Art with a Conscience: Mona El-Bayoumi on Creativity, Egyptian Politics, and being African-Arab Wednesday 08 August, 2012

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When talking about socially conscious art, which serves a purpose beyond its aesthetic value, a few names come to mind. Mona El-Bayoumi stands among those venerable ranks. An Egyptian-born, Michigan-bred, Washington, D.C.-based artist, Mona exemplifies what it means to be a global artist. Her art is beautiful, but more importantly, it is meaningful. Influenced by […]

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When talking about socially conscious art, which serves a purpose beyond its aesthetic value, a few names come to mind. Mona El-Bayoumi stands among those venerable ranks. An Egyptian-born, Michigan-bred, Washington, D.C.-based artist, Mona exemplifies what it means to be a global artist. Her art is beautiful, but more importantly, it is meaningful. Influenced by disparate cultures and locales and a resolve to voice injustice, Mona uses the canvas to illuminate connections between people’s suffering the world over. Her work is an attempt at subverting the status quo and elevating to the surface that which goes unnoticed, encouraging viewers to think, without being obvious or endorsing a certain political agenda. Simply put, Mona’s work illustrates the idea that in its highest form, art is ultimately about striving to make individuals question all that exists.In this interview we discuss the political inspiration of Mona’s work, how she believes Egyptian uprisings “have been hijacked,” why she would like to see all Egyptians fully embracing their African identity, and, of course, what living unchained means to her.

Mona El-Bayoumi

When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?

All children are artists.  It is a natural thing to be an artist.  But some adults continue with their artistic ways.  So, I always knew I was an artist, but other people started seeing that I was an artist when I was about eight years old.  People began asking me to submit my work in art shows and I began to win prizes, and the art teachers started pointing me out to other students as an example.  As early as I can remember I defined myself as an artist.

How has your experience living abroad and your extensive travel around the world influenced your art?

The world is a much smaller place now than it was when I was growing up. You are able to see other places through the computer so easily now. But, back in the 70’s, places were more distinct. Traveling on an airplane and arriving in another country with its unique culture was a sharp contrast to one’s normal surroundings. One was transported to a unique place with its unique smells, designs, colors, and feelings. I think seeing a different world subconsciously influenced my palette and my composition reflecting space and time.

Different rules in different cultures translated to freedom of no rules on the canvas. Growing up in Michigan, I was exposed to a set of social rules much different than those expected in Egypt. If one were to switch actions in a respective country, it might be unacceptable. When one paints, you might find people who find your rules very acceptable, and others may find them unacceptable.  In other words, art is a culture of its own. It is for the viewer to create their own translation.

Breaching the Wall, 2011 by Mona El-Bayoumi

A lot of your paintings carry a political or socially conscious message. What do you think the role art and artists play in raising people’s consciousness and awareness?

Throughout history art has been the most powerful means of documenting life.  While some documentations seem more subtle, reflecting more mundane events, others might document more seemingly important or pivotal times. While words might be more easily censored by the ruling class, a picture here and there can be more easily neglected, even though it may be just as powerful or even more powerful.

When I paint about a given event, I paint it with the same intensity, as I would a still life or a landscape. It is expressing my personal thoughts and feelings about what is happening. I think this is very important, because someone might say, “Oh, what a pretty picture,” at first, but may later question why the artist feels it is so important to depict a given subject. The viewer might not want to read about the injustices against the Palestinians or racism in general, but he or she might look at the “picture” of the girl with the oranges and ask what is so important about oranges or olive trees, or why are men in orange jump suits on someone else’s island. Why is the women sad about other 9/11’s, I thought there was only one. Artists have always been pivotal in helping citizens question.

From the South Tip of Africa to the West Bank, to South East DC in Unity, 2004

I was really intrigued by your piece titled, “From the South Tip of Africa to the West Bank to South East DC in Unity.” Could you say more about the inspiration and meaning of this piece?

We are lucky that the world is getting smaller in some ways, because more people can see the similarities of the greedy and powerful against the majority of the people. There are many similarities between apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel. And there are also similarities to what has happened to African Americans in general, but in a more amplified manner to those living in DC. The girls’ braids in this piece are connected, the South African, to the Palestinian, the Palestinian to only part of an image of the girl in DC because one often turns a blind eye to the suffering right before their eyes. Only recently are people beginning to make transatlantic comparisons. There is racism against all of these girls. There are land and border issues confronting all of them. There is a lack of resources for all of them. There are inferiority issues brought against all of them. Linking visually and politically was my goal.

Growing up in a university town, I was exposed to many different struggles around the world, whether it was in Central America, South Africa, Palestine, Vietnam, Eritrea or right here in America. My politically savvy parents always made the connections when they spoke publicly about injustice in general.

Live Unchained attempts to expand what it means to be a female artist of African descent. Often times, being Arab is separated from being African. Where do you think this idea comes from? Do you think we can blur this fictitious cultural divide between “Arabs” of North Africa and the rest of Africa? In other words, is there such a thing as Arab-African?

I grew up at the end of the time where Pan-Africanism was popular, and the former President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, celebrated our African identity.  Egyptians are African… that is a fact. We are also Arab. Some of us are Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish.

Africa is such a rich continent in its natural resources, cultural resources and creative resources. Dividing such a powerful continent is the wish of the powerful. Even though negative connotations with the word “African” are expressed in Western culture, simultaneously, there is a fascination and desire to emulate. The Arab World, North Africa, more specifically, is being defined by others, as a means of controlling it. There are Arabs who are not African, but the Arabs that are North African are just as African as any other African.

I personally define myself as an African-Arab. To be honest, most Egyptians have now been indoctrinated to see African as a negative despite the progressive Pan-African history. I look forward to a day when more young Egyptians will confidently embrace their African identity. And that won’t happen until Egypt is truly liberated from all outside controlling forces, “revolution” or not.

Seeing that you are originally from Egypt and your work deals with the recent uprisings, what future do you envision for Egypt?

It looks very bleak at this point. While some of the uprising was spontaneous and people flooded the streets in numbers due to economic and social despair and frustration, history will document in a Wikileaks-like file or perhaps in a visual manner, the way in which the “revolutions” were orchestrated behind the scenes in order to solidify Western control of the region. Egypt has seen people come and go for thousands of years, but whenever there is injustice and dogmatic control of a people, they will rebel. Egypt’s “revolution” has been hijacked to further solidify Western control of the country, under the guise of religious control.

But, for me, it is not only about Egypt, it is about the whole world. Economically, the few wealthy people control the economy of the world. They are robbing a whole generation. It is not just about Egypt’s young people, it’s about America’s young people, Africa’s young people, Europe’s young people… This time in history will be looked upon as the bubbling of a greater eruption to take place.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Speaking your mind with a light tongue and a light heart.

Written by Nesrien Hamid

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