Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin wants you to question everything

Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin wants you to question everything
Amin’s work is known for its examinations of ways in which society engages with technology. Supplied
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Updated 18 October 2020

Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin wants you to question everything

Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin wants you to question everything

LONDON: For many artists, the final installation of an exhibition is the culmination of months or years of work — and the moment when their involvement in the artistic process, for the most part, comes to an end.

But for Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin, the opening of her first UK solo exhibition, “When I see the future, I close my eyes” — which runs at London’s Mosaic Rooms until the end of March 2021 – marks a starting point for her work. The exhibition consists of a series of ongoing projects, showcasing the Berlin-based multimedia artist’s examination of how technology engages with society in a political and territorial sense.

“What’s so exciting about this for me is that, because my work is so research intensive and requires collaboration in terms of how I mine material, (curator Anthony Downey and I) are exploring how we use the exhibition as a tool through which we produce knowledge with others,” Amin tells Arab News. “How do we use the exhibition to create new content by putting forward questions or ideas that will be developed throughout the duration of the show, as opposed to presenting them in a static, finite format?”

The opening of her first UK solo exhibition, “When I see the future, I close my eyes” runs at London’s Mosaic Rooms until March 2021. Supplied

Amin’s work is known for its extensively researched, detailed examinations of ways in which contemporary society engages with technological tools, and how associated hierarchies and dynamics of power have developed, particularly in the Middle East. Delayed from its originally planned start in May of this year, “When I see the future…” forms the core of an extensive program of ongoing events, running over the next six months.

“There are events happening almost weekly, including panel discussions, conferences, podcasts film screenings, a book launch, journal launches and much more,” Amin explains. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is the reason for the delayed launch, informed the way in which some of these events will be held and plays a role in the ongoing interactivity of the exhibition.

“We’re looking at ways in which things that happen in the online space are relayed differently to the physical space,” she says. “So instead of looking at this situation — of having to do things remotely — as a restriction, we’re embracing it, to see what it means to engage in this way moving forward. We’re attempting to conceptually focus on the technological tools, not just because we need to, but to see where they actually lead us.”

One of the exhibition’s works — “The General’s Stork” — is a striking project about surveillance. Supplied

That means placing some of those tools within a historical context — a characteristic of Amin’s work — as well as looking back at instances when such devices and capabilities, that are now ostensibly promoting communication during the global lockdown, have played a more problematic role.

“One of the works I’m showing is called ‘Project Speak2Tweet.’ It’s loosely about the internet shutdown during the initial days of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and it reflects on how these tools – which were, at that point, presented as a democratic means of emancipation – have been used against us,” Amin explains. The notion that such technologies may not have lived up to their initial, utopian promise is also explored in another of the exhibition’s works, “Operation Sunken Sea,” which sees Amin playing the role of a dictator behind a quasi-scheme to drain the Mediterranean Sea in a borderline surreal look at how technological promise can hide dependence behind a mask of language and rhetoric.

“Our imagination of techno-utopian visions has hardly changed in 150 years,” Amin says. “Through the restrictions placed on us because of this pandemic, I’m reflecting on where the power dynamics are embedded in the technologies that we are dependent on. How do we talk about this while we’re in the middle of it?”

Another of the exhibition’s works — “The General’s Stork” — is a striking project about surveillance, recounting the remarkable-yet-true story of a migratory bird detained by the Egyptian authorities for espionage in 2013.

‘Project Speak2Tweet’ is loosely about the internet shutdown during the initial days of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Supplied

“It’s an allegory to address the development of drone warfare with the Middle East as its backdrop, and the ways in which these mechanized birds are being used to surveil citizens around the world,” says Amin. “Now, the pandemic serves to further justify the use of these technologies while we are in a moment of hysteria and panic.”

Exploring the context and implications of these technologies takes on an even greater significance during an interview conducted over video-meeting software. “We’ve now become so dependent on online platforms for educational contexts too,” she adds. “Universities and schools are giving classes via services which ultimately control how we pass down information. What happens when we’re being surveilled through these platforms and are being told what we can and can’t teach, and in which ways? Who does this serve?”

All three works in “When I see the future…” showcase the kind of intense curiosity that shines through when Amin talks. It’s a trait that has endured from her childhood in Egypt. “From a very early age I have been questioning with a sense of skepticism,” she recalls. “And an art education really honed and developed those skills.”

“As Birds Flying” (2016) is a response to the media narrative in Egypt that has turned a bird into a symbol of state paranoia. Supplied

Amin’s family was supportive of her aspirational curiosity and encouraged her to express herself. She moved to Minnesota for her Bachelor’s of Studio Art, and has remained active academically in conjunction with her work. She currently lectures at Bard College Berlin, is a doctorate fellow in art history at Freie Universität and a Field of Vision fellow in New York, as well as visual arts curator at Mizna in Minneapolis, co-curator of the biennial residency program with Italy’s Ramdom Association, and co-founder of The Black Athena Collective — an arts and research project that explores artistic practice as a means for recording history.

Amin currently lives and works in Berlin, a city she feels allows for the kind of artistic experimentation places such as New York or London couldn’t offer. It’s also a place that attracts a lot of displaced talent from across the Arab world.

“As a result of all these failed revolutions, much of the Arab intellectual and artistic scene has transplanted here,” she explains. “There’s something incredibly sad about that — but, under the circumstances, we use this space to construct our lives anew and continue to fight for the ideas we believe in.”

Portrait of Heba Amin. (Getty Images)

It’s another example of a duality that fascinates her. And as “When I see the future…” continues to grow and evolve in situ, Amin is excited by the possibilities offered by the discourse she hopes to provoke through the exhibition, with audiences in London and beyond.

“This is an opportunity that’s so rare — to engage my work specifically as part of an extensive public program like this, one that I get to be integral in shaping. There will be new works that emerge from the discussions and events, we’ll be publishing a lot of materials including peer-reviewed journals.”

And there’s a sense of liberation in the final installation being anything but final. “Towards the end of the show, it might look quite different. And that’s exciting because it allows me to engage in my own show,” she adds. “Often, you don’t get that opportunity. To install my work in an exhibition, and have a public show around it with the purpose of developing it further? That’s very exciting.”