Thinking in Conversation: Writing on Contemporary Art
Interview with Ismail Fayed
One of the foundation stones and core pillars of K-oh-llective is to facilitate conversations around art practices. Be it through commissioning new written pieces or republishing existing texts, reviews, research papers, or artist books. This stems from the sheer excitement that one gets when an exhibition review (however rare) gets published. Amongst the usual suspects for writing such texts is Ismail Fayed, who actively engaged and covered a range of art exhibitions, film reviews, fairs and festivals in recent years. We reached out to Ismail to discuss art criticism, writing on the arts, and the process and economy behind publishing texts. Ismail, then, proposed to work through a Q&A format. The questions we posed and his responses are shared below;
KOH: First off, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about your practice?
Ismail: I am Ismail Fayed, I am a writer and critic, and I think of my practice as simply a conversation I am having with my readers and peers. To me, writing is nothing more than a dialogue through which reflection and understanding become possible. I think it stems from my desire to try to understand. And while this can be applied to almost any subject, I find artistic practices specifically a richer terrain for the imagination. I think artistic practices tell us something about ourselves and the world around us, that might not have been possible to know or perceive if we only think within the confines of the everyday or the purely objective.
KOH: We were mostly introduced to you through your published writings on Mada Masr, and we’ve always wondered why they are not published more regularly. Can you walk us through the process of working on written texts? How do you select the chosen topic or event to cover?
Ismail: That is a good question! I am a bit ashamed to say, I am not very disciplined as a writer or as a critic. And it might have to do with living in Cairo. Cairo itself as a city; chaotic, difficult to navigate and also unpredictable.
The usual process of working on texts, would be according to the cultural calendar in Egypt. Usually the cultural season starts sometime in September and goes on through early spring around March, and this is when most of the events and programming takes place. As someone who is eclectic, for the most part I like to write on quite a diverse range of subjects (film, literature,...etc). Of course, every writer often has an area of focus, and to me this is visual arts. The process would entail meeting and talking with the editors of the culture and art section at Mada, and sort of setting an agenda or schedule for pieces we want to work on. I have to say that Mada’s team is exceptionally flexible in terms of allowing writers to choose the pieces that they would like to work on and the timeline for publication.
My own choice of event or topic mostly hinges on interest but also a particular sense of urgency. I am typically inspired or moved by artistic practices that speak to their times, and that are informed by the Zeitgeist. Not in the sense of following a fashion or a trend (such works are never interesting), but responding to and engaging with larger contingencies and circumstances.
KOH: This brings us to our next question; who commissions the texts? And who stands to benefit from creating a dialogue and engaging critically with the works presented? Is it the publishing platforms, the art spaces, the artists themselves or is it self-initiated at times?
Ismail: That depends of course. Sometimes artists or art spaces/institutions would ask me to write, and sometimes editors would invite me to submit a review, but in most cases it’s my own interest or initiative.
I don’t think of it as benefit in that sense. It is always good to have critical dialogue about a certain work or artist, but I don’t think the process itself is measured or considered in terms of benefit. Critical writing has no tangible benefit as such. It plays a crucial role in sharpening our thinking tools and opening possibilities for understanding. I think everyone who is involved in the process stands to gain something from an engaged and critical reflection. Whether it's the artist, the art space, or the reader. It is only through such conversations that the afterlife of a work becomes possible, and where the work and its field of meaning expand as more conversations are initiated or articulated.
KOH: Do you ever work on writing press releases or curatorial statements? We know that curators sometimes start from writing practices, so do you think there is an intersection between writing about art and curating it?
Ismail: I do, and I did in the past work on press releases and wrote a few curatorial statements. I have intentionally avoided curating as a full-time job, especially during the 2000s as it became more and more a rather pretentious and “fashionable” label. I, much prefer the more antiquated notion of a curator, i.e. a keeper of a particular collection, someone who preserves and takes care of an artifact. In general, I find the idea of curators as cultural impresarios or celebrities off-putting and repulsive. The celebrity culture and obsession of self-presentation in a certain way for the attention of others, really gets in the way of the much more serious and introspective work of a curator or an exhibition director. It is a process that involves a certain kind of mental exercise quite in contradiction to how we have come to understand a curator (attention-seeking diva, probably a thwarted artist,...etc) and their job (not to present themselves, but rather to create possibilities for the artwork to take different forms and different meanings). This is not to say that there are no serious curators! Or that there are contemporary curators who take themselves and the work they do seriously beyond fashion or idealized self-presentation. But those are usually a minority.
There is definitely an intersection between writing about the arts and curating, although the two might not always align. Writing about art might need a certain distance and introspection, not necessarily available or desirable for a curator who is most often working within a specific timeframe. But also there is the problem within most contemporary curatorial practices where art speak obfuscates meaning and drowns the significance of the work in obtuse prose. It's a running joke among most audiences how difficult curatorial writing has become over the last few decades, alienating the audience and undermining the reception of the work. I think a curator must have a vision of how the artworks are going to be received and what their possible meaning might be, and at the same time be able to communicate that with the widest audience possible.
KOH: We feel that readership on art does not usually extend beyond the circle of gallery-goers and art practitioners, so do you think writing can help expand this type of engagement to reach wider audiences? Do you think is it too utopian to consider other publishing channels that are not exclusive to the artistic sphere (on a national/regional level)?
Ismail: I feel that people need to experiment with form and allow themselves to be open to exploring the range of media that can be used. I think there is a dearth of writing and talking about art, and I think there are many ways to do it. Whether by using social media (Instagram for instance) or podcasting or digital press...etc. I don’t think it's utopian at all, I think all experiments are useful, and I think it is only by trying such experiments do we understand our audience and their needs better, and the possible ways through which we can reach them. I can think of one very interesting example that The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) did, the YouTube series, ‘The Artist Project’, where it invited contemporary artists to comment on the museum collection (all departments and all historical timelines) in a few minutes. And it's a fantastic way to overcome our ever diminishing attention spans, but also to get very intimate with an artist and understand a bit about their process and aesthetics in a visually engaged way.
KOH: In your opinion, how can one think and write critically about art? And what would make art criticism a more common practice in the context of arts and culture in Egypt and the region?
Ismail: Thinking and writing critically about art assumes a certain kind of familiarity with the history of said artistic practice (i.e. visual arts or film) as well as a certain kind of understanding of general intellectual currents that informed such discussions. Not in the sense of the contrived “art speak”, which is very specific to a certain historical moment (post-1970s), but rather in the sense that someone is aware of the critical debates surrounding a particular practice or genre. A writer can then choose not to identify or subscribe to those debates, but a writer has to be aware of the various critical and intellectual traditions that informed many ideas of what we now understand as contemporary art (one can also be very critical of them, but this requires the initial openness to understand and engage).
The other point is the understanding that any artistic practice is not isolated from its political and economic context. In the context of the region, in many countries the rise of contemporary art over the past three decades was heavily influenced by a certain economy where international cultural institutions (such as l’Institut Français, Goethe Institut, Ford Foundation,...etc) stepped in lieu of the state, and provided the much-needed economic and sometimes even logistical support. This meant that many of those practices developed in an international context, addressing and in dialogue with practices that in the majority of cases did not take either local practices and histories into account or dismissed them altogether.
Such internationalism allowed for a much greater visibility and international connections, but left many of the artistic practices, initiatives, and institutions incredibly vulnerable when such support or funding was stopped, withheld or curtailed (the case of Egypt). I think this is the moment when many contemporary artistic practices are confronted with the question of who is the audience and how it can be developed and sustained when the traditional channels of support (whether the state or international cultural institutions) are all but gone. In cases like Egypt, we don’t have a very developed philanthropy model where an elite patronizes the arts (that has been recently changing by initiatives like Art D'Egypte for example, but such aggressive hijack of the contemporary art scene cannot be thought of as “patronizing the arts”, but rather erasing and rewriting history at will).
The current moment —not just in Egypt but in many parts of the region— is forcing the artistic community to rethink its means of support and its relation to a local community and audience, whether by instituting and establishing new support systems and networks or understanding how can the history of the last three decades be built on and further developed instead of being erased or dismissed. And it is precisely at this juncture that writing about the arts and art criticism becomes crucial because it situates artistic practices in a larger historical context, explaining and informing the audience how and why the current artistic practices have developed the way they did and how can the meaning a work carries change over time and transform.
What would make art criticism a more common practice is a rather fraught question. It involves many things, publishing possibilities, freedom of expression, a certain kind of education and reading culture,...etc. But from witnessing the recent rise of alternative media platforms and initiatives (such as Mada, al-Jumhuriya, Ma3azef,...etc), there is definitely a place for expanding writing cultures across the board, not just the arts. I believe, just like K-oh-llective, initiatives that try and collaborate and use all the possible existing tools and models (or even inventing new ones) is sorely needed. Because as we have seen since 2011, there is certainly an audience for it, and there is an audience that is keen and which deserves to know and deserves to know better.
Ismail Fayed is a writer, critic and educator based in Cairo. He has worked with regional and international art spaces and organizations since 2007. His writings cover a wide range of contemporary artistic practices including visual art, filmmaking and contemporary literature.