ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Engy Mohsen as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Engy Mohsen is an artist and curator who lives and works in Cairo. Her work examines notions of ‘participation’ and ‘collectivity’ by creating frameworks that invite non-artists and artists to think about how spaces can be organized to include the ‘other.’ While spatial thinking remains at the core of her interdisciplinary practice, she works—solo and collaboratively—with text, drawing, photography, performance, and conversation as a medium. She is one of the five founding members of K-oh-llective, an online platform for resource-sharing amongst artists, writers, and curators in Egypt and the Arab world. She was most recently in residence at Art Omi, New York (2022); Rote Fabrik, Zürich (2021), Warehouse421’s ‘Homebound Residency’ (2020). She has received multiple awards and grants including Südkulturfonds’ 100 Artists; AFAC’s Visual Arts Grant (2021); Mophradat’s Grants for Artists (2021/2019) and Self-Organizations(2020); EU’s All-Around Culture; A.M. Qattan Foundations’s Visual Arts: A Flourishing Field (2021/2020); Pro Helvetia’s Parallel Sphere (2021); Warehouse421’s Project Revival Fund (2020); Art Jameel’s Research and Practice Platform (2020) among others. She was previously part of Artists for Artists (AfA) Masterclass: Radical Care, MASS Alexandria, Roznama Studio Program, and is currently taking part in the READ lab by School of Commons.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Engy Mohsen: I always find it hard to answer this question, or to find a proper starting point, because my practice is very porous and largely interlaced. My work grew out of both acts of convening and conversing. To be more concise, it usually starts as a piece of text—be it a grant proposal, an excerpt from a conversation, or a script—that would later on materialize to take different shapes and forms—be it a booklet, a staged lecture-performance, or a game format.
I also consider myself to be someone who is, to a fault, fond of working with others, leaning towards collaborative processes whenever I can. It has become a constant exercise to factor in all the components of a project with many moving parts, always in constant flux. Besides, I like to think of how to not maneuver failure but instead allow it to exist as part of the process and then work through it. I am always intrigued by the very conditions only pertinent to a collaborative work and how it comes together. These questions were thoroughly investigated in Notes on Collaboration, a project that was conceived as an exhibition and public program that I curated, alongside a namesake publication edited by Mai Elwakil.
The ongoing conversations—with collaborators or otherwise—that take place before, during and after each project form a pivotal part of my process and how the projects eventually take shape. This makes it difficult to separate between the two, or draw clear boundaries between one project and the next; I try to think of them as direct accumulation and natural progression to the preceding project(s).
Throughout the past years, I have been involved in many publishing works, especially because they have allowed me to forge ways that question how knowledge can be produced, accumulated and passed on. It all set out with my first self-published work, Chatrooms (2020), which I co-edited alongside Sarah Maher and Nour El Safoury, and then it was one book after the other. I personally find a certain, and undeniable, pleasure in making books. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t struggle still with how to meaningfully position such practice of book-making nowadays. Not only am I drawn to how they allow for the creation of non-linear narratives, but also to how I can stage them as pieces of architecture. Through the former prospect, I create a framework for others that weaves a multitude of voices around a said topic or event. While through the latter, I can explore the spatial thinking of how the reader can walk through the consecutive spaces of a book.
AE: You graduated from the German University in Cairo and the Brandenburg University of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture. What led you to switch professional gears and become an artist?
EM: My experience with studying architecture was one that is both exciting and nurturing. As a learning environment, the time I spent in those studios thrived on abundance and generosity. I really learned how to work with others, how to trust, how to let go, and how to unburden myself by sharing mental and physical labor. I believe it has prepared me for the art world better than any art school. In fact, I took away a lot of what I learned in architecture school and let it influence many different aspects of my work.
As I approached my final semester, I started to get quickly disillusioned by the reality of what awaits me outside the walls of this school. There existed an undeniable gap between the excitement of academia and banality of real-life praxis in architecture. The level of excitement degraded substantially every time I thought about how little architects can actually contribute to the already dense built environments, especially in a city as grim as Cairo. Even before graduating, it was this realization that compelled my decision to move to the arts. Simultaneously, and very organically, I was selected to be one of the nine artists forming the inaugural Roznama Studio Program. The program was designed and led by Mohamed Abdelkarim and Nour El Safoury, and funnily enough, both of whom later became recurring collaborators. To me, it wasn’t just a way out, but also a lens through which I could look for an alternative way to practice (and probably disappoint two very proud parents in the process).
I thought, then, that I had found solace in trying to carve a path for myself in the arts. But what was revealed to me is that the arts as well are bound to their own intricacies. One thing in particular that I still find to be very unsettling, is how individualism is preferred, reinforced, and encouraged, and more collaborative models, reciprocally, can be frowned upon. In turn, the way in which I was trained and wished to work formed a friction. This evoked in me a constant pursuit of different forms of togetherness, to allow myself to subversively exist in this context. Then, I realized how I might have left the discipline of architecture, but not the practice, and how it still informs my artistic practice, and is probably the very reason why my work renders very collaborative.
I was always too self-conscious of how I am pursuing art intuitively, constantly reminding myself of the fact that I haven’t received a formal art education. This led me to take part in one art education program after the other, hoping to situate myself in critical environments of collective and peer-to-peer learning. I believe they also contributed to how I define and articulate my practice. At least, I learned the language necessary to talk about my work and how to navigate the art world.
It is funny how this question finds its way in almost all any conversations about my practice. Yet in a very recent one, I was faced with an even more challenging question about how I define what I do as artistic. The question was posed by curator Nikolai Alutin in an online studio visit during my residency at Art Omi, who was more concisely hinting at the curatorial nature that forms an undertone to my practice. But that’s a question for another time.
AE: How was your experience at the Art Omi residency in upstate New York? How do you believe it has or will enrich and impact your practice?
EM: It was a surreal moment of arrival. I applied for this residency in 2019, and because of the pandemic, travel restrictions and the never-ending suspensions of visas, my residency was deferred twice, along with the travel grants I received from Culture Resource and Fanak Fund. After two years of deferrals, it was safe to say that I got very skeptical of whether or not it would take place at all. Once there, I was very overwhelmed and somewhat relieved to not have to sit and wait another year.
The energy shared amongst the residents was very precious, it almost felt like a retreat. This is partly because most of us were slowly recovering from a post-pandemic backdrop, and partly because except for four resident artists, the other participants—including the remaining 20 artists, resident critics and organizers—were all female/non-binary. Contrary to the outside world and life off the island (this was how we usually referred to the residency due to its secluded location), we all found ourselves forming a gender ratio that never exists otherwise. And rightly so, as the residency director Claudia Cannizzaro revealed to us that only recently they have started to hide the age and gender of all applicants from the selection committee on purpose, which resulted in a very unusual cohort.
Even though it was fairly short, the personal (and professional) connections that I made there are ones that I am positive will live through the test of time. Most of us were already planning visits by the end of the year, or self-organizing follow-up residencies and exhibitions in our respective cities. Some endeavors were already manifesting towards the end of the residency. For instance, Yujin Lee, another resident artist, was invited by curator Young Jeon for a show in her apartment gallery Iron Velvet. Yujin extended the invitation to me alongside Sagarika Sundaram and Thierry Tomety. In a matter of a few days, we were able to miraculously put together a group exhibition, How to Love Many in Many Ways, which was titled after my work, itself a part of a bigger namesake collaborative project. We all exhibited different traces of the projects we were working on during the residency or showed part of our processes or studios.
The only bittersweet aspect to the residency was Soukaina Joual not being there, she was also one of the selected artists. In fact, we wrote both applications together in 2019, yet her visa was denied not once but twice. We had originally intended to use this time together to wrap up working on Machi Mashy, our upcoming publication, and fly back together to Cairo to go to print and organize at least one book launch event where we are both present.
AE: You often collaborate with Soukaina Joual. Tell us more about your work together and your recent collaboration, the Machi Mashy publication, that will be released in August 2022.
EM: I met Soukaina in Alexandria in 2018, at a time when we both moved from Cairo and Rabat to Alexandria. We also used to live together and even shared the same room. Another thing that we shared was our affinity for language and representations. We have been working together since mid-last year on a Machi Mashy: Or, in Other Words, “Not Working,” yet the conversations informing the project started in early 2019.
We both have had several attempts at teaching each other fragments of our respective dialects. Of course, Soukaina made more effort to learn the Egyptian dialect, which she needed to get by on daily errands in the neighborhood of Miami where we lived, without being treated as a foreigner and potentially being ripped-off on a daily basis. Yet during moments of heated discussions with our flat mates, the part of her brain which allowed her to move swiftly between dialects would just shut off and she would blurt out fully in Moroccan darija. Granted, no one else understood a word she was saying. I would then sit next to her, cross-legged, and jokingly do my best to speculate and interpret what she said in the Egyptian dialect back to the group. To our surprise, I would intuitively get what she said correctly almost every time, or at least come very close.
Our exchange of words became more of a daily practice, a habit in which we exchanged memes, YouTube finds or playlists of Raï, Trap and Hip Hop music from the Arab world. Through repetitive listening, we hoped to develop an understanding of each other’s dialects and to be able to find some keywords that allowed us access the colloquial terminologies of each foreign dialect. This is how the idea of this project came about.
The spelling difference in the title is no mistake, each of them is correct, depending on whether you are a francophone or an anglophone. “Machi Mashy” are false friends or faux amis, homonyms, or form the case of Jinas Tam in Arabic. In Moroccan darija, “Machi” is used as a form of negation when it precedes a verb or noun. In Egyptian a’ameya, “Mashy” is used for approval and it conjugates from the verb “Masha”, agreeing with one’s opinion. If we combine “Machi Mashy”—and considering what’s mentioned—both words cancel out each other, becoming a phrase that negates itself, meaning “Not Working”.
I don’t want to reveal further details, when we are already so close to the release date, but the project has developed many layers that are beyond just our personal interests. We tried to reflect on the bigger context and complex relationship between the Arabic language and contemporary art practices. Alongside many contributors, we are laying the groundwork for different positions and reflections on language through personal essays, narrative texts, design commissions and even an exhaustive glossary of art terms. We will print and publish the book entirely in Arabic, and periodically publish online translated texts in English and French as digital annexes to the book through the end of the year.
The project took different shapes and had many articulations, prior to the printed publication. Last year we took part in But these forms need to be created at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, with an installation that included a contribution by Mohamed Abdelkarim and was designed with Mooni Studio. Earlier this year, we took part in Longing for Community, and presented at fluc + fluc wanne in Vienna, a makeshift bar and pub that offered us two of its exterior walls to be transferred into billboards.
AE: Tell us about K-oh-llective that you founded in 2020 with Rania Atef, Soukaina Joual, Nada Elkalaawy and Mohamed Al-Bakeri. What drove you to start this collective and what have the reactions from the local and international creative community been so far?
EM: By the end of 2019, we had all finished the one-year program, MASS Alexandria and were headed back to Cairo, Fes, and London. I believe the idea of a collective first sprung during that time, because we have been supporting each other tremendously throughout the program and were trying to find a way to retain this profound connection and friendship. Preceding that, we were very active on a Whatsapp group that was dedicated especially for application writing, which morphed later into a more organized spreadsheet with compiled links and details on upcoming open calls for our internal use. Somehow, we had already created a rhythm, managed to maintain remote close friendships, and were actively and critically discussing our practices, works in progress, what to apply for, current shows, etc.
When Mophradat put out the open call for their newly conceived program Self-Organizations, we all felt very tempted. I believe it was the spark we needed (or rather the dreadful deadline) to organize ourselves more formally and try to find a framework to operate within. It was very obvious that we wouldn’t possibly produce works together, because our practices are polarisingly different. We believed that what we could do best is a response to the lack of resources and systems of support in our context. Slowly, we started to build the website of K-oh-llective, imagined as a customized toolkit, with the occasional appearance of an all-encompassing text or podcast. One thing we were also sure about is that we wanted to look and feel playful, to stay faithful to the energy of the group. That’s probably why we usually overuse emojis and all our visuals are reminiscent of a Whatsapp chat, taking us back a full circle.
The reactions for the past year to K-oh-llective have been immensely positive. On a small scale, we receive a lot of supportive messages and emails. We also came to foster a group of few supporters and complicits who voluntarily point us to new resources to enlist on our website. Sometimes, we are approached by contributors who would propose an idea for a podcast, or simply someone who trusts us enough to review their portfolio or grant proposal. More recently, we have been getting exciting invitations to contribute to publications, give public presentations or lead a workshop, for example, in Jordan, Finland and Switzerland.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
EM: If you ask me this question again next week, I’ll probably pull out a completely different set of cards. My influences are not major, they are many, they overlap and are very fragmented. I rather see them as a constellation of people, works, texts, visuals, impressions and encounters. But to be more concrete, I can mention a very recent encounter. I came across Isabel Lewis through Ahmet Ögüt’s film Artists Making Music that he recently showed at e-flux’s Screening Room in Brooklyn. In one scene, she is shot dancing spontaneously in her studio, with subtitles saying: “Lewis ceased to be a performer and became a ‘host.’ Her audience came to consist of ‘visitors’ or ‘guests’ in the ‘occasions’ that she hosts.”
I am always captivated by those who create interesting positioning of themselves as artists and practitioners and how that allows them to situate their practices in non-conventional ways. Last year, I met Esther Eppstein and San Keller in Zürich through mutual friends who believed that I “should be introduced to their practices.” The former founded message salon embassy, an artist-run artist residency where Eppstein poses as its Madam Ambassador, personally hosting the artists and showing them around the city. San Keller, on the other hand, is a very humble human being, but is “one of the most important Swiss artists of today” according to Google (in bold). He is also living through another grand performative gesture which is Museum San Keller—a supposed museum collection housed by his parents in Bern that is open to public visits on request, free of charge.
I believe that practices and people don’t stop at how they are described. Of course, they are informed by what we call them because language is essential, but that in itself creates room for rethinking. This brings to mind something I came across years ago, but keep going back to; Pablo Helguera’s My Artist Statement (2015), where he encapsulates, with humor, the inevitable agony of having to write one.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
EM: Well, I am headed to Switzerland soon to start the MA Transdisciplinary Studies program at Zürich University of the Arts. I have been planning ahead to join this program for exactly one year (since I was on the Rote Fabrik residency), to put all projects on hold, quit application writing and wrap up any open commitments. Yet, the plan is seemingly failing to happen.
Through December, Soukaina Joual and I will be very busy with the soft launch of Machi Mashy, digital releases and a podcast, and we are planning bigger launch events in Cairo and Rabat, in January and February 2023, respectively. I have also been working with Gabriel Hensche on How to Love Many in Many Ways, an open-source project of nine games which will be released online in September. Several contributors are planning for upcoming game sessions after the release, as well. For instance, Rania Atef is planning an event exclusively for mother-artists in Cairo, Ingo Niermann (The Army of Love) will be leading a writing workshop at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design where he teaches in Basel, and Philip Ullrich wants to include it as part of the parallel program of his upcoming solo show. Furthermore, our residency with the School of Commons will be wrapped up with an end-of-year festival in November, where Gabriel and I are planning on inviting a few contributors to host game sessions, workshops and talks in Zürich, and maybe earlier in Berlin where he is based.
With K-oh-llective, we are very thrilled about contributing a text in Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion 4, which is the fourth in a series of readers published in the context of Rehearsing Hospitalities, Frame Contemporary Art Finland’s public program (2019-2023). It is due to be published by Frame and Archive books in October 2022.
Lastly, I have been working alongside Sherifa Hamid and Ahmed Morsi on Dataland Publishing. It is a very exciting initiative that seeks to develop, produce and publish bilingual printed material that tracks the changing urban fabric of Cairo. Issue No. 1 of Dataland is set out to be released by the end of 2022, as well.
ENGY MOHSEN ONLINE