Q: How do you see the state of contemporary international art? How does art function in today’s global society?
A: Artists are struggling to find a way to deal with the complexity of the world today as it is made manifest in multiple and interlinking political, cultural, and social contexts. What makes this struggle very important and difficult for artists is the anxiety over the rise of anti-liberal and right-wing forces in the international political scene, which affects art and its evaluation. Artists who perceive this situation as a repetition of certain histories are more able to keep a distance and have a broad, analytic vision than those who perceive the situation as exceptional and therefore tend to work on the level of passionate reaction. In other words, injustice, inequality, racism, and wars, are not specific to our world today; it is the heightened awareness of these things that is specific to our era. The act of art-making is an embodiment of this kind of awareness.
Q. What role does scholarship (art criticism, art historical discourse, etc) play in shaping our perceptions and understandings of art?
A: Critics and scholars play a negative role when they use art as a vehicle to make cultural or political statements. This limits the imaginative potential of the art and its understandings. It is very productive and useful when they call attention to the questions that the art itself raises, rather than putting the art into a particular container whose boundaries are defined by history, culture, or politics.
Q: How do you read the current interest in Middle Eastern and “Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American art institutions, markets and galleries?
A: European and North American institutions tend to view art made by people from the Middle East or majority-Muslim countries mainly as a cultural product. Therefore, they turn artists into ambassadors of their “culture” – a term which is itself created by the West – rather than full-fledged participants in the dominant international scene. These artists get talked about as “alternative voices,” which gives the impression of diversity in these venues. Some institutions try to go beyond this framework, but the art market constantly demands “cultural difference” and therefore puts artists in this box.
Q: What artists, movements, or schools have had the most impact on your work?
A: It is not so much particular artists or schools that have impacted my work, but rather particular forms of contemporary visual culture. I am interested in the uses and agendas of documentary films, the technology of the Internet and its social effects, and the failures of cultural translation via visual media.
Q: As art progresses into the 21st century, can you reflect on art of the last century? What or who marks the importance of art in the 20th century? What or who has ushered in art of the 21st century?
A: The 20th century witnessed unprecedented social, political, and technological changes worldwide, and art was an excellent reflection and even harbinger of these changes. For example, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp broke the frame of art as a studio practice, and created of art a kind of intervention engaged with these transformations. This way of doing and thinking about art continues to dominate in the 21st century.
Hamdi Attia was born in Assiut, Egypt in 1964. He studied at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo, and pursued advanced studies in painting and sculpture at the Egyptian Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Attia also received an MFA in sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. He represented Egypt at the Venice Biennial in 1995, taking the top pavilion prize with Akram Al-Magdoub. His work has been shown in private and group exhibitions in Cairo, New York, Paris, Rome, Sao Paulo, Detroit, Canaria, Zanzebar, and Philadelphia. He has also been commissioned for a number of public works in Egypt, Italy, and the U.S. Attia currently lives and works between Cairo and New York.