KOH-Talks #1: The Voices Behind the Cups

Podcast with: Engy Mohsen, Mohamed Al Bakeri, Nada Elkalaawy, Rania Atef and Soukaina Joual.

Bakeri: Okay, shall we start? We are a group of artists based between Rabat, Cairo and London and we’re called K-oh-llective. Each one of us will quickly introduce themselves. I am Mohamed Al Bakeri, a visual artist interested in the notion of masculinity with regards to public spaces … that's it. Who would like to go after me? Engy?

Engy: I can, I am Engy Mohsen, a visual artist but an architect by training. I am interested in notions of spatial design, conversations and how spaces feed into our movements and how we interact together within them. Who can go after me?

Rania: I can, My name is Rania, I am based in Cairo and I am interested in topics related to motherhood, family life, labour and art institutions … that's it. Nada?

Nada: My name is Nada Elkalaawy, I am an Egyptian living in London. I am a visual artist and I work predominantly in painting and drawing, as well as animation and tapestry. My work deals with notions of loss, traces of memories and fiction. Soukaina?

Soukaina: I am Soukaina Joual from Morocco. I am a visual artist currently based in Rabat. I work in various mediums and my practice revolves around the representation of the body in public and private spaces. I am currently interested in Moroccan cultural traditions.

Bakeri: Okay cool. What was the next point to discuss?

Engy: I think it is important now to talk a bit about how we met. We first met in 2018.

Bakeri: In September

Engy: September 2018 in Alexandria, through an independent study programme... no an independent study and studio programme; MASS Alexandria. We were all participating artists. At the time, Soukaina came from Rabat, Nada from London, and Bakeri, Rania and I went from Cairo to Alexandria for 14 months. I think this is when the friendship began to formulate. It started with questions and discussions about the work with each other, asking for opinions, writing applications together. This is where the idea of a group came from, even if it is just a group of friends, which then changed to a collective. How did we reach K-oh-llective though?

Bakeri: Engy before we start talking more about the purpose of K-oh-llective, I’d like to quickly just add that I believe the discussions we’ve had since our very initial meeting is the core of what we hope K-oh-llective will provide to others, or what it will serve on a more formalised basis; which is resource sharing and the participation from the audience to grow it further.

Engy: There is also another important point, which is the fact that our group was never pre-planned nor pre-determined. We just found ourselves operating and working together like artist groups, and supporting one another in our own practices, and from there we started thinking about how this can be more formalised in order to form a collective. We thought about how we can share this process of working collectively with others, especially when it came down to technical elements (that help us as individuals within the collective). An example of this is how we send opportunities to each other based on our practices and needs, or when we discuss ideas if someone is writing a project proposal, building on an idea for a new project, etc.

Rania: This then takes us to why we became K-oh-llective? The purpose is to expand what we started to a bigger crowd and other individuals, who might think that there are benefits from this collaboration. In that way, the platform becomes a hub for knowledge sharing.

Engy: I would like to go back to this comment Rania raised about shared benefits, and it is important to mention that “Self-Organisations'' is Mophradat’s programme that allowed us to consider this group more seriously. It was an open call for practitioners to think about alternative ways of organisation and collaboration, which encouraged us to form K-oh-llective as it has been on our minds for ages but perhaps we never had the motivation, we needed a deadline, and the necessary funding for it. This programme sped up the process in order to reach this eventuality, which we could have reached in other ways but it might have taken a longer time.

Rania: I also think that all opportunities available were for us to work together to produce work, that's why it was difficult to find funding if we were not making artwork collectively.

Bakeri: That is because we each have our own individual practices that are completely different from the other in terms of interests, mediums and modes of working.

Rania: And I think that our vision for what K-oh-llective as a platform will offer is something that art institutions tend not to be the first thing they support.

Nada: I think it is because the outcome is not physical.

Engy: It is intangible

Nada: Yes exactly, it is a platform that will have a toolbox including opportunities and downloadable templates to aid with applications of all sorts, which is very different from working on an exhibition for example or working towards producing art.

Bakeri: It does however have a tangible outcome which is the platform and the space itself, but it doesn't provide something conventional which is expected from any project receiving funds.

Engy: There is one idea I’d like to discuss further and it is how we were fully aware that is unlikely for artists in contemporary art to work together like we do, I am not trying to brag here but what I am trying to hint at is that art is usually very individualistic as opposed to what a group can do. So we were conscious that a big part of what we reached has developed over the year we spent together. In addition to that, the year after (2020) the pandemic erupted and everyone was spending time at home due to quarantine, which might have enhanced this individualistic practice. We knew we did not have this obsessive individuality nor do we have a competitive attitude towards each other, which made us think about what helped us eliminate this behaviour.

Nada: This supportive environment also helps speed up the process, making it more efficient and fruitful. We often come across opportunities that might be tailored to someone else, for example I might have seen a residency opportunity that you would benefit from more because of your kind of practice, etc. So we felt that the wider our circle gets, the more opportunities we find and therefore more the conversations we have, which is something we are very keen on. We discuss work very often, we see what is happening around us and I believe that when the world stood still due to the pandemic, it was very important for us that the conversations continue.

Bakeri: To add on to this, there are very few initiatives that compile opportunities like “Opportunities for Egyptian Artists” and many others I am sure, but that’s the one that popped to mind. However what we aim for is to build on these initiatives so that the experience for the website user is more customised and time efficient. One can spend a long time reading open calls to find out eventually that is unsuitable because he/she is emerging and the opportunity is for a mid-career artist, or he/she is mid-career and it is for an established artist and so on. Another example is a mother artist who can not attend a residency that is more than three months, or someone who wants to apply for postgraduate studies but it should not be required to have a Bachelors in Fine Art to be enrolled in the university course, etc. What I am trying to say is that the opportunities will be categorised instead of all being in one pot to help speed up finding suitable ones. These are tools and a little bit of tweaks to facilitate and ease up the practical side of our daily tasks. These can be related to applications, finding the right artisans, or even the dialogue as Engy mentioned earlier about how vital conversations are in our field, as often the feedback one gets about their work comes from close friends or on a very small scale. It is as if the work gets exhibited and then a vacuum or an echo chamber is formed, so it is either there is lack of constructive feedback or all acquaintances give similar opinions. Therefore group crits is something I believe we lack and are in need of, so we started coordinating online studio visits between ourselves which we would like to share with others so it becomes more sustainable and porous.

Rania: There is something else; the process that artists go through when completing documents that are always required in applications like the CV (how to structure it), the biography (what it should include), artist statement, etc. so one can say that we are aiding early-career artists with that initial step.

Bakeri: Exactly

Rania: Anyone who is after this sort of knowledge will find it all gathered in one platform.

Engy: There is something important to highlight here; we are working together not to produce any artworks, but rather to produce knowledge. We are considering the type of knowledge an emerging artist, up until they are mid-career, would need to gain like specific know-hows which accumulate with time. This process could  take a long time, and we believe this knowledge can be reached by easier means so we are working on the knowledge production, making them available as tools for everyone; artists, writers, curators or anyone in the cultural field, to have accessibility to this type of information, as it is information in the end. I would like to talk a bit and mention the main sections of the project; a platform, a website, an open space with 3 pillars if we can say that. There is the Toolbox, a space for Conversations, and the third space is the Library. Rania can tell us more about the Toolbox and what sort of tools fall under that

Rania: The Toolbox is amaaaazing! It includes information that is simple and easy but the absence of it can be an obstruction and a waste of time. For example in the past I would have to extensively ask around when I need to find the contact of an artisan, but now we find references right away on our website that specify what each one specializes in. The biography for example most of the time gets mixed up with the artist statement, especially at the beginning. One might not know whether to mention education here or there, and these things tend to take time especially when you have just started your career. Another example is steps needed to write a proposal to apply for a grant. One usually has ideas but they are often unorganised, and with the aid of some questions or points to be filled they ideas will become more concrete. What else is there?

Nada: Timelines, budgets I think

Rania: Yes, and a project timeline and so on. There are these factors that are fairly simple yet consume a lot of time if they are not easily accessible, for example having to think of how it will be structured. I believe there are others elements that I can not remember right now,

Engy: I would like to add something, which is very important, and that is contracts and agreements, the documents that clarify the terms of engagement between two or more people, with the artist and the institution, or…

Rania: So that everyone knows the limits of their space, what will they do? In which context? What are my rights and what are my responsibilities? And so on.

Bakeri: There is another point which I believe will come up later on in the Conversations section, but it is relevant to what you are saying about contracts, which is the economic aspect that has to do with money…

Engy: Wages?

Bakeri: Wages, exactly! I mean that this is more of a discussion than a template that we will be able to provide, but I meant that it builds up on your earlier point on rights and the idea of agreements.

Soukaina: There is also the idea of pricing, artists always find difficulties in pricing their works, whether at the beginning or in general, whether it is a painting, a video work… so this also might help.

Bakeri: This is something to be discussed as well

Soukaina: Yes, to be discussed

Engy: Bakeri, I would like to go back to the part you mentioned something about Conversations, so can you tell us more about that part of the website?

Bakeri: Yes the space for Conversations, we will have more than one form of conversational medium; of course there will be something like blog entries, something like open discussion where people get to engage with each other, there will also be… I am not sure if I should pinpoint what the options will be or would you like me to talk more generally?

Engy: No I meant generally speaking, the idea that these conversations won’t only be in a written format, there are texts of course…

Bakeri: Of course!

Engy: Through which we will be inviting certain guests; art practitioners, to discuss topics that we see relevant, because I believe a big part of our audience or those we target with the website, are emerging artists, which is the category that we all still fall under. So there are a lot of topics that are important to discuss, like for example the current landscape of art in the cities we live in, the idea of wages that Bakeri mentioned earlier, the increase of online exhibitions which became very normalised and so on. Those who also found themselves working on the same aspect of resource sharing; those who create websites with an inventory of artist opportunities and so on. There is another section, next to the blog of course which is less formal and has more room to play, but there is the Podcast like the one we are doing now.

Bakeri: Exactly!

Engy: Which we hope to continue

Bakeri: But we would like to add, and maybe Nada can talk better about that part as well if she likes, but this podcast is of course introductory, so we are starting with everyone in this episode, but later on we will host others, and Nada can take it from here.

Nada: I believe that through the podcast we aim to invite artists, writers and curators, focusing on the Arab world to start with, and it will range from specific topics that we would like to address and we believe that our guest will have an interesting contribution to or way of thinking or other times we might want to ask our guest about his/her practice and their experience in the art world if he/she is an artist. I think each episode will be different as we won't have a strict structure, and it will be more of a response to what is happening around us that we feel might be relevant and engaging for our audience. I also think that in the future we would like to have participation from the public in terms of the selection of invited guests, or if there is a specific topic they’d like us to delve into or I don't know if there is a biennale or event to cover, etc.

Bakeri: I would just like to add something to a point we’ve discussed earlier before it's too late. I want to say that one of the things we established whilst constructing this platform is the idea that it would be a shared  collaborative project with others, that it is not solely the founders that provide input in the website. There is an opportunity to add to our library, our toolbox, our conversations by engaging with the topics or even a chance to add to our list of opportunities. It is not a one way communication where we get to dictate all information shared without receiving from the opposing end.

Engy: I also think that since we are talking about resource sharing we should go into details and explain what the Library section does. It will focus on Artists books, which are very fragmented, especially that in the Arab world and the countries we live in, we don't have libraries dedicated for Artists books. We therefore felt that it is a good opportunity to gather them in a space, but also to find out how artists publish their work, which can range from one edition to multiple editions that are displayed in libraries. We are also interested in how we can curate reading lists by either generic topics like archives, cultural identity or painting for example, or to more specific themes. I think these are all attempts for shortcuts or increased accessibility for tools that can aid with artistic practices, but also as Bakeri was saying it can encourage participatory action from others to add to the platform which is made up of fragments compiled from each one of us. It all goes back to this sense of mutual care or mutual contribution we mentioned earlier.

Bakeri: Okay I want to know … Would you like to talk about future plans we would like to achieve or our goals for K-oh-llective and what we want it to achieve

Engy: Do you mean short-term or long-term?

K-oh-llective: Hahahahahhaha

Bakeri: Yeah good question, I meant long-term to be honest but if you would like to start with short-term that's also fine, but I guess we already covered the short-term

Engy: Yeah, I guess that was clear enough, so we’re talking about the ambition here

Bakeri: Exactly! First, I think it is…

Engy: The utmost ambition?

Bakeri: No, the biggest challenge I think for every artist, not just K-oh-llective or any collective, is longevity, or sustainability or to make sure it continues and endures. Of course this means applying for funds along the way to sustain, we are however hoping that it stays independent.

Nada: I think there is something that we really want, to have a space, no? To have a space for K-oh-llective

Engy: For K-oh-llective!

Nada: And then we can invite artists, we can have an artist-run residency program, or just a space to for dialogue like the one we’re having now, but extended on a bigger scale, a physical space I mean

Bakeri: Exactly!

Rania: Soukaina, would you like to share your ambitions?

Soukaina: Nada said it all, I mean a physical space would be great

Nada: A space you guys, I mean we’ve been doing all of this remotely with everyone in a different city, so I think a space is a very good goal as well

Engy: I think it is also not just having a space that would allow us to come together, but also thinking of what a studio space would allow us to do. Many things!

Nada: Yeah, of course

Engy: That means if this turns into -I am now using purely business terms- but if it turns into a hub, so that people get used to this space, where they go to work and meet others and share ideas. This can also open up the possibility of having residencies like you said, a study program, open studios or a program with mentorship for example, we can also think of opportunities to show work

Nada: Or small exhibitions

Engy: Exactly, small exhibitions, an artist-run biennial and the list can go on! But I think that all of these things start from the idea of having a physical studio space, we can have another podcast episode by the end of the year and think of our ambitions.

Bakeri: Alright

Rania: I think we’re done, so we won’t keep those listening any longer

Engy: That is if there is anyone still listening this far

Bakeri: If there is anyone listening until this moment, we will send you our merch for free

K-oh-llective: Hahahahahhaha

Engy: Or a membership discount

Bakeri: Exactly!

Engy: Alright then

Rania: Okay, then turn this off

Nada: Bye then

Engy: Bye everyone

K-oh-llective: Bye!

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🇵🇸We Will Not Stand by in Silence:  ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction  ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.