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Artist Talk with Sanabel Badr El-deen

12 Questions to Aritst: Sanabel Badr El-deen

Places have the capacity to hold layers upon layers of intermingled social and political meaning and implications, these layers are communicated through ever-changing functions, histories, and inhabitants.

Sanabel is interested in the changing functions of place and in tracking the power dynamics, the politics, and imagination involved in these relentless processes of change. Using cemeteries as a starting point, known in Egypt for being changed into places for regular inhabitance and leisure, as well as constantly being referenced as spaces for religious serenity and remembering one's place in life and the temporality of the human situation.


TH: Your life without art would be…

SB:  Honestly I don’t know, I never thought of this question before in this way, I am still starting my professional and artistic career at the same time, and it is very difficult, so it’s hard to get a clear answer, but in general I treat art as a language and a way of expression, it’s important to me.

TH: Where do you take your inspiration?

SB: Inspiration often comes from my environment, society in general, problems or situations I encounter personally and publicly, as well as from my studies.

TH: When did you start with the project Informal City Park and what attracted you most?

SB: I seriously began working on this project in late 2019. Generally, it was research and it was scattered in several directions. But with time, the concept started to be more defined and apparent. Among the stages of work, happened to be one that made me pause for a little while. I was concerned with the relationship of children born in these places. I was thinking of them and their interaction with space. Because they did not have a previous experience like a mature person, they weren’t able to say things like “this place is not an ordinary home and that it is a place to bury the dead”. For me it is the purest relationship between a human and a place, and for them this place is more of an entertainment place than a place for other functions.

TH: What literature did you study during the lockdown phase of the project?

SB: I was exposed to multiple readings, including “the poetics of space” by Gaston Bachelard, which relates to my ideas and projects.

TH: What is your work about?

SB: My work is basically about the change of function of places. It started rather by chance. In my city there is a certain kind of cemetery, it’s a quiet place with empty streets in the desert. And we go there to visit our dead fellow human beings. So I believed that this place has a function: “the city for the dead”.

When I saw another cemetery with a different pattern, I started to wonder about this place and I was very curious about it. I wanted to see more, I wanted to understand what was happening in this area. Because I saw normal life, families with their babies, TV sets, mini-markets called “koshk”, car repair shops, moulid swings and many vibes of normal life in the supposed place of the dead.

After realizing that, I wanted to know if there were similar places like that in other countries and I found many stories about people living in cemeteries around the world.

I began to wonder how they dealt with these spaces. How they actually felt about them? From that point on, I thought about the identity of place, the change of functions, the capacity and authority between people and place. What power lies in the constant exchange between human and place? First, the place gives something to the human, and then the human takes it back, determines the geographical location and assigns it a purpose. Then the actual inhabitants come, change it and add their identity and culture, so that the place with a function – or whatever we think it is – becomes a living place and perhaps a whole city. 

TH: How do you see the interplay between amusement park and slum?

SB: My project and idea is not supposed to be about class distinctions or a comparison between a real city and an informal city, whether rich or poor. I think human interaction is always exciting, to see the ability of people to create their own entertainment spaces that fit their culture and their concept of entertainment. I chose the cemetery area because for me this is an integrated form of a real city, including an amusement park, because of “moulids” which are popular celebrations, some of which are held inside the city of cemeteries, and from its manifestations are swings in a form and a special character for its only. And the interesting intersection for me in the city of the dead and the amusement park are the energies. Spaces that allow a person to let out his negative or positive energy, some of his pent-up feelings that he/she cannot express in public places such as shouting, crying or wailing.

TH: How was your working process, the interactions with the other artists and the relationship to the exhibition space?

SB: The work process was two-fold. The first part was developing the idea until it reached a certain point that is fairly clear. This happened while having discussions with other artists and the team of Studio Khana. The discussions were very informative and beneficial. The second part was the visualization of the most appropriate method that can be used to enhance the concept, taking into account the size of travel conditions – and that was before Corona.

My work was supposed to interact with the exhibition space because it’s part of it on the ground with a three- dimensional installation of a city of graves, providing various possibilities of viewing and interacting with the place and what is happening inside of it.

TH: How do you look at your hometown today? Has your perception of the city changed?

SB: I don’t think my perspective of the city has changed evidently, but I have begun to focus more on the interactions of people around me, most importantly myself with the spaces, starting from my room, my home, to the city in which I live, and any place associated with it.

TH: What moments will you remember in the future when you look back on the Informal City Park project?

SB: I will remember Corona, the according lock downs and quarantine days. Most of the time when I worked and developed this project, I was at home, which was one of the points that changed the concept of place in general. Before Corona, I was looking for the city of graves, which turns into a city of neighborhoods but in this period, the situation was the opposite. In all parts of the world due to its presence, public places and squares turned into cemeteries for burying Corona victims, like garages in some countries.

TH: What do you enjoy about your life as an artist?

SB: To be honest, so far, I haven’t felt a moment of fun being an artist as you say. Because I’m still struggling with it and try to be more aware of my career. And sometimes one realizes that one has to work on anything not related to art to help making art, but the exciting part for me is that I always have to keep up with what is around me and all the updates and that I never stop learning. 

TH: What is great art for you?

SB: I think this is relative even on a personal level, for me I might have felt today that this work is great but after a while; it is no longer the same. A person’s perspective changes over time, but if I can interact with work in one way or another, then in my view this is good work.

TH: Your next projects, exhibitions. Where can you be seen?

SB: I think under the current circumstances, the answer to this question is difficult, especially in determining a specific place or time, but overall, I am interested in a project about memories, and I am currently searching and developing it. I hope that there will be an opportunity soon to present it.

Translation: Christine Lewis

Foto: Gustav Franz (2-4), Sanabel Gabr El-Dien (1)

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