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‘Everything or Nothing' with Khaled Hafez
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 19 - 12 - 2015

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Mariam Nihal
Saudi Gazette
Born in Cairo in 1963, internationally acclaimed artist Khaled Hafez is a renowned painter who explores the different facets of art through photography, digital art, installations and film. His latest installation Temple of Extended Days, is available at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai till mid January.
Hafez initially trained at Cairo's Faculty of Fine Arts and later got his Master of Fine Arts degree in new media and digital arts from the Transart Institute in New York and the Danube University in Austria.
Primarily a painter, Hafez also likes to take photographs on a daily basis. "I make one short film per year and create installations every two or three years. I like to tell stories about whatever I am doing with an attractive and accessible narrative," he told Saudi Gazette. For Hafez, artistic integrity is about fulfilling the following: continuous daily studio practice with military discipline and long studio hours, the assurance that there are enough resources to produce world-class quality and lastly the presence of a long term project that is obsessively executed in order to ensure consistent work of quality, particularly on the conceptual and technical fronts.
In an exclusive interview, Hafez talks us through the role art and curators play, he even tells us what he dislikes about this world. "Cliques that marginalize certain artists and promote others, who do not necessarily represent what goes on in the Arab speaking countries."
His Venice Biennale installation was ranked as one of the top ten of all official collateral exhibitions works, and featured in the French bimonthly Art Press as one of the official collateral highlights.
SG: Tell us about your installation in Venice?
KH: As usual the Venice Biennale had a frenetic atmosphere total—noisy, crowded, and with very little time to prepare, but the result for me was phenomenally positive. Although I was happy with the presentation, I would have loved a larger space and a higher ceiling for a better impact and exquisite display - saying that, the concept was articulated and respected during the installation of the show by the curator Martina Corgnati and the Commissioner Omar Donia. The entire group exhibition In the Eye of the Thunderstorm was ranked as one of the top three visited official collateral exhibitions.
SG: Talk us through Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements that will be shown in Dubai. Tell us about the concept and what it is about.
KH: The idea came at the beginning of 2010; I was still in my old studio and I—by serendipity—came to at last create templates for what looks like ancient alphabets that are based on military iconography: the sniper, the GI, the chopper, the fighter plane, the tank, and the Kalashnikov. I was creating large canvases and planned a triptych that would upon completion measure two meters in height and 7.5 meters in length. This painting, currently exhibited at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai, was to be part of a tomb. For the large-scale installation that was commissioned for the Cairo Biennale in December 2010, I created a three-chamber room that was five meters by 21 meters. The first chamber hosted the painting, which was shown in black light, a form of ultraviolet fluorescent lamp that sees only whites. This was the fist time presenting a painting in the dark. I wanted to create an installation with paintings based on the military iconography inflicted on us through media-propagated imagery. I later developed four other tombs, which were shown at The Arab World Institute in Paris, The Havremagasinet Museum in Boden, Sweden, the National Museum of Bahrain, and most recently at the 56th Venice Biennale in Italy.
SG: How would you describe your artistic progression over the years?
KH: I consider myself lucky that my parents are army doctors; I was raised in a strict environment and I know what hard work and discipline mean. Although pleasurable and full of passion, art remains work to me. I have several Hermetic mottos written on the walls of my studio—on the ground floor the motto that drives me is "everything or nothing"; it makes me work harder and follow every path. It makes me accept every possible contract that I believe I can fulfill with quality and commitment - of course I, like anybody else make mistakes and misjudge situations again and again, but I do my best. In my career I've worked with some good galleries, and on several occasions I worked with the wrong ones. Some had bad intentions, some had good intentions and suffered bad management, and some just had bad luck, and those were bad decisions that I took and have paid for. I will say that my overall experience has been a positive one. I am so grateful to still be working today at the age of fifty-two, with people who believe in my work and myself; professionals who care about my art and about my interests as an artist.
SG: Do you think it's important for an artist to work with a curator?
KH: Yes indeed, especially for group and thematic shows; this is also important for retrospective exhibitions or landmark solo shows where the artist would exhibit several stages of her or his itinerary. Lesser and much simpler exhibitions may not need this but it is also an advantage. The beauty of such collaborations is that they relieve the artist from certain logistic aspects. They also help decide, prioritize, and eliminate as the curator offers an "alternative eye" which leads to an exhibition that is optimal in size and content.
SG: What role does the artist have in society?
KH: I believe artists can be studio activists, observers, scientists, documentarists and historians. Today there are even artists stepping into fields like politics, at the expense of their art. I myself have even be tempted by this path on several occasions but thankfully I managed to step back into my studio and continue my role as an artist and documentarist each time.
SG: Could you describe a situation that inspired you?
KH: There are several: my father taught me how to make kites when I was five, so I painted kites for the following ten years.
My uncle was a world-class entomologist who founded several institutions dedicated to his discipline. When I was a child, he took me to see his collection of butterflies at the Department of Entomology at Cairo University. As a result, I painted butterflies and worked with pastels for almost eight years.
In 1994 I saw two films by the French filmmaker Claude Lelouch: Itinéraire d'un Enfant Gâté (Itinerary of a Spoilt Child, 1988) and La Belle Histoire (The Beautiful Story, 1992); it was those two movies that led me to make films and videos that launched my international career; every time one of my videos is shown in a biennale, a museum, or a film festival, I say "thank you Lelouche for inspiring me".
SG: How do you think art is changing in the Middle Eastern market?
KH: You can look at this market as either "fake" (if you compare it to the international market) or "unique" (if you acknowledge cultural specificity). I think a positive aspect is that art becomes an essential cultural commodity, as is the case in developed Western societies. What I question is the question of sustainability: of course as an art maker I want this market to be stable and sustainable.
SG: Your motto?
KH: Everything or Nothing, the motto on my wall. I will continue to work in my studio on more large-scale interdisciplinary projects, participate in more biennales and museum shows, and most importantly, I will continue to work with people who believe in myself and my work, such as Ayyam Gallery—an actor who goes an extra mile in believing in my work.


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