Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s expansive artistic practice spans several media, from painting and sculpture to installation and video. His most recognisable work for many is perhaps his series of matchstick on wood and Plexiglas pieces, in which Middle Eastern geometric patterns are outlined in the small pieces of wood, an homage to the power of the people and the potential of the collective voice: one match by itself can easily be snuffed out, but together, alight, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Born in Alexandria in 1961, Nasr first burst onto the scene in 2001, showing work with international heavyweight Galleria Continua. His work has since then been exhibited around the world, gaining popularity for its ability to connect local and international sensibilities and issues. He is also the founder of Darb 1718, a non-profit arts and culture space in Cairo. One of its aims has been to create a database of Egyptian, Middle Eastern and North African art; it also hosts a rolling programme of projects, such as film screenings and workshops, seeking to expand dialogue through community engagement and outreach.
For the 2017 Venice Biennale, Nasr has taken over the Egyptian Pavilion to create a multi-sensory, immersive experience and to present his new video work, ‘The Mountain’. Folio talks to him about the experience of putting together one of his most ambitious projects to date, the importance of conquering fear, and what he hopes ‘The Mountain will achieve.
This isn’t the first time that you’ve participated in the Venice Biennale…
The first time I participated in the Biennale was back in 2003, when Francesco Bonami was the curator [the main theme was Dreams and Conflicts]. I was part of the exhibition Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes, which was on view at the Arsenale. Curated by Gilane Tawadros, I showed work alongside artists such as Wael Shawky and Sabah Naim. It opened a lot of doors for all of us and was simply one of the most beautiful exhibitions.
This year, you’re representing Egypt in the country’s national pavilion – how has that experience been different?
Back then, it was different because I was, in a sense, only representing myself – I was simply an artist doing his thing. This time around there’s the larger responsibility of representing Egypt itself, not just me as an individual. The pavilion is the oldest permanent Middle Eastern/African one in the Giardini, and is itself a huge space: 25 by eight metres, with eight-metre high ceilings. It was a real experience working with the commissioning body and the Egyptian government to bring it all together. I think we all learnt a lot from this, working together, and I hope it benefits the Egyptian Pavilion moving into the future. Overall it was a good experience.
Tell us a little bit about the work itself – the theme of the Egyptian Pavilion for 2017 is ‘The Mountain, and it features the story of an imaginary village, which you have brought to life both in the video work ‘The Mountain’ as well as through a physical installation.
It was a bit of an amalgamation of two different projects I’d been working on. For the past seven years I’d had the story of this village going, and I’d originally thought to make it into a feature film. I’d spend years studying the characters, choosing the locations where I’d film it, and looking for the exact mountains and deserts that would bring to life what I had visualised for it. When the possibility of exhibiting at Venice came up, I thought perhaps the story of ‘The Mountain’ could actually be channelled into a video work instead. The result is what you see here now, a 12-minute film divided amongst five screens.
How did you create the installation aspect of the Pavilion?
I actually imported mud from Egypt, and we used this to build an entrance to the pavilion that mimicked what the entry to the village looks like in the film. It’s the exact same mud people use to build their houses, and so we used it to cover the floors and wall of the interior of the pavilion as well. I want people to feel it and smell it, to have that sensory experience where they feel they really are inside the village itself. I think it works nicely with the five screens and the panoramic image they project. I was lucky enough to work with a lot of talented people on this project, and everybody put their heart and soul into this and I think you can feel it in the finished outcome.
Did the village have to feel specifically ‘Egyptian’, then?
Yes and no. I want the viewer to feel as if they have stepped into the village from ‘The Mountain’, but at the same time this type of village could be found anywhere in the world. The concept of the film isn’t local-specific, it’s an international one, this theme it revolves around: the idea from the very beginning was that of fear, and how fear can take hold of us and stop us from achieving anything in our lives. I truly believe that life starts when fear ends, and that is, in essence, the whole philosophy of this work.
This concept of fear and overcoming fear, how does it apply to you as an individual?
I think we all go through this, as part of our life experience. It’s hard work to overcome our fears. Even the prospect of taking on a project as daunting as national representation at the Venice Biennale – that was a lot. It’s a huge production, and you start from scratch. You have to figure out the dimensions of the work, what’s available to you resource-wise, from funding to logistics, and then working with a whole cinematic crew in the desert, putting together a cast (many of whom were simply local people, not professional actors) – if I’d thought about how much this would involve in the beginning, I might have been fearful. But you just have to go ahead and do it.
Starting out as an artist, was there an element of fear there?
Somewhat, but things do come naturally – the more you know yourself, the more you grow and the more you become aware. I’ve always had a social aspect to my work either way. I don’t believe an artist has the right to give explicit answers or advice, but our job is to hold a big magnifying glass up to issues that people might otherwise pass by without seeing. It is an artist’s job to face fear and make sure people realise an issue, see it, and feel it. To mirror life, as it were, to have a voice. In light of ‘The Mountain’, I’m really happy with how it turned out – I think it has the ability to transcend culture, background and education. We can all see something of ourselves in this work.