ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Malak Helmy as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
This Artist Spotlight is presented in association with ArteEast’s Unpacking the ArteArchive program Monuments & Flowers, curated by Regine Basha, which features Malak Helmy’s film, Keyword Searches for Dust.
The Monuments & Flowers program will be available for streaming online in both English and Spanish, from April 29 – May 7. RSVP here.
In partnership with Casa Árabe, theatrical screenings were presented at Casa Árabe Cordoba (April 27th, 7pm) and at Casa Árabe Madrid (April 28, 7:30pm). For more info on the in person program go to casaarabe.es
Malak Helmy (b. Alexandria, Egypt, 1982) is based in Cairo, and her art focuses on video, text-based works, and collective initiatives. Much of Helmy’s video work visually references the new cultural and architectural constructs of her native Egypt, disputing their too-easy claim on reality and seeking a truer center for psychical meaning. The rhythm of her videos emulates that of desire, but the pathos of the work is of desire left waiting, as time—and its trappings of expectation, language, will—is suspended. With this deft poetry, Helmy’s video art succinctly and beautifully encapsulates the haunting liminality that defines this historical moment, in Egypt and everywhere.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Malak Helmy: My work moves across a variety of media. I’ve explored image-text relationships in video essays, more cinematic time space and explored what happens to this space if narrative is removed; how characters without narrative move inside it, how to record the space of events and memory in writing texts. I sometimes work directly (with my body) in space and landscapes, the result of which can appear in the form of a time-based (sound) ephemeral sculpture.
The themes I return to in my practice are landscape and language; time, image, desire/the erotic/apathy as a force; the construction and loss of knowledge as a community; and sites of leisure. I’m very fascinated with the effects of topography and landscape on audio-visual phenomena and how that in turn affects the collective fantasy or consciousness. My practice explores the connection between exterior and interior landscapes, topography’s effect on audio-visual phenomena and how that in turn affects psyche, memory, imagination, and even further, the play between manipulation of landscape and collective consciousness. I’m also interested in the idea itself of art and being an artist.
AE: Can you elaborate on the intersection of language, fiction, landscape and history within your work?
MH: A central area of interest for me is how mental images and seeming memory of experiences can be constructed through language. I went to what was essentially a colony school when I was a child in Qatar, and so my entire childhood was spent in this fascination with how my direct experience of life seemed secondary to memories I’d constructed from textbooks and informational videos. Memories of a world that I’d never felt with my body, but seemed to remember very viscerally, thanks to well-written school geography books that intimately entered in my mind: images of erosion and land movement on coastlines I had not been to, remembering it in your skin, how it happened, the fear, the loss, people’s expressions, and intimate memories. I’m actually not that interested in fiction per se, it’s never been a term or area of interest. I’m far more interested in the effect (and packaging and delivery) of images of the Real on me, on us (which cross wires direct experience). It’s more of an interest with the difficulty of placing the Real of experience, like a Dolores problem: what is intimate, how you come to know, where information and knowledge are re-wired and mis-wired.
The order of these experiences and how they complete each other become memories of worlds you were never a part of, that even bring into question where the past and future are placed. I was raised in a place where I was a subject in a social experiment. I was growing up with an idea and felt animated by it; as if I were not a person, but instead a character surrounded by textures or weather environments affecting my consciousness. I tried to trace where the idea came from, whose it was, where it took on its own existence. Of course, it was interesting to see this phenomena move to other places and their own material. It also took place in Egypt, which was always in the future for me because it existed on the sidelines of liberal time. I’m also very interested in how landscape, quality of light and texture affects the construction of memory in your brain and your relation to language. I think this condition of order, simulations and such can change depending on what’s around you: you can shift the interior environment of your perception and this really interests me — it doesn’t make it clearer, but the resolution changes.
I am interested in minor historical events and how they affect time. What has been kept out of grand narratives, and how do these minor events construct entire worlds that we live in, whose sources and material have a different status? The power of that material, what it’s up to, how it works on the sidelines of history, producing and maneuvering its own time is important, and its possibility to resurface and move time around itself is very interesting to me. I feel this is a fun time we are in now, because you can push things into the front of the queue and reorder events and time, and potentially how power works (maybe just for split seconds). It’s intriguing.
I suppose I’ve always been in a place where things are beginning and don’t have much history or reference, and so working in that space of the unknown and reaching towards textures and likenesses and obscurities has been important to me.
AE: Can you talk to us about the ways you have experimented with music within your video, curatorial and overall practice?
MH: I have tended to collaborate with producers or musical artists in the past. My videos either had scenes with music, like Records for the Excited State with Kareem Lotfy, or they were just voice-over music or voice. I suppose I’m interested in music as some measurement or passing or manipulation of time. My last installation was a sound work, Music for Drifting, but it was also a sculpture about falling out of time/narrative and not being able to speak or communicate, and losing knowledge which holds things together and orients us. The work is just static. Hours of white noise mixed down into a 45 minute track of a pilgrimage with a bird on 4 channels.
The years following, I was writing a lot, and working as an editor on several projects. At some point I felt frustrated with this very tiny niche that art writing existed in. And so I thought it would make sense to perform my writing and make a band. And then an opportunity arose when it felt right, I asked my editor on the project to join me for a residency, and she’s not a musician or doesn’t make music. But we got a mic and an amp and decided to do it in that form.
Also later in 2018, I made a sound work, a doom track with artist Nader Sadek, which was amazing, as a punk gesture into the British Museum of Art in London. I reused a section from China Mieville’s Kraken where a shabti walks across time from the past into the present to rebel. The song, made to accompany you as you walk through the museum, feels like an incantation, a call to arms. It was also a nod to the 90s and Heliopolis.
Curatorially, music became a way to pass on a thread, an idea between a number of people that we know and don’t know. How we share songs in Meeting Points 8: Both Sides of the Curtain, music was very central to us. It became a common thread through which to collaborate, to think of songs that we all care about and have experiences of in a way that is connected and individual. How can you make a shared fabric of experience through a song?
AE: In addition to your art and curatorial practice, you have been performing as a DJ and as one half of the band Artiste, with Janine Armin. Can you talk to us about your music practice?
MH: In 2017, I shifted into making songs and singing. I thought it was a really wild gesture for me since I’m quite shy, but also because I decided to sing love songs and to perform. It was the most frightening thing I could do, but I really wanted to do it. I very much wanted to collapse on stage, to tell secrets, to be very vulnerable and exposed. I wanted that fire, to scream, to call people out, to cry, to be weak and sad without shame, to reveal my most feminine and flawed self; someone who falls in love and fucks up. And then shortly after that, I started to mix music, which was also a funny turn for me, but I wanted to learn something new. I was feeling very disjointed from the world in 2016/17; everyone (in Cairo) was making music and there was no visual art context anymore. I wanted to learn how to be present, how to exist in time, and so this became a practice of paying attention to the room, to the crowd and having to really be present with them. And it sucked me in. It is also a very different practice because you have to respond, as opposed to presenting quite coldly as a visual artist. It’s a very different relationship, it’s very humbling.
In general, I just became interested in thinking about what music did to our perception. I began also thinking about how I came to understand images through music and deep listening, so they are all tools towards each other.
AE: Your piece The Opening of Gateways (2016-2020) was published in Issue 10 of Arts of the Working Class (April 2020). Could you discuss this text and the themes, myths and realities you explore within it?
MH: Yes, it’s one in a series of texts, the rest were in print publications so they circulate less easily, that somehow explore this weaving in and out of stories. I love writing for editor Stefanie Bailey, she always gives me free reign and seems to make sense of the politics behind my writing. I think the period of 2017-2020, I was very into the slippages between TV shows, books, reprises, the fiction of one’s own life (as an artist), politics, and the economy, making everything very warped. This conversation was happening between different media and worlds, and unrelated storylines began to cross. It resembled how in life seemingly unexpected storylines begin to cross wires and suddenly you find yourself in a new or old world. It was this post-Trump era, where there were no borders between worlds and media, everything seemed to transcend its matter and limit. So in this text Lion’s Gate, for example, I mention Season 3 of Twin Peaks where Agent Cooper is on an odyssey to come back to the world from the black lodge, which is in parallel with this old cult classic making its way into a streaming image world twenty years later, cross wiring with the myth of Neil Gaiman’s novel (now TV show) American Gods, who are these weakened versions of old-world gods that have traveled into people’s psyches, but with time they are forgotten. No one believes in them, so they have to collaborate with new media to gain relevance. It’s similar a bit to Instagram attention and your supposed disappearance from the world if you don’t manage your own fiction. It crosses wires with my own fantasy of myself and my self fiction inside love or artworks, and also borders and destroyed art worlds and so on. I started writing about this in earlier pieces. Claudia’s Apartment/That We Might Be Dancers is from 2016, at beginning of the Trump presidency, while I was in Berlin between Yousry Nasrallah’s Mercedes (where a character is in an insane asylum because of his beliefs about communism) and an event at Spike. Another called Your Blood Might Boil is on feeling the beginning of surveillance capitalism enter Egypt, while I’m at a club party and suddenly find myself inside different artworks from Rosalind Nashashibi’s films (which are themselves inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s stories), and then inside paintings and exhibitions and camera lenses.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
MH: This is a hard one. I always go back to the ones I loved as a child, who are unrelated to my work now perhaps.
I always loved Paula Rego. I am very excited to hear she is having a resurgence. She was always an inspiration. I really love painting and intervention inside fairytales. I am reminded, while answering these questions, that Peter Greenaway was a big influence when I was younger. People’s jokes and friends’ jokes are really important to me. Otherwise, I think random images are important to me: the painted pink feet/socks on Pierre Hughe’s dog, the grain and voice in Cheryl Dunye’s Janine, Beckett’s Mouth, many images I took with small pocket point and shoot camera and flashes, old TV graphics in 90’s Gulf TV with interpreters of scenes. Renee Green’s seminars introduced me to a world of huge importance, The Last Angel of History blew my mind, the way light hits the water and bodies in Jarman’s Sebastian, the red nails of power female curators, Lisa Robertson managing a crowd in her way of storytelling, the idea of enframing, the title of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, de Sade, being asked to write a story of Mardi on Repetition Island by Raimundas. How the dislodging of time feels in your mind and skin in actuality, and how we all live it in real time. My friends. Even the ones I’m not friends with anymore. Ways to make life work, and entertaining. Quality of light. Disney’s Fantasia, different acts of refusal and withdrawal as a force.
But I think the things that really inspire me are always accidental… like funny things you see in life… Someone saying a funny sentence and so on.
AE: Do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
I’m working on a book hopefully, and I’m very excited to be showing Music for Drifting next to original papyruses of Sappho and an astrolabe next year in a show on the Mediterranean.
MALAK HELMY ONLINE