May 10, 2014 Hazem Mahdy – “Atman”
10th of May — 10th of June, 2014
n. Hinduism [Sanskrit]
1. The individual soul or essence
2. The essence that is eternal, unchanging, and indistinguishable from the essence of the universe
Abstracted figurative photographs constitute the geometric, yet intrinsically organic, digitally manipulated photographic works in Hazem Mahdy’s Atman. The monochromatic imagery is both specific and ambiguous— the forms are familiar in their reference to Fractal Art and Islamic geometry, but made of segmented self-portraits of the artist: an arm, a hand. The works are a phenomenological investigation into the innate connectedness of existence… the viewer recognizes themselves in the artwork, and themselves in the fundamental components of nature and vise versa.
By producing these works through a deeply contemporary and relevant medium, two seemingly contradictory two elements merge: man-made ephemeral elements of life (digitally produced artworks), and the nature-produced aspects that create mankind. The visual journey extends past the patterns which themselves continue beyond the limits of the frame into the mental: the manipulation of perspective and tonal contrast give the compositions spatial depth beyond the 2D constraints, creating a rhythmic, almost meditative pattern that the eye takes over the works and back again, inducing a sensorial calm that surpasses technical elements. This mirrors the artistic process, which begins with meditation and manifests through an almost “automatic creation” technique where the imagery emerges freely, making each work a unique and while photographically reproducible, physically non-replicable, each work is a specific transient moment. The timeless and ancient adage of the spiritual beliefs of connectedness to each other and nature is re-contextualized through the choice of medium and process into a relevant and accessible aesthetic revelation.
Interview: A Conversation With Hazem Mahdy by Katrina Kufer
As they say in Zen… you cannot take hold of it, but you cannot get rid of it. Not being able to get it, should get it.
– Alan Watts
[Windy evening, sitting outdoors, coffee]
Katrina Kufer for Carbon 12: So tell me, “little Hazem”, did he make art?
Hazem Mahdy: I wouldn’t call it “art” art but I spent time with my aunt [a kindergarten art teacher] and she did a lot of painting on glass. She introduced [art] to me. A couple of years later I had a sketchbook, and even if I traced, I would pick out my favorite characters from cartoons or books and just draw them. I never really thought about this before though, it’s all just coming to me now, I never really thought of the sketchbook as a “sketchbook”, it was just a book that I drew in.
KK: Why the move to photography?
HM: I was always intrigued by photography.
KK: Do you remember your first photograph ever?
HM: Oh man, I won’t remember! Once in school I had a digital camera or something and some of the first photos I took were just things I thought were nice. The only one I remember was a mosque next to school, just a mosque…
KK: But it struck you. You’ve told the story of your meditation induced vision of a tree with the roots and branches being hands and arms that expand outwards… this also appears to have stuck with you. Meditation in general seems to resonate through your work. Did something spark this? I hear you’ve traveled quite a bit…
HM: Based on some of the trips I went on, India and Nepal… there is something about every place that I visit that sticks in my mind. With Thailand it was people smiling everywhere you walked, with India you could sense an energy in the air. It just felt like the earth was alive, the trees talked to you. It sounds strange to say that a tree is calling you, but I would just turn my head in a weird direction where the tree wouldn’t be in sight, but I would turn and look straight at it. I felt more alive, a lot more connected to the surroundings, the nature that I always crave on my travels, and something about being there and my meditation and the tree story… somehow triggered something. I just keep going back there. It’s a very spiritual land so there is a strong form of energy there and you do pick up a vibe from people, your interactions…
KK: It is interesting that you express something as intangible and ephemeral as visions in 2D digitally repeated patterns that are structured… quite the juxtaposition.
HM: The tree thing, I was trying to do it for a year… but it was looking weird, it was. [Laughs] There is a set of rules and guides I follow but at the same time, I can’t fully describe this, but it’s something I read about with Mandala symbolism. Carl Jung analyzed patients by getting them to draw or paint and he mentioned that your subconscious will take control of your artistic abilities or inabilities and would use that to express something; that is when the work started to become more of an internal thing. I showed the tree work to my meditation guide and she looked at it and said, “you know that’s only you right?” I felt like she just slapped me across the face… like, “what the fuck do you mean it’s only you… this is a universal message!” [Laughs] But I look at it, and now I understand what she was saying. This was just my own insight into the medium that I was exploring. There is a part of me that is trying to communicate a message as well… the rules and guides aren’t very strict, just something that I play around with. It’s like Lego pieces, I start with the bigger pieces and I work my way to the smaller ones.
KK: So is “automatic creation” something that comes into play?
HM: I do have a blueprint, a formula that I follow. There are certain numbers I stick to, like 7 or 8, or recently introducing 3,6 and 9. And that can vary in the number of repetitions, or the sizes I would transform them into, but it varies. Once I apply that formula, I see how I feel about it, if it’s something that I’m drawn to or not. I just know when it’s done. I know if it needs something. You can’t always describe that. It’s just…
KK: It’s an “artist thing”.
HM: Yeah, exactly!
KK: Your artwork seems intrinsically linked to your life, but presented in a universally understandable, and applicable way. What are you aiming for?
HM: I want people to take away whatever they see, whatever they feel… I remember I went to a drawing exhibition and I asked the artist what they were about because I felt there was a very powerful message but I couldn’t quite decipher what it was saying and he said, “it says whatever you want it to say”. And that really pissed me off! But to a great extent I understand what that means because I feel like my experience is not something that I can translate into words… but I don’t want to taint [my work] with what words I have.
KK: You also work in film. Is it coming from the same place?
Same visual feeling?
HM: It doesn’t at all; my film work is much darker than what I’m doing now.
KK: Your work is a positive, uplifting experience though, about one-ness, connectedness… interesting that you would then choose the word “dark”.
HM: Dark in the sense it’d be the first interpretation. Darker in the sense that they are from bad personal experiences… there is nothing about the films in terms of feeling or colour or character etc. that would translate a positive feeling. It doesn’t leave you with anything in the end. It’s more a translation of something I went through. But it feels good making a film because it’s something I need to get out of my system.
HM: That’s pretty much how I started with art. I would get out all these things I was experiencing and I treat film along the same lines and the not so good turned out to be good. To a viewer it won’t seem like something nice but that also depends on your interpretation. People relate to it in their own ways. That drives me to not explain the work further.
KK: Do you feel like you ever need to explain?
HM: Only when people ask. It’s strange. There were some collectors and we were talking about how if they buy the artwork they really need to sit down with the artist to know exactly what they did and I’m like “but WHY would you do that!” If you see something and it connects with you why do you need someone to put in words what they did? Sure that makes it more of a reason to buy it but to others… I feel like that would turn me off, like being robbed of an experience you may have had… this is how I see it.
KK: So you get something out of it it when someone has their own personalized take-away from your art.
HM: If they are taking the experience I’m trying to translate without talking just through the artwork, then yeah that’s the best reward ever. I make art for the purpose of spreading a positive message. I’m not hiding anything but there are certain things I don’t think you can explain so someone will understand. You can go to a fair and see a shitload of works and one or two might stay with you and you wouldn’t know why and if that’s what [the artist] is getting at and sometimes they get it later on, sometimes not, fine.
KK: So is your work more of a visual experience? Emotional?
Seems the visuals and their references are secondary to achieving an
HM: It is whatever resonates with people. I’ve heard [my work] described as “Islamic designs” or [various other descriptors we will omit to avoid swaying the perception] whatever. If that’s what you see, that’s what you see. There are references to all kinds of things. One woman said there’s an element of Sufism, and that isn’t something I really thought of, but that’s what she saw.
KK: So we don’t need to necessarily grasp the exact references.
HM: Yes and no. That’s the thing; I don’t want to tie it down to words.
KK: But! If we had to choose a couple… would “Islamic art” and “Fractal art” be fair?
HM: If you stick to the fundamentals of both. Islamic art generally comes off as floral patterns or geometric designs but that’s not always the case. It can be a series of things, the main concept that I follow is repeating one form over and over and over again so you have some crazy big elaborate design. There are a lot of inspirations, when I first started doing portraiture; there was inspiration from Egyptian art [Mahdy is Egyptian]. I noticed this recently… that in every single full body shot there was always the left leg forward, the other leg backward, which is very much how most male figures are represented in Egypt. I wanted to incorporate it but I didn’t think about it so much. That’s the thing, I go back and I look and I start picking out things that were inspired by something but I was doing it by default.
KK: Why did you choose to represent all these things with fragmented, abstracted body parts?
HM: It sounds silly… [Laughs]. It’s not that I need to show myself in it, but it… feels right? No… that doesn’t sound too good! [Laughs]
KK: Why not! An artist does what feels right. Though you have mentioned before that you use what is available to you…
HM: In terms of hiring other people instead… it does sound kind of dodgy…
KK: [Laughs] Craigslist.
HM: …for a photographer to invite strangers to come strip in front of him and interlock with each other…but I do it with myself all the time! [Laughs] Which is fine I suppose… but if [others] were available that would be amazing because that would take me out of the picture. The body parts… there’s nothing else we relate to as much. If it were an inanimate object we probably wouldn’t relate to it, and it would become just a design.
KK: Phenomenologically speaking, we do see ourselves within, we recognize the connectedness in that sense, but you do abstract the body a lot. Fragmented, only up close do you realize because you see a hint of a hand, arm…
HM: You can probably tell it’s the same person.
KK: But that makes sense in the context of repetition.
HM: If I could though [hire others], it would be even better because it would show the harmony between all these differences [in skin tone, texture, shape, etc.].
KK: Your photography seems to represent you more as an artist, and your film more you as a person…
HM: For both I am getting something out of my system. Whether the artworks are a form of me healing myself, because it’s a form of meditation at the end of the day, that is something I’m releasing. It’s a good and bad thing… but with film it’s a lot more shallow.
HM: It’s still very raw.
KK: But if we go back to Jung, he implies that the lack of skill, or this rawness, actually enhances the ability to express purely… in that case, isn’t the film work being raw good?
HM: It’s not the ability… it’s just the way I go about it conceptually. There were a lot of things I took from photography that I put into film conceptually… which I was told off about [Laughs] but I don’t give a shit, that’s pretty much what I’m trying to do.
KK: Random– do you have a favorite artwork? Yours and someone else’s.
HM: Hmm… of mine? There were 3 circles, one I did for Art Dubai 2013, one which was the white one and then there were two more, a black one and a white one. A black circle with knives and swords. I would say between that one and the white one. Someone else… the first one that comes to mind is Bala, Italian artist. It’s about fractals. A lot of repetition a lot of lines and shapes that repeat over and over. I wanted to see his retrospective in Milan before my last solo show but I didn’t get the chance. That’s the first one that comes to mind. If you ask me a minute later it might be someone else… but for the time being…
KK: [Laughs] Then ill ask you again in a minute.
HM: I guess you’ll have to.
[Afternoon, sitting in the middle of a gallery, no coffee]
KK: So you have introduced blue into your work. Is this from your meditations?
HM: I mean there are variations, [the meditations] are never exactly the same thing, never the same picture twice. I can frankly say, the first time I transcended was in colour. It was normal, not overly saturated or gray but what I saw was hyper realistic. It was far more realistic than what I can see with my own two eyes right now. I don’t know if I was being pulled… or if I was swimming at a high speed, but I was underwater moving really fast and I was close to the surface so I could easily look up and see the water breaking right before my eyes, like broken pieces of glass that turned to water.
KK: Interesting in relation to the blue in your work… the fracturing which has always been present… hmmm….
HM: Mmmm… fractals. I mean there are a lot of things I think about now that might be relevant to what created my art. I was at my friends and I noticed all these patterns and it’s like, there’s something I must’ve picked up here. Oddly enough… the couch!” [Laughs] It’s black and white, full of patterns… But it’s Ikea stuff! Not even something that is really inspiring but it’s interesting at the same time because I keep thinking that I’ve always felt very uninspired here in the UAE, although I can safely say that there is something that happened to me amongst my trips that got me to do this artwork… then I did them here. The trees for instance, that happened when I was here. So there is a lot more to where my inspiration is coming from than I am aware of.
KK: If your art is all about your life, your experiences… then naturally your surroundings will permeate you without you realizing, i.e. the couch.
HM: True, true, the couch would come in here, my friend would be so happy! [Laughs]. But the trees for instance [back to colour] that was black and white, it was a single tree, but the problem is when I get these visions it’s like a heartbeat, there’s a certain way to maintain it but the second I think about it too much it disappears. But I was able to tell that the tree was not standing on its own, it was surrounded by black space, and I imagine that’s why I use black space around my works.
KK: Black space as infinity or nothing?
HM: It implies I didn’t fully zoom out of that one single shot, so there’s a lot more to it [on that note we decide to stop deviating and get back to the blue].
KK: Blue! Meditation has colours related to chakras, right?
HM: This is interesting because there are two palettes of colours. There are two systems for chakras… a new one and an old one. Basically you have to focus on different colours of chakras. Blue on the new system is the third eye, which is intuition, it’s got to do with foresight and spirituality and compassion, what you radiate out towards the world. So when [the guide] asked me to focus on my third eye I saw a soothing blue, almost this potion of life that kept dripping from the top of my head. However with the new system, it’s violet. Violet is always a difficult colour for me to imagine while I meditate. That’s where my third eye is, my head, and blue is where the throat chakra is. That’s associated with expression. It’s any form of expression that comes out of you, writing, painting, sign language, anything… but that is where the most expressive part of your body is. Every chakra has its own [element] to complete you as a human being.
KK: Is blue super prevalent in your life?
HM: [Preferring to keep this story vague, he explains the history of blue to his world. In essence, it goes from negatively connoted, to positively connoted] On a yearly basis, whenever the sky is really blue that’s an indication of clean air… so whenever I see a blue sky I feel optimistic.
KK: So a sense of clarity, which is interesting in the progression of your work as you go on… getting clearer…
HM: Mmmhmm, yeah, clarity [Laughs]
KK: Depending on the kind of blue, there are specific implications…
HM: Nostalgic, cold… sad… mmm, that’s true.
KK: But that’s not what your art is.
HM: Depends on the context you look at in. My concept of blue has changed; it depends on how you use it. In this work it’s more positive, it’s not negative.
KK: You consider your works still monochromatic, which makes sense if black and white are considered shades, or variations, of blue, which is the only colour. The use of blue in relation to your tonal manipulations really seems to highlight a sense of vivacity in your works.
HM: It looks, in comparison to the black and white, like a form of energy now. It’s not just a pattern, it looks like it’s got energy. Like electricity. It’s black and white with a shade of blue. It has a lot of white in it so it looks like an electric blue. It depends on the intensity of whites around it so the image is black and white, in some parts, the whites get a lot brighter, so depending how white the white areas are, it will affect how bright the blue becomes.
KK: Playing with colour theory a bit. The sense of energy, is that why you chose
HM: It just came to me to pick that colour. I love that colour so much and I read an article recently that probably the whole world knows about… about how blue is a calming colour, a very serene, soothing colour. I don’t really envision any other colour going on top, blue seems appropriate. I’m going with the flow of how I receive information; I just had a feeling to use blue. But the concept of monochrome is not something I associate with the work. It has been used as a word to describe the work, but I’ve never used that word
KK: But you don’t describe your work in general.
HM: True. You really need to have a good reason to use black and white these days, unless you’re trying to emphasize something specific…
KK: Sure, black and white has specific connotations, but you’re not adhering to those connotations either.
HM: I don’t think monochrome, I don’t think colour. I just think black and white. I didn’t think of black and white as an absence of colour, it is more just because you can see the forms better.
KK: So several colours would be distracting from the focus, which is form?
HM: Yes, yes, yes. It’s about honesty or authenticity of colour. I didn’t think about the concept of colours until you asked me.
KK: Blue is related to technology, energy, electricity… and this is something that inherently links to your medium, how you manipulate your photography digitally…
HM: Well, everything you can do on Photoshop you can do in the darkroom [just to clarify]. But I don’t have a comment on that, at all. People can associate whatever they want. To me personally, even the black and white, it looks like electricity. I think the way I perceive things is slightly different… and that’s why I don’t want to put that out there because then it robs people of their own interpretations. From my very first show… it bothered me that this Canadian photographer figured out my method. I don’t know why. I never saw it as digital work until he said it. I admit there is a lot of association to technology in this, but as a digital work… It’s just work.
KK: Again, it is interesting that your inspirations are ephemeral and organic in nature are expressed in a method which is so unapologetically inorganic, before with structure, now with medium.
HM: What I’m trying to do is show similarity between us and forms that we find in nature. I’m using all aspects, spirituality, science, religion… if technology is something that will help translate that feeling even better, sure, then it’s digital, it’s related to technology, it is trying to be as diverse as possible so that it can access a lot of people. If I’m using technology to create a broader better example of what I have in mind I don’t think that should be an issue. Sure Photoshop, and a textile printer could do the same job, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s a way to spread what I’m trying to say even more. If I could print this as floor tiles so people are surrounded by that everywhere they go I probably would. I wouldn’t want it to be limited because then that’s the biggest contradiction if I’m trying to spread the concept of spirituality and oneness.
KK: Your works have definite ends, the patterns are not endless, they don’t extend to the edge of the frame, they are framed… you stop the image.
HM: It bothers me if it goes out of the frame. It really bothers me. But for the most part it depends on the shape, the pattern, what comes out, what feels right, whether it needs to be confined in a square or not.
KK: Do the patterns have limits? Independent of the frame, are the works over? Do they have the potential to continue, endlessly or must they be specifically that size?
HM: In the way I see it in my head, it would have to be, for most of them, restricted to that form only because of technical constraints. But I’m inspired by Fractal Art, right? For example, dewdrops collected on a spider web reflect every other water drop and every other one reflects the whole universe in it and that repeats to infinity. So imagine a spider web covered in these drops and it’s reflecting and bouncing back all this information. If I did this in my work, sure it would be an endless thing but how can I put it in a form that is 2D and printable [Laughs].
KK: Well, the nature of your imagery implies that you are already doing that, arguably.
HM: Yeah. There are two mathematical formulas with very distinct shapes that are the foundations of fractal art. One is called Mandlebrot, it looks like a person seated in mediation form, a documentary I watched referred to it looking like a seated Buddha. If you go into that form over and over, that basic shape will repeat the more you zoom in. If I had the technology to create that, that would make [my works] even more infinite. But if it falls out of symmetry, it feels like something’s not right, if it’s not balanced, it’s not well thought out or composed. But that’s not the case. There is a grid, I do have some kind of OCD to make this work but at the same time I am challenged by the medium to express it.
KK: I was talking expanding outwards and you are talking about delving into the center.
HM: Let’s go to science and spirituality and religions and design… all the things I try to incorporate, if someone doesn’t believe in all of that they’ll look at the work and be like “what the fuck is this”. I suppose I don’t want to emphasize too much the process because it is an extremely personal journey. I find it a little bit disturbing that people would buy it. That’s a little bit weird but I suppose it looks expressive and that’s what people like but at the same time this is pretty much like a page I tore out of my diary, that I’ve printed onto this thing. This is a part of me that you are taking with you.
KK: So why put it in a space where it will be for sale? Why make it?
HM: I mean it has to be seen, it can’t not be seen. What’s the point of me doing it if no one is going to see it?
[Late afternoon, phone call]
KK: So, favorite artist?
HM: It’s the opposite of everything I’ve said… but Gregory Crewdson!