Artist’s Statement: Hala Elkoussy on Tahrir Square, Britain and Folkestone Triennial

Hala Elkoussy interviewed by Mark Sheerin | 13 July 2011
Colour photo of a female artist standing before a red curtain
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Artist’s Statement: In her own words...Hala Elkoussy talks about turning a disused Folkestone shop into an archive of books and photography reflecting British influence in Cairo...

“I’m trying to look at this history of Cairo from alternative points of view. And I’ve come to this connection to the foreign presence which has been instrumental to how things are today.

Then my idea was it should be in a shop and my thinking behind that was: one, you would approach an audience that’s not normally trying to look at an art exhibit; but also the perception that shops include things that are for sale and, in this instance, things look like you could buy them and it’s not necessarily the case.

The idea is that you cannot really take a bit of them and leave the rest. You just somehow have to deal with it all.

So one of the exercises I did was going to the British Library and typing Cairo or Egypt and going through thousands of books. The idea was not to buy these books but to get keywords for interesting leads.

One lead led to another and it's the same with Egypt. My search terms were Cairo Egypt and Cairo British. Some of the books were quite appalling but I find it funny. I find them appalling in a funny way. It’s like, ‘Ha ha, how is it possible that somebody could think of another human being in this way?’

Most of the books completely dissociate the moment we live in, in the present, from that very recent past. Somehow the regular average British person today would not feel any involvement with an Egyptian person, beyond the thought that they might have gone there on holiday and there are pyramids there.

But in fact, until 60 years ago, the British were actually in Egypt and helped shape the history of that period.

There is an idea that no other country changed so much at the end of the 19th century as did Egypt, as a result of British exploitation in the cotton industry for example. This is an alternative way of looking at it.

What we are experiencing today was started when the British came in. So it might be nice to actually talk about it and try and understand how is it affecting you and how is it affecting me. Maybe this is the way to understand what happened in Tahrir square?

When the British came in they commissioned the rewriting of history for the last 500 years literally. Certain names from Syria and Lebanon were asked to write history and the idea posited there was that, until British colonialism, the arabs were in a massive era of decline.

And the criticism of this notion is that you never really have 500 years of decline. There must have been moments that there were good and interesting things happening. But these are the notions that as a child I had to study in history books.

There is a mirror on each wall, and the idea is that you do not feel that any one wall is closed on itself so each wall reflects the other walls. But also that you see yourself reflected in the work and are somehow in that way involved. Also, the street is reflected inside the room. So even though this is a closed off space it’s not insular, not finite.

In my mind this installation posits questions. It does not necessarily provide answers.”

  • Al-Khawaga and Johnny Stories can be seen at Folkestone Triennial until September 25 2011. Admission free. See Triennial website for directions.
Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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