or at least its method?
AH: I was in Morocco when the uprising took off. But I remember being fixated on a photograph of Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth who set himself on fire and started it all. He was being visited by the now ousted Ben Ali who stood with an entourage and the medical team around Bouazizi’s deathbed who was wrapped in white gauze like a mummy. The whole scene with his frozen sculpted expression looked like a neoclassical commemoration of an heroic death, except for the fact that the photograph was created beforethe event was rendered historically significant. Here Bouazizi was still alive, Ben Ali still in power and there were not any talk of an “Arab Spring”. That photograph was an eerie flashforward that seemed to anticipate what we come to know in retrospect.
In a similar spirit of anticipation – perhaps due to the scale and rapidity of events – there is a tendency to measure up that tidal wave on the local art scene. For example, there is a [growing] tendency to read art from the Arab world, and particularly Egypt, in light of such conjecture and more importantly, expectations of artists to “properly” respond to events.
The notion of the revolution carved out a new space in the world’s sensorium, producing a new capacity for perceptions. The uprisings were a moment of extreme momentum, a singularity that broke previously established consensus and fostered the birth of new ones.
The Arab Spring did not really affect my residency plans or practice but it could herald a new aesthetic paradigm shift in the region, which might be sensed not just at the level of reception but, more importantly, at the level of grant-making.
I tend to be cautious with regards to turning such moments of dynamism into a static, and indeed an aesthetic, dogma. There is something overbearing about the notion of revolution; it overshadows everything in its vicinity and flattens the intellectual sphere. It is the force of an unrelenting mobilizing (and monopolizing) consensus. Let’s not forget that culture and mobilization had a flourishing liaison under totalitarianism. And this is something we can not be neutral to.
DAM: What are your plans for the future of your artwork since your stay in residency?
AH: I work slowly. I plan to come back, to revisit the forest again. I have been there twice already [since the residency]. I remember those urban constructions mushrooming among trees: signs of habitations, signs of touristifications, etc.
I don’t know why every discussion of urbanization has to reference the city and the megalopolis; it is in the peripheries where processes of encounter can be observed at its most limpid state. Tourism can turn the natural landscape into a spirited place, like the enchanted forest in fair tales. It is a force of re-enchantment of the word and its environmental disaster. And it is in the forest, by literary convention, where things happen. We’ll see.