an interview by
Rana Ashraf is a self-taught visual artist, whose current work moves between ilustration, text and analog photography. Combining illustration and texts comes as playful new medium for her to map and articulate everyday intimate encounters with multiple recurrent and overlapping themes such as strangeness, language, divinity, injustices, grounded-nessand growth.
David Armegou - Rana, your show in the current edition of the Cairo Off Biennale 2018 is your second biennale, after Dakar 2018.
For a self-taught artist like you, could you tell us what is your background and how did you come into the art world?
Rana Ashraf - Both in one year so its crazy! I have always been into writing and drawing, then gradually over the years I expanded into other mediums. And this is how my relationship with writing and drawing evolved. In 2015 I met Simon Njami in a workshop, in 2017 I received an email from him inviting me to the Dakar biennale! so yeah I think it’s the art world that came into my life, by surprise, like sudden love.
I have a degree in public governance and a current fulltime job as Documentation Officer at a community empowerment project for refugees in Egypt.
D.A - Regarding your installation in the Cairo Biennal 2018, “The Air and the Worlds III”, what first captured my attention was the “Somewhere-Nowhere Wall” and I got stuck immediately in the tiny exhibition Space: The “here”,”there”, “somewhere”, “nowhere” directional arrows suggested me the continous traveling of the being, beyond the physical world, beyond space and time.
Could you explain the idea behind that drawing? Is it somehow related to quantum physics?
R.A - I’m very delighted by how you’ve received this map-maze part. And yes, it is not really referring to physical places, although it does apply to that too. But yeah it refers more of the invisible places, or like inner places; places in times and being, and language and the ability to process and articulate things. Like sometimes you arrive at a certain level of grasping of something and then suddenly you lose this grasping and you’re somewhere else with this whole thing. But then you can also suddenly go to a whole different place in between this grasping and non-grasping. For me, this map, and the whole style it introduces and embodies really fulfills the need I have to capture things that are so clear yet very abstract. And yes it does speak of the continuous traveling or the continuous dance of this general motion of things. (At least to me)
I wish it intentionally had to do with physics hehe! But hey, everything has to do with physics, no? I love physics. I owe a lot to it actually, creatively speaking, to studying physics.
D.A -The structure you present your work in the installation is very interesting. It starts with a blank page and it ends with another blank page.
Could you explain what is the idea behind that?
Also the drawings are displayed in a sort of comic strips or theater play with different acts. I-3.
lll A Dancing Rest, on slowness, Companionship and Sleep.
Is there really a story from A to B, with an internal logic, or is it rather a random dream sequence?
R.A - I added the blank sketches two hours before the opening of the Dakar Biennale, I just felt like it when I was having the final look in the room. I also had sketches with just dots and one with just one dot. I think it has to do with very late thoughts I had while checking it all together, thoughts of how I didn’t mention anything about silence (in that version). And maybe also the fact that I had a hard time composing them in a certain order and removed and added many things throughout. The blank sketches later felt like a breath. And this is why I added the sketch that says ‘a breath’ in the last version. I’m not sure. Regarding the display, as I told you, I have been personally working towards grounding and anchoring in general, and in the context of expression, I try to articulate things that are invisible and abstract yet at the same time somehow very vivid, on a certain level or way, so for me to compose in this contained division, be it acts or chapters or songs, is very helpful and serves what I am trying to do so well. Like it roots it to something(s), or it gives the flow something to return to, even if what’s in between outgrows these very wide boundaries of the act declarations. As much as I connect with abstract and conceptual works, I feel like I have this sense or standard of sensing how accessible it is, on an intuitive, personal or human level. I mean I really get annoyed in a way if a piece is loaded with too much abstraction or sophisticated concepts without one gentle invitation/bridge or way for simple access. By simple access I don’t mean understanding but rather a clear receiving of it, in energy or feeling.
D.A -The act two has as title “Strangeness”. Could you tell us about your interest in the “Strangeness“. What does exactly this concept mean to you and how do you express it in your work?
it means everything to me.
`strange’ is a word I abuse. I excessively use it in daily life and in writing and in thinking. And in feeling! I estrange everything and everyone all the time. Myself included. And not like weird strange or unfamiliar strange, it goes beyond that, like god-strange, you know? The most concise way I can put it is that it’s this invisible silent continuous presence of everything. The clearest yet most abstract of all things. Its active presence is not always felt on its own but yeah sometimes it appears in intense heaviness or lightness, sometimes it playfully tickles you gently, I think when it does we call it grace. or I call it grace.
D.A - Besides ilustration, you also write and do analog photography. What do you write about? Why analog photography in the digital era, and what do you try to reflect with your camera?
R.A - I don’t identify with a certain genre or form of writing, but I would say they’re mostly streams of consciousness in poem-like essays. Recently I started writing dialogues, and this is provoked by the scary number of important dear people whom I’ve lost in many ways over the past three years. I have been living with so many shadow presences and active absences, so this kind of writing is more of a therapeutic processing to tame the extended conversations I have with them in my head. The funny thing is that these dialogues are very fluid, in a sense that I don’t identify speaker A and B, it’s more of a cocktail of people to a cocktail of who I have been and who I am becoming and other random inanimate things in life.
As for why analog, I used to like photography when I was young and an analog camera is what we had, but the way I reconnected with it two years ago was through a beautiful soul friend of mine, Eslam, he’s a very otherworldly person and analog photographer. So he encouraged and inspired me to pick this up again.
D.A -You are 24 years old and you grew up in Cairo. Is your hometown a source of inspiration?
R.A - I really don’t know. But I don’t think that Cairo as in Cairo in itself inspire me specifically. Energetically it affects me, terribly and deeply.
D.A - Could you describe the Cairo art scene?
R.A- I don’t know much about being in it, generally I think its maturing, out of exhaustion maybe. But I don’t know why I have this feeling that I am protected from entangling deeply with it, because I am already somehow detached and invested in other ‘scenes’ or communities. I think I recognize some kind of a distance, from the scene, that I very much would like to maintain.
D.A - Could you name some of the artists which have most influenced you? Film makers, writers, painters, friends ...
R.A - Akh so so many!
Miranda July, Fernando Pessoa, Anais Nin, Milan Kundera, Charlotte Ager, Pina Baucsh, Leonard Cohen, Louise Gluck, Ingmar Bergman (specially recently), Mike Mills, Tony Kaye, (the list is endless really)
Eslam Abd El Salam (Analog Photography), Salah Hassan (Illustration and Analog photography), Saieed El Batal (Filmmaking), Ahmad Zaki (Animation), Hassnaa (Illustration), Omnia Sabry (Analog Photography and filmmaking) and many more!
D.A -The idea of the divine can be felt very intimately on your work. What is divine for you? What is your experience with spirituality. Could you talk about your experience of sufi spirituality?
R.A - Divinity is the other abused word for ‘everything’ haha!
Well, I don’t know how to express this easily.. I’m not ready to specifically express my relationship with spirituality. But yeah divinity is a word I use to describe that ..inside orchestration of happenings and coincidences and synchronicities. There are times when I feel that all relationships I have are one very strange relationship, sometimes this feeling is so strong and crazy like I feel like all conversations I’m having are just one long conversation, because of how things build on each other in a very deep way and how completely contrasting things fold and unfold in my perspective, you know these strange very specific intangible connections..the kind of personal connections that are impossible to really share because they take a lot of time for you to even register. So yeah..I have experiences exploring things in Buddhism and other spiritual practices. What is still resonating or remaining from my exploration of Sufism, are mainly things that has to do with ‘the way’ of working on the ego, purifying the heart and on being a ‘lover’, because in ‘loving’ we break in very crafted deep ways. Also, despite agreeing with how the ‘love’ in Sufism is all about the ‘love’ of the divine, and not the spectrum of human love, I recently had this thought that actually it’s a very okay thing for it to be taken/received and contemplated at first as being the human kinds of love we feel, because this is actually where the ‘loving’ in and of the divine is initiated. Through the kinds of love the heart is capable of practicing and experiencing at the time. It starts with all these shades and intensities of human love, which leads to a lot of breaking, and the breaking genuinely carries you to that level of love, the love of the divine or of soul.
D.A - The fact that you are a woman living in a muslim country, do you think for women artists is much harder to express themselves than for male artists?
R.A - I think this is a very broad topic that I’m not sure I can talk about. But I think its very subjective. I mean It would depend on what these ‘women’ choose to express and how they choose to express it. I mean yes, an Egyptian actress was attacked and had a court case filed against her because of a revealing dress she wore! So I believe difficulties ‘in expressing’ or for women artists or artists in general (be it lack of funding/support or issues of censorship) are more related to other struggles, that are not specifically based on gender.
David Armengou is a writer based in Cairo and Berlin.