ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Sherin Guirguis as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Sherin Guirguis was born in Luxor, Egypt, and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA. Using site, text and recovered histories as the core of each series, she develops projects that engage audiences in a dialogue about power, agency, and social transformation through art. Her research based practice is a means to heighten the understanding of marginalized and contested histories, in particular those of women which have often been forgotten and/or erased. She received her BA from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and her MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Guirguis has had solo museum exhibitions at the Craft Contemporary Museum of Los Angeles and the American University’s Tahrir Cultural Center, Cairo. Her work has been featured in international exhibitions including, Forever is Now at the Pyramids of Giza, Desert X AlUla and Desert X Coachella Valley. Her work has been exhibited internationally in Dubai, Sharjah, UAE; Guadalajara, Mexico; Frankfurt, Germany and Venice, Italy.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Sherin Guirguis: My practice engages complexities present in the politics of place and history. Using informal archives and interviewing community members and leaders, I bring together elements of architecture, ornamentation and historical texts that translate into paintings, sculptures and site-specific installations to reactivate lost narratives. The work problematizes the history of decoration and ornamentation and its relationship with social structures, cultural identity and Women’s agency. The connection between the materials I use, formal choices I make and the content is crucial to the stories’ retelling: materials, colors, and patterns are the visual language through which viewers can access these histories and, through abstraction, experience a sensory activation of the liminal experience of migration.
ArteEast: Can you elaborate on the importance of material and craft that you incorporate in your practice? What is your approach to presenting craft within a fine art context?
SG: I select the materials I use in my work with great care in order to embed the work with layers of meaning and context. Hand-cut paper, watercolor, ink, natural dye, earth, adobe, weathered metals and natural materials tie my work to traditions of craft as well as indigenous Egyptian and North African art.
These materials are often related to “Craft,” “Folkloric” art or even “Women’s work” and my insistence on including them in the context of contemporary art is intentional because they hold value and meaning outside of western art practices.
ArteEast: Tell us about your installation, Here I Have Returned, which was part of an exhibition organized by Art D’Egypte at the Pyramids Plateau in Giza, Egypt. What was your approach to putting together this public installation?
SG: Here I Have Returned is a site-specific sculpture installed in 2021 at the Pyramids Plateau in Giza, Egypt as part of the Forever is Now exhibition. The sculpture’s form is inspired by that of an ancient sistrum, a sacred musical instrument used by the priestesses of Hathor during sacred rituals and processions. Engraved with pharaonic inspired patterns and excerpts from a poem by Egyptian feminist Doria Shafik. The indigo fabric elements are embedded with Jasmine oil sourced from local Egyptian farms, honoring the work of the women who harvest the delicate flowers in the dawn hours.
The sculpture is both shelter and monument. A site of connection with the sacred burial grounds, it is positioned to refocus the gaze onto the lesser-known queen’s pyramids. The sound and scent are activated by the gusts of wind that regularly sweep through the plateau and act as an ethereal echo of rituals performed there many centuries ago. Serving as both a remembrance of history and an invitation to connect these narratives to the present, the work sets out to make the invisible work of generations of under-recognized women visible once more.
ArteEast: This March you will be participating in an artist residency at Shangri La in Honolulu, Hawaii. What will you be working on during your time there?
SG: I’m working on a new series of abstract paintings that are rooted in an experience I had reading Attar’s Conference of The Birds with a group of women artists, poets, writers and activists during the height of the 2020 quarantine. Led by artist Amitis Motavali, we read the book to each other as an act of care and community. It was a very powerful experience that shifted the way I thought about my practice as an artist. During our gathering I began sketching abstracted pigeon tower shapes (related to One I Call, 2017) and the shapes quickly morphed into bodies, particularly, femme bodies inspired by some of the women present at the gatherings. I began connecting Attar’s narrative of seeking strength in community with mythologies of sacred and magical birds of ancient Egypt that I had been researching. During the residency I will be continuing that research and developing the body of work. I will also be exhibiting some of the works at Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
ArteEast: How has your work evolved since public sculpture has played a more prominent role within your practice?
SG: With every new site-specific public sculpture I create I become more in tune with the ways in which this way of working expands my practice as an artist and my relationship with sites and publics. I find the process extremely rewarding in that it invites a different and broader audience and it demystifies and democratizes the experience of interacting with art in shared public space. The dialogue that arises and the power dynamic between the artwork and viewer shifts, giving agency to the viewer that doesn’t exist when encountering art in institutional spaces. I have become more invested in doing these kinds of projects that engage different publics and break the barrier created by institutional contexts.
I find this process ideal since my work addresses histories of folks who have been marginalized by institutions and political structures. The sculptures act as informal public monuments, particularly the women whose invisible labor has been neglected, lost or erased.
ArteEast: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SG: I’m currently rereading (voraciously) all of Octavia E Butler’s work, and thinking about ways that she is able to address the complexity of human relationships, shared trauma and the building of better worlds and futures out of these traumas. Another current obsession and inspiration is the work of bell hooks, in particular All About Love. The idea that love is an action and an action one performs in communion with others is moving and inspirational. I find that I have come to think of art in those terms. When at it’s best, art moves us closer together.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about futures and ways in which artists’ communities can continue to exist in secure and sustainable ways. The art market has proven so ineffective, so what other worlds can we imagine together?
ArteEast: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
SG: That is what I’m working on right now: researching, having conversations about and imagining this new space.
SHERIN GUIRGUIS ONLINE: