Emerging from a three-month residency at Pro Helvetia, artist and anthropologist Noha Mokhtar’s text-based project “When Will You Make Us Happy?” explores social constructs and the meaning of family through a series of interviews.
Townhouse gallery recently hosted a one-day event on 29 June, featuring the text-based work of artist Noha Mokhtar, printed in the Swiss magazine Fabrikzeitung.
Though the artist has never lived in Egypt, her family migrating to Switzerland, a great deal of Mokhtar’s work deals with Egypt, socially, politically and on a personal level.
“This is part of my identity that I question a lot. What comes from the Egyptian side? What parts change in different contexts? These questions always come up in my art,” Mokhtar tells Ahram Online.
“When Will You Make Us Happy?” is a collaboration with video artist Sahar Suleiman, Mokhtar’s cousin, and was conceived from their long discussions on family issues, how the family functions, and examining certain rules and values that are decontextualised in a different country.
“For me and Suleiman this influence or way of thinking that is placed in a different context by being in a different country was something we experienced very strongly.”
Mokhtar describes this, not as a culture clash, but rather as juxtaposition, “It’s like two different things coming together and you have to find your way.”
This is her first collaboration with Suleiman, and also the first time Mokhtar, foremost a photographer, has worked with text.
The two agreed to work on a research-based project, first to best serve the idea they were tackling, but also to avoid making aesthetic decisions, as they both have different styles in their artworks.
The project was produced in the last issue of Fabrikzeitung, a Swiss experimental monthly magazine, which since 2010 has been creating special issues each dedicated to a certain project or artistic practice.
The magazine allowed them to be experimental in written form, reading as a short story, dancing on the line between fiction and documentary.
Interviews conducted in April, record answers to the artist’s questions, including the main one, ‘What is family to you?’
The text, subtitled An Egyptian Family Saga, presents four unrelated characters, and is divided into six chapters: Family, Father, Living, Marriage, Revolution, Fiction.
Though the characters are described on the cover, the text does not reveal who is saying what, creating an effect of a collective identity, like a cloud of information sorted by theme and not by person.
The title, “When Will You Make Us Happy?” arose from discussions in the interviews.
“One recurrent topic was the topic of marriage. We used this phrase for the title, because it contains the idea that it is important to please the other, before yourself.”
Here Mokhtar’s background as an anthropologist steps in to note the rigid structure of Egyptian society.
“What came up a lot in the interviews is how people feel like they have to play these roles and fulfill set functions. And if you’re not playing it as well as others want you to, it doesn’t function cause the structure is too strong,” she says.
The project further suggests some parallels between the social and political structures in Egypt.
“One of the questions we had in mind was why the revolution didn’t really work out. We asked, do we need revolution in the family before revolution is possible in the street?” she says.
Serving as a backdrop to their project is the constitution’s tenth article, which deals with the definition and significance of the family.
“There can be comparisons, like corruption in the state and blackmailing in family, and when you talk about the president as the father. But it’s not meant as a one on one comparison, rather a micro-look at family structure and at society at large,” Mokhtar adds.
Creative Formats Cross-over
It can be argued that Mokhtar and Suleiman’s book-project is not art, but literature, yet to Mokhtar art and research are cousins.
“When I say research, I don’t separate it from the art. I think there are interesting spaces between art and anthropology. They have a lot of potential to serve each other, and I always mix these two disciplines,” Mokhtar says.
The project is not meant from an academic approach, and Mokhtar is happy to acknowledge its subjectivity.
“We are doing this work as artists, not objective researchers, and interviews are never objective, as you already have an opinion, the choice of people we interview, and the editing, I wouldn’t say we try to be objective, but rather it’s a discussion,” she says.
When Will You Make Us Happy? is a work is progress that Mokhtar and Suleiman plan to develop with more interviews in another visit to Cairo.
“We want to create six characters, each of them will be a combination of ten people merged into one,” she says. “It will create a schizophrenic personality.”
Their goal is creating a narrative half fiction, half documentary, yet Mokhtar saw this fusion of genres and was somehow already present in reality.
“Sometimes while interviewing one person, we would find contradictions. Then we have people of different religions and backgrounds, with a lot of similar answers,” says Mokhtar.
A multidisciplinary artist, Mokhtar, a photographer, anthropologist and video artist, sometimes likes to work with form, also conceptual but primarily concerned with objects and materials.
Another collaborative project she worked on during her residency is with Swiss artist Lucas Uhlmann.
Their project is a sculptural collection of bathtubs inspired by the wide variety in Egypt’s markets. The artists were interested in how this object has one function, yet so many options that people cared about.
“This project looks into how people in Egypt furnish their homes, and choose the details of their bathrooms. I had the impression that if you choose everything in your home, it’s a place where you plan to stay,” says Mokhtar.
She compares it to Switzerland, where most people rent houses, and the bathtub is just there for a function and people don’t care what type it is or what it looks like.
Another sculptural project Mokhtar and Uhlmann had previously collaborated on in 2014, is titled Calderas.
In this project they take on swimming pools, and create inverted versions of them with compressed sand.
“Pools are a hole in the ground, inverted they become like islands or a podium.”
Creating the molded shapes using compressed sand, Mokhtar says she was interested in exploring the material, and how to work with it.