Susan Hefuna returns to Britain for a solo exhibition, Cairotraces, 14 October – 22 November 2014 at Pi Artworks’ London venue that features a palm wood installation and works on paper.
The German artist of Egyptian heritage has brought traditional Egyptian motifs, most famously but not exclusively mashrabiya or shanasheel (Arabic: مشربية or شناشيل) into the contemporary plane in an absorbing and evocative reinterpretation that has made her work stand out.
Numerous artists before Hefuna have been informed and inspired by the carved latticework on windows which, although not exclusive to Egypt and common to all of the old Levant and Ottoman empire, previously gave artists release from religious strictures and broadened their oeuvre beyond calligraphy and figurative art. That device still works for artists who are practitioners of representation beyond the human form, but Hefuna’s work has found a wider following because of the intellectual rigour she brings to her work.
This is Hefuna’s third solo exhibition with Pi Artworks’ international network (founded in Istanbul, 1998) but her first at its London venue. Cairotraces features a new series of works on paper and a newly commissioned palm wood installation.
Hefuna’s practice demonstrates her fascination “with the networks and structures of connection that inhabit public spaces and become the framework for peoples’ interactions with each other. She is particularly interested in how these networks become visible through and influenced by architectural models and city planning,” a curatorial statement by the gallery says.
For Hefuna, these public spaces, particularly urban centres, are the intersection of politics, architecture, and history and they shape the formation of different social identities. This interest stems from the artist’d duel German – Egyptian heritage, which has allowed her to observe the towns and cities of two cultures that are simultaneously foreign and familiar to her as well as her nomadic existence as an artist who immerses herself in the life of the various countries she exhibits in.
Since the late 1990s, Hefuna has mimicked the visual traits of the mashrabiya screens of Cairo to visualise her anthropological inquiry into public spaces. Mashrabiyas are distinct for their interconnected knobs and rods that form unbroken, crosshatch patterns; they beautify buildings with arabesque ornamentation while protecting the inhabitants from harsh sunlight. The screens reflect many of the key issues that affect the interactions the artist observes on a day-to-day basis, the delineation between private and public space, veiling, and voyeurism.
Within Hefuna’s work, the mashrabiya’s interconnected dot and line motifs are a template with which she can reify the intangible networks and structures of connection that inhabit public spaces and become the framework for peoples’ interactions.
While her works’ use of the mashrabiya grounds it in her Middle Eastern heritage, Hefuna’s practice is not necessarily redolent of Arabic antiquity and there remains an ambiguity in her grids’ origin and interpretation. Her drawings often suggest other interlocking structures, such as, DNA, embroidery, tapestry, molecular structures and, most significantly, street maps. The viewer is not innocent and reads the work differently depending on their own cultural or social background.
Upon arriving at a new location, Hefuna spends a few days traversing its streets and squares until this calmative process lulls her into a state in which she feels ready to compose new work. Her initial artistic response is usually a series of delicately composed ink and pencil drawings. These start with a single dot and line and are unfolded in a single session without the nib ever leaving the paper. In their humble and austere nature these structures recall the drawing experiments of the American Minimalists. However, they are not subjected to a strict pre-determined system but instead are intuitively composed and open to changes and subversions that is influenced by her location. Each finished piece relates to a place, a city, a body, a history, that combines the experiential with the abstract, without ever subjugating one to the other. In Cairotraces, Hefuna takes influence from the streets of a city that has been a key, reoccurring influence in her practice.
Accompanying these drawings will be a series of cubic, palm wood structures similarly conceived and constructed in the Egyptian capital. These act as three-dimensional renderings of the exhibited drawings. Both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional work share the influence of the masharabiyas in their fragile and porous crosshatch layers, yet the latter allows the viewer to experience them from several perspectives as well as the interplay of light and shadow that changes through the day, therefore more literally reflecting the architectural resonances within Hefuna’s practice.
Susan Hefuna: Cairotraces. 14 October – 22 November 2014. Pi Artworks London, 55 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8EG