The Egyptian artist, who studied in France before moving to New York, talks to us as the CCCOD devotes two exhibitions to her in Tours, nearly 20 years after her first appearance at the art centre.
Why did you decide to rework your installation "Cactus Painting" for the third time, in the main hall of the CCCOD?
When I began it in 1998, funding was withdrawn in the middle of the assembly stage and we couldn't buy all the cactuses. So it couldn't be finished. In fact, I called it "Cactus Painting Unfinished". The second time, in 2000, Alain Julien-Laferrière, the director of the CCC, which was located at that time in Rue Marcel Tribut, suggested setting it up in a room inside. I didn’t have time to think it out properly; it was too small, and there wasn’t much light. So for me, this version is the first to have been truly finalised and carried through. Also, I really like reactivating works, because in the beginning I didn’t approach these installations in a scientific or architectural way, so there were often problems. One day, I finally realised I needed an engineer or architect to give a further dimension to my drawings, and this meant a better-conceived result.
"Cactus Painting" makes a direct reference to Josef Albers. Why this allusion?
Very simply because I adore him! (Laughs) The same goes for all the artists I cite in my work. Unfortunately, there are very few women, because in that period of American painting, which fascinates me, the artists were mainly men. However, I managed to pay tribute to Agnès Martin in one of my recent pieces.
Isn’t “Cactus Painting” a protest against male domination?
(…) What I am criticising is not the painters themselves, but the society and attitude that exclude women.
How important is politics in your work?
I have always wanted my work to be political, but without abandoning aesthetics. In the late 1980s, at the Villa Arson (in Nice, where she studied – Ed.), I had a teacher, Joseph Mouton, who was very important to me. He made us work on the idea of beauty alone, although it wasn’t in vogue at the time. On the contrary, art was supposed to be intelligent and cerebral - but not visual! It was very frustrating, because I came to art precisely for its beauty, and he really encouraged me in that direction. Since then, I have always aimed to produce beautiful work with a powerful visual effect to make my message appealing to people. This is my language, which is very different from slogans spelled out in black and white. It’s my way of helping audiences discover and understand my subjects, which have a political slant.
Do you see yourself as a feminist?
Yes, but I don’t produce feminist art. I am a feminist because I am a woman who defends her rights. I think that feminist art is the sort that aims to bring about immediate, radical change. I’m not interested in that. I’m looking to produce beautiful pictures and installations that make people think. All I do is ask questions. When I talk about sexuality, it’s really all about my own sexuality. I come from a religious family where sexuality was taboo. When my works evoke wars, these are conflicts that profoundly affected me. From a technical point of view, I embroider because when I became aware that painting was done by men, I wanted to use a feminine resource. A kind of challenge. Perhaps my feminist side lies in that, in my refusal to paint. To paint, I have to embroider: in my work, it's the medium, not the picture itself, that constitutes the political act.
Could we say that women are the main subject of your pictures?
Yes. At the Villa Arson, I really liked the life classes. I have always loved drawing female nudes more than anything, above and beyond any militant aspect. The history of art is full of them, and they are highly voluptuous even when paintings are very religious. And then all the women I feature are me, not in their physical aspect, but from a psychological point of view. And they are all alike. They represent the ideal 21st century woman – slim, pretty, young, blonde –because I don’t want to talk about African, Eastern or Asian women. If I portray them, people would think I was talking about oppressed woman. Western countries are convinced that there are no problems for women within their borders, but there are many issues that haven't been resolved. So I decided to paint the women in the centre, not those on the sidelines.
How do you feel about the price of your works, which has risen a lot, and can reach €200,000 nowadays?
I feel this is a normal development. In France, people think they are expensive, but you should see prices in the US, which are far higher, even for artists of my generation. When I was younger, I didn’t sell anything – nobody wanted my pictures, because I was new on the market. Now my index is too high? All that doesn’t mean very much. I prefer to concentrate on my work; if I sell, all the better; if I don’t, too bad. It doesn’t matter if I keep pieces; they’ll sell for much more later on! (Laughs.) In any case, I want to keep some, because I’ve been thinking for many years about creating a foundation in Egypt, where people don’t get much chance to see contemporary art. So the best is yet to come!