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Another Place: Susan Hefuna’s major solo exhibit opens in Sharjah

More than 200 artworks, including sculptures, photographs, drawings, video and site specific installations by artist Susan Hefuna, occupy the Sharjah Art Foundation’s historic Beit Al-Serkal

Sara Elkamel from Sharjah, UAE, Thursday 20 Mar 2014
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Susan Hefuna's Another Place at Bait Al Serkal. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation)
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Time passes. The artist records it. In her latest solo exhibition, which opened 13 March at the Sharjah Art Foundation, German-Egyptian multimedia artist Susan Hefuna exhibits a large number of artworks that date to as far back as 1983.

Like a time capsule set in reverse, the show has been set up inside Beit Al-Serkal, which was built in the 19th century and acted as the home of the British commissioner for the Arabian Gulf, and was transformed in the 1960s into Sharjah's first hospital. Beit Al-Serkal, restored between 1993 and 1995, now serves as one of the venues for the Sharjah Biennial, and houses a range of exhibitions, workshops and cultural events.

Works executed in various mediums, including drawing, painting, installation, photography, video and sculpture, inhabit the rooms, hallways and corners of the quaint house, and strongly rebel against chronological order.

“This house is like a human being,” starts Hefuna. “The idea behind it is that if you walk into a human being, you would find hidden corners, hidden memories, unconscious things; something from today, something from the past.”

Chaotic and organic, the Al-Serkal exhibit houses Hefuna’s rich, meandering art career creating works in three countries — Egypt, Germany and the US — and drawing on influences both from her heritage and daily life.

The exhibition is curated by Sharjah Art Foundation president Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, who laboured with Hefuna over the course of two years to ensure that the project fully matured before delivery. Through a series of meetings, in Sharjah and in New York, the pair flipped through Hefuna’s vast and varied oeuvre and picked out more than 200 artworks for the exhibition.

Walking from one room to the next, climbing some stairs, descending others, stepping into darkened rooms to watch videos, peering into the courtyard where a large-scale installation is erected, the exhibition resembles a mild intensity workout.

“It is as if the house is breathing,” says Hefuna. “When you walk from one work to the other, you have time and space to see the connections.”

Hefuna says the common element that underlies all her artistic endeavours is the concept of structure. Geometric shapes and lines appear and reappear across her works, regardless of the medium.

One photograph, black and white like all the others in this show, is titled "Woman behind Mashrabiya" (1997). The figure in the photograph is blurred, and is seated behind a pattern resembling the carved wood latticework that is typical of Islamic architecture. Two larger wood and white gouache sculptures, created in 2007, hang on the wall, recreating Mashrabiya window panels.

In the daylight, the patterns on the window frames at Beit Al-Serkal appear as shadows on the grey floors, recreating the lines and geometric shapes in Hefuna’s white Mashrabiya pieces. Another Place is not one show, but many; experiencing it differs significantly in the daylight from nighttime.

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Susan Hefuna's Another Place at Bait Al Serkal. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation)

Among the most interesting works in the exhibition are a series of drawings of disoriented geometric shapes on tracing paper, which had previously been exhibited at the 53rd Venice Biennial in 2009. Defying the flatness that paper prescribes, Hefuna astutely switched to tracing paper. 

“At a certain point, I felt that I wanted the drawings to be more three-dimensional,” Hefuna recalls. “And that’s when I started using tracing paper, to add layers so that multiple drawings would interact.”

Hefuna may work in a wide range of media, but she always devotedly returns to drawing. “I am always doing drawing … I just have to do it,” Hefuna says with a mischievous giggle, as if confessing to a secret affair. “It is my favourite medium because it is closest to the inner self," she said. “You don't have to explain everything in words, you know, or to have a big intellectual argument. I think people just see.”

She says that despite her commitment to drawing, it is important for her to work in different media, including sculpture and installation, because it allows for a different experience.

The large-scale photographs scattered across the space punctuate the show with flair. The artist does not let the documentative nature of photography hold her back from abstraction. Ranging from portraits of her family to landscapes in the Nile Delta, these photographs exhibit a very strong texture, and are often out of focus, as if in motion. Her face framed with unruly black curls, Hefuna explains that she purposefully flouts the conventions of photography where “everything should be perfect.”

She would use an old pinhole camera on the street, and develop the photos outdoors. As a result, specks of dirt make appearances on her photographs. “Sometimes it looks as if it’s disappearing, or like there are mistakes, and it looks abstract and old-fashioned,” she says.

Hefuna says she was keen on showcasing these works in the West, to observe the reactions and perceptions of the audience. “People would look and see black and white, and palm trees and automatically think they were pictures from the past, because they don’t look carefully, they only glance at the surface.”

“The viewer is important … they are responsible for how they choose to look at things,” she says. Dipping into abstraction and conceptual art, Hefuna’s work overflows with layers of meaning, that she challenges viewers to untangle.

“My work always has different meanings and layers, it never carries only one message … it all depends on who is looking at the work.”

Vitrines with random, mundane objects are scattered across the space, forcing visitors to peer into them with curious eyes.

Through her recurrent interactions with workers at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, where she frequently exhibited, Hefuna started to consider how alienated their families were from the world of international curators and artists that pass through the art space. She wondered how the women in these workers’ lives spent their time, what their dreams were. She set up meetings with the mothers, sisters, and wives of some of the workers over the course of three months, and visited them in their homes on the outskirts of Cairo.

“Then I asked these women to give me something from their daily life, an object that for them is full of imagination and history, and assembled them in vitrines,” she says. “Even though the women are not connected to the art world, they still have their own fantasies … You know, in Egypt there’s always a sense of storytelling and fantasy.”

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Susan Hefuna's Another Place at Bait Al Serkal. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation)

This sense of dialogue, exchange, and mystery characterises Hefuna’s artwork, and carries you through the show. The exhibition emerges as a gigantic installation in itself. Hefuna says she built a machete of the house, with all its ins and outs, and toyed around with it for many months to imagine the exhibit’s composition and structure. The works in the exhibition can rearranged at random intervals, to create an even stronger sense of movement, and explore the seemingly endless relationships that exist among her different projects.

The exhibition runs until 13 June 2014 at Sharjah Art Foundation’s Beit Al-Serkal, Arts Area, Al-Shuweiheen, Sharjah.

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