“Making Public” : a conversation with Maha Maamoun

Friday, June 19, 2020

This past February, I attended the Berlinale Film Festival for the first time. My partner, Omar Elhamy, had a short film in the competition, and we took the opportunity to make a holiday out of it. I was particularly curious about the Forum Expanded and went with ambitions to write about this unique program. However, for a variety of reasons, including the 300 + minute run-time of films in the exhibition portion, distance between venues, scheduling conflicts, and the looming shadow of other (overdue) writing deadlines, I decided it was good enough to just absorb what I could, and learn for next time, if there ever is a next time.

I was, however, taken with one of the Forum’s curators, Maha Maamoun, who I first encountered as the moderator for a screening that included a film by mutual friend, Ahmed Elghoneimy. The program went quite late, and was prolonged by a heckler in the audience who proceeded to offer his “critical” (and therefore important) contribution—a monolog about the death of cinema in all forms culminating in this moment and these films. It was close to midnight and we were all getting tired of this man yelling insults from the last row, but Maha handled the situation with grace and care for the artists.

This was the first observation of many since this first encounter, which all point to the conclusion that Maha is one of those exceptional people who not only possesses an impressively broad skill set and ability to fluidly work between myriad contexts, but is also generous, warm, and careful. As an artist, she works primarily in video and photography, often referencing literature and popular media. Her work is smart and responsive, predominantly addressing the context of contemporary Egypt, where she lives and works. She has an impressive CV flush with curatorial projects and exhibitions including acquisitions of her work by major international institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah. Her contribution to a global arts discourse is also extensive. In Cairo, Maha is a founding member the Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), one of the most rigorous contemporary art spaces in the region, and in 2012 she started the publishing initiative, Kayfa ta كيف تـ, with artist and collaborator Ala Younis. 


Although Maha is not a stranger to the Canadian arts milieu, I have approached this interview in the spirit of introduction, just as much for myself as for those who may not know her work. The conversation starts at the point of first encounter—the berlinale—then moves into her personal projects, with a particular focus on publishing. We touch on life as a cultural worker in a pandemic, and the Egyptian context. Conducted over email, each step took longer than it might have in pre-pandemic times, where, although the internet is clamouring with people who seem to be looking to “fill time” there is also a welcomed shift in the rhythms that govern normative “productive” activity.

 

 

 

 

"in my personal practice…there is a lateral approach to politics. Politics is not the overt and direct subject of the work, nor is it articulated in macro terms, rather it is embedded in and gleaned from a gesture, choice of recording/filming device, silences, abandoned subjectivities, and other elements that inhabit the margins of main narratives."

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps we can begin at the Berlinale, where I first learned about you and your work. For readers who might not have been, can you offer a bit of an overview of what the Forum Expanded is, and your involvement with it? 

 

As its name implies, Forum Expanded is an expansion to the Forum section (founded in 1971 by Arsenal – Institute for film and Video Art, Berlin) which was itself founded to bring forth new filmmakers and film languages. By 2006, there was a large and growing diversification of the mediums of film, and of their aesthetic and professional lineages–for example, the substantial moving image works emerging in the interstices of visual arts and cinema, which also demanded different modes of installation and venues. In response to this need, Forum Expanded was founded in 2006 by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus (co-director of the Arsenal) and Anselm Franke (then Curator of KW –  Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin). Both the F#Forum and the Forum Expanded sections of the Berlinale were and continue to be programmed and directed by the Arsenal. 

 

One of the unique features of the Forum Expanded, and for that matter the Berlinale Film Festival of which it is part, is that its program includes an exhibition which presents works that engage with the medium of film, but can themselves be in any medium, whether film, installation, sculpture, music, performance or text. As a visual artist and curator myself, I was invited in 2017 to join Forum Expanded’s curatorial team. Together we develop the program for Forum Expanded’s exhibition and film programs. 

 

 

 

Two-channel video installation Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea: 28 October 2015, by Forensic Architecture

 

 

 

Was there a program, or film, or discussion that particularly stood out or impacted you this festival?

 

Yes, there were many. It would be hard to give justice to all, so by way of example, there was Born of the * * * : On Zarathustra’s Going Under from Cairo to Oran by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri (Palestine and USA). It defies categorization, as it was a film made and unmade in situ, where the two artists enacted and edited the film live, drawing on filmic material from their ongoing projects, their expanded conversation with Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as well as their reflections on the cultural and geo-political contexts and entanglements of Arab and European histories and contemporary realities. The artists took us through their philosophical, aesthetic and political questions and concerns, as they read, played music and laid bare their process – the journey was both brave and inspiring. 

 

Another strong project were two films that based themselves on an actual crisis; the sinking of a refugee boat in the Aegean Sea in 2015. Purple Sea by Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed (Syria) based itself on the footage taken by Amel Alzakout who is one of the survivors of this wreck and later director of this film. Alzakout thought she was only documenting her personal journey when the boat began sinking, and the refugees were left to face the suspicious inefficiency of international rescuing bodies, which resulted in one of the biggest fatality counts of such accidents. Purple Sea reflected on the situated and embodied experience of the filmmaker. On the other hand, the 2-channel video installation Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea: 28 October 2015, by Forensic Architecture (UK) worked on reconstructing this accident, through collecting data related to the shipwreck, extracted from the metadata of Alzakout’s footage, as well as from other filmic and photographic images, thermal maps, weather and witness reports. As in Forensic Architecture’s practice, their work researches and strives to compile a body of evidence that may serve as ground for public discussion, policy-making and possible legal action. 

 

Forum Expanded’s film programs are followed with an in-depth discussion with the filmmakers and invited speakers with experience in the films’ subject or language. This particular program of course had quite an emotional and engaged discussion with the audience afterwards. 

 

 

 

 

Ahmed Elghoneimy,  Al-Maw’oud | The Promised stills

 

 

 

These films sound fascinating. I saw the FA installation at Silent Green (what an amazing space). It would have been really nice to see the film made by Alzakout herself. Wow, how powerful. Thank you for telling me about that. I am also interested to hear about your perspective as a moderator. There are links that can be made between the films in the program I attended (Program 4) and tactics you use in your films. This is particularly obvious for me in The Promised and The Landing, which both take a nuanced approach that implies, but doesn’t look straight at what you have called “the overtly < hot > political stuff” in your interview with Aleya Hamza. 

 

There is a certain banality that exists in political moments like the ones you describe in your film Night Visitor, The Night of Counting Years, when people capture mundane aspects of the State Security buildings—like chandeliers or statues of horses—while raiding them during the 2011 revolution. I see the situations Elghoneimy sets up and happens upon in The Promised: children running from “the government” in their impromptu game in the desert, or the happenstance conversation between a government official, a man, and his driver, share a similar quality. Whereas in The Landing, Zaatari is attending to a layered historical site in Sharjah. Using sound and performance, he is also creating conceptual and formal links to Hassan Sharif, the acclaimed UAE performance artist. There is something impactful about seeing the everyday-ness of political moments, rather than politics as slogan, performative, or spectacular.


Can you talk about this program a little bit? How do you think the specific contexts are translated for audiences who don’t have a personal connection to these places or socio-political contexts?

 

That was a special film program. It included the two films you mentioned as well as a third film: Akiya by Jonna Kina (Finland, Japan, USA). What brought these films together, curatorially speaking, was their different ways of reflecting on history, abandoned sites, as well as languages and apparatuses used to converse with what is absent. Kina and Zaatari’s films had a special interest in sound, its instruments, and the contexts which produced, recorded or reenacted it. 

 

In Ghoneimy’s film, spoken language; its cadences, accents, slang, etc is central. The mangled slang of the protagonists felt to me like a sonic equivalent to the rubble of the abandoned archaeological site that we saw on the screen, a product of the layered history of this city, its cycles of rulers and ruled, and a carrier of all the effects and affects that language embodies across time. Being Egyptian myself, I had an “in” on the kind of slang spoken in Ghoneimy’s film, and how revealing it is of power politics in contemporary Egypt. That surely influenced how I read the film. There is something untranslatable there, but I felt from the audience’s reactions that at least the general meaning and vibe did come across. Of course when one knows the language and has a connection to the place, you read different things in the film. But in the end, strong films come across.

 

In these films, and indeed in my personal practice that you referred to, there is a lateral approach to politics. Politics is not the overt and direct subject of the work, nor is it articulated in macro terms, rather it is embedded in and gleaned from a gesture, choice of recording/filming device, silences, abandoned subjectivities, and other elements that inhabit the margins of main narratives.   

 

It was almost immediately after the festival that the world started to one by one shut down public gatherings making the Berlinale one of the last big film festivals before the Covid-19 lock-down happened. There is an interesting double-edged sword to the impact of this. On the one hand, it could be argued that there are new opportunities for accessibility: films are being offered free online giving unprecedented access to larger publics, and at the same time there is a loss of contact, late-night conversations, hecklers, or the formal differences between watching a film in a cinema vs. a laptop, or home TV. What is your experience of this new moment we find ourselves in and if it persists, what kinds of adaptations do you see happening, or are you already thinking about in terms of your own activities as an artist and curator?

 

I feel that so far, my interests and projects as an artist and curator are on pause, and some projects are or will be canceled due to the circumstances, but I do not sense a deep impact (yet?) on the nature of the work I do. Maybe because we are still in limbo and the changes that have occurred, and their repercussions have not sunken in yet. Until they do sink in, I remain concerned with yesterday’s problems. 

 

 

You have had quite a remarkable career as an artist, curator, programmer, and publisher. Your trajectory—studying Economics and Middle Eastern History—is a bit unusual for an artist/curator, although from what I understand, maybe less so in an Egyptian context. How did this path evolve for you? 

 

Yes, at least in the Egyptian context but in similar contexts too where the quality of an art education or career is not strong or inviting, many are dissuaded and choose to get a more solid and promising education in another field before pursuing an artistic trajectory with all its difficulties. For me, I pursued my interest in art along my other studies. My interest in research, which I pursued in my graduate studies and work for a few years in the disciplines of history and economics, later turned towards arts and culture, and so there is a continuation of some interests and methods of work. 

 

 

 

 

"Publishing, broadly “the act of making public,” has been an integral part of my interest…What draws me to this broad practice is the desire to bring artistic and cultural practices outside of the limited discursive or physical spaces that they are often confined to for lack of access to a wider public. This lack of access to a wider public is often blamed on an inherent inaccessibility of artistic practices and languages, when it is more directly a product of restrictive, selective procedures that regulate who and what has access to public space, what is bestowed legitimacy and what it not."

 

 

 

 

Can you talk a bit about starting Contemporary Image Collective (CiC)? What role do you play in the organization now? 

 

The Contemporary Image Collective (CiC) was founded in 2004 by a group of artists and photographers based in Cairo. Though we came from different professional and artistic backgrounds, what brought us together was an interest in the medium of still and moving image, as well as the belief in the need for an institution that would further image-based practices and discourses in Egypt and the region. We’ve had a great and difficult trajectory since then, and we continue to try our best to maintain an engaged, serious and open space for practitioners and audiences. 

 

The roles of the founders have changed a lot during the years with the growing and changing needs of CiC. My role has changed from a hands-on involvement in CiC’s artistic programming and overall vision and management, to a more advisory role in collaboration with the Artistic director and the other board members. 

 

What is your interest in [moving] images, as a medium both as an artist and curator?

 

That's a big question. Generally, I would say that images are one of the main mediums through which I engage, comprehend and interpret the world. It's a language that I like reflecting on and “tapping” into how it shapes and is shaped by everything else.

 

You use text and literary devices frequently in your videos, whether it’s directly reading literary passages, as with 2026 or constructing situations that centre on acts of listening and speaking (shooting stars remind me of eavesdroppers), whereas The Subduer is a video, photo series, and publication derived directly from the religious texts you found adorning walls of Egyptian bureaucratic offices. This interest in text and the literary becomes formalized in your publishing practice, and is also present in your curatorial work. In another interview you talked about publishing as an expansive practice that could take the form of “sound pieces, sculptures or even concepts.” Can you talk more about this?

 

Publishing, broadly “the act of making public,” has been an integral part of my interests, whether through the institutional work I’ve been engaged with, like CiC, or in projects that developed with Ala Younis, like the publishing initiative called Kayfa ta كيف تـ. What draws me to this broad practice is the desire to bring artistic and cultural practices outside of the limited discursive or physical spaces that they are often confined to for lack of access to a wider public. This lack of access to a wider public is often blamed on an inherent inaccessibility of artistic practices and languages, when it is more directly a product of restrictive, selective procedures that regulate who and what has access to public space, what is bestowed legitimacy and what it not. 

 

In the series of exhibitions that Kayfa ta كيف تـ developed around the theme of publishing as an artistic practice, we were interested in researching different instances where a cultural practice was denied access to public space, the context and counter measures taken to circumvent these blockades. The titles of these exhibitions were reflective of their general direction of exploring the thresholds of visibility, and access to public space and public engagement: How to reappear: Through the quivering leaves of independent publishing (presented in BAC, Beirut & MMAG, Amman), and How to maneuver: Shape-shifting texts and other publishing tactics (presented in Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi). 

 

Though the titles of the exhibitions mention “texts” and “leaves” or paper, the idea of publishing explored here expands beyond the printed word to any medium because the subject of interest is the act of publishing, the exploration of the subjects and subjectivities that are denied access to the public, and the means through which we can perforate and push the boundaries that limit public space.

 

 

In this definition do you consider your video or curatorial practice a form of publishing?

 

In the sense of seeking to share my work on public platforms and engage in public discourse, yes. 

 


How did Kayfa ta تـ كيف begin? Can you talk about the process of translation and distribution of the texts, the collaborative aspect with Ala Younis, as well as how you make decisions about which texts you commission?

 

Ala and I have collaborated on different curatorial projects before Kayfa ta كيف تـ. We had close curatorial interests in developing collaborative platforms that give us, and a broad specialized and general audience, easier access to the strong alternative artistic cultural productions coming out of, and relevant to, our regional contexts. 

 

In Kayfa ta’s كيف تـ series of publications, which adopt the outer format of How to manuals but expand greatly on the language and methods used, we focused on creative writing. We felt that a lot of strong writing is coming out of art and art-related contexts but remains relatively confined to art’s circuits, spaces and audiences, though its relevance and resonance extends far beyond these immediate domains. Conversely, a lot of strong writing that enjoys more “main stream” credence, shares a lot of interests and nuances with these more “exclusive” writings. Hence, our publishing initiative was to bring strong experimental writing from either side of the “fence” to a shared platform, that would bring together in one series these different writings, writers and readers, and that would be available in regular bookstores.

 

We began the Kayfa ta كيف تـ series in 2012, a significant time in the revolutionary history of the region, and so we were extra sensitive in our choices of writers to commission for the series, and would only invite artists/writers whose writings we believed spoke to the sensitivities and urgencies of the time, be they practical or poetic. Here for example is an excerpt of how Kayfa ta كيف تـ expressed its interest and direction at the time (2012):

 

Kayfa ta is a non-profit Arabic publishing initiative that uses the popular format of how-to manuals (kayfa=how, ta=to) to respond to some of today’s pertinent needs; be they skills, thoughts, sensibilities, emotions, tools or other. 

 

Everyday we express a need to think differently about the tools that we have, the bodies that we inhabit, the houses, communities, economies, geographies and histories that shape and are shaped by us. While how-tos are most commonly used as a strict transmitter of technical and practical knowledge, we aim to commission and publish manuals that attempt to open up a space for a different kind of reading and readership within this mostly technical and didactic genre. Kayfa ta wishes to periodically approach a diverse range of practitioners, discuss with them the urgency of the moment, and the issues and situations that would benefit from a specific “manual”.

 

We would like to place this series of monographs in the space between the technical and the reflective, the everyday and the speculative, the instructional and the intuitive, the factual and the poetic, where art and life borrow from each other, and in the space in a bookstore or a newspaper-stand between the needs of today and tomorrow. Akin to regular how-to books, we would like these books to arise in response to real or perceived needs. When there is a need to learn Photoshop, there is a How to Learn Photoshop book. When there is a need to disappear, there is a How to Disappear book. 

 

 

 

 

Kayfa ta كيف تـ covers

 

 

 

 

From what I understand it is part of Kayfa ta's كيف تـ mandate to circulate the publications as widely as possible by keeping the prices minimal and finding popular ways to distribute (like newspaper stands). Has this vision been maintained over the years?

 

That is still the intention but we have learned in practice the difficulties of distribution. And though we have faired well considering this is a 2-person operation, we still haven't been able to distribute as widely as we would like, but we are working on it. 

As for the pricing, keeping the prices as low as possible is still very important for us. Most of our titles are sold for around 6 Euro/$, and cheaper in Arab cities in relation to the price ranges there. Sometimes we find that retailers have upped the price down the line, this we can’t always control.

 

Regarding language and translation, there is an intentionality behind publishing in Arabic, responding to a lack of Arabic-language publishing, despite the large number of speakers as well as an intentionality behind the production of translations whereby "editions in other languages can be made upon invitation by other projects/institutions." I like this approach because it puts the impetus on non-Arabic speakers to seek out the publications and propose a collaboration. It also highlights the contentious nature of language, and its relationship to power, which exists on many registers, with written language having a particular place in that spectrum.

 

Most of the editions seem to have been translated to English, are they also in other languages? Has this project of translation and dissemination happened the way you had anticipated?

 

Yes, our primary focus was to publish in Arabic because we were responding to a contextual need for different ways of writing and publishing, but we did not have a geographical focus as to the provenance of our authors or readers. And its true that in the beginning we were translating into English when we were invited to do so by an interested institution, festival, etc. But then there was a consistent interest in the series in English, so it became our practice to always translate our books into English, and sometimes other languages when there is an expressed interest. 

 

Having said that, there has been a lot of interest in the series by Arabic and non-Arabic speaking readers and institutions. This has been very exciting and inspiring. It sometimes led to printing new editions of some of our titles for different cities, new translations (for eg, Iman Mersal’s book How to mend: Motherhood and its ghosts is being translated into German), new titles, exhibitions or programming arising from Kayfa ta’s كيف تـ thematic interests.

 

What is the symbolism of the logo for Kayfa ta كيف تـ ? It looks like a trojan horse. 


It is a Trojan horse. Kayfa ta كيف تـ uses a camouflage, an outer shell, the “how-to” format with its familiar general approach, title formats and public appeal, to pass through it more experimental, non-prescriptive writings.

 

 

Having broad experience curating and exhibiting internationally, can you talk about what stands out in each context, and why you decide to stay in Egypt?

 

Of course every context has its particular strengths and limitations, from the overall political, socio-economic or cultural conditions, to the kind of institutional support given to artists and curators, and the extent of attention and engagement with artistic practices occurring in these different localities. My work, whether as an artists or a curator, brings me to these different contexts, which is enriching and exciting. But in the end, so far, I reside in Egypt, and its difficult of course to pursue a functional individual or institutional practice in light of the overall conditions, but its still not totally closed, and I have of course an affinity to what comes out, and what is trying to come out, of here. 

 

What are you working on these days aside from adjusting to this new world order?

 

Am exercising a little and baking way more. Don’t have a clear plan or clue as to how things will change from here, so I take it as it comes. Wish you all a smooth transit, and hopefully we manage afterwards to move things towards more life-sustaining, less exploitative, and more equitable systems of living.

 

 

 

 

The above conversation was conducted by Sarah Nesbitt. Special thanks to Maha Maamoun for generously engaging in this conversation and for giving us your time. 

 

 

 

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