|AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST/EDUCATOR BARBARA SJOGREN IN CAIRO
NOVEMBER 25, 2008
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
Barbara Sjogren with her students at Infinity International School in Cairo
Sjogrien's Earth Mummy, located on family land in Nebraska
Barbara Sjorgren at Sakkara, site of the Stepped Pyramid, the first structure made completely out of stone
Ceramic by the Egyptian master ceramicist Nabil Darwish on display in his museum near Sakkara
THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST BARBARA SJOGREN
An example of pre-dyanstic pottery
©Amir Bey, 2008
HOLLER!: Youíve lived and taught in many parts of the world. What are some of your first impressions of Egypt in comparison to those places?
SJOGREN: Iíve traveled to many places in the EU, Japan, China, India, Tanzania and Sri Lanka where I lived for a couple of years during the 1980ís. I had the opportunity to learn from Sri Lankaís most successful painter, George Keyt and to meet other artists on the island. I also worked at the international school where my children attended as the co-principal.
Iíve lived in the Midwest and on both coasts of the U.S. but Iíve resided mostly in Maine and then New York City. Now I am living and working in the desert 20km southwest of Cairo in a compound employed at a brand new international school. The change from teaching upper school art students to three year olds is a big flip but fascinating nonetheless. Observing those at the threshold of childhood is a rare moment.
My first impression of Egypt is one of being startled. This mega city [Cairo] doesnít feel as massive as New York City. It is a noisy, crowded place and hot, yet intimate even friendly. The mixture of cultures is more integrated and varied than I expected and it is hard to differentiate societies. Eastern Mediterranean influences open up a whole new section of historical seashores. Attempts to learn Arabic reveal a thought structure that sweetly comes to odds with my own. Chief example is the word for ďnoĒ which is ďlah-lahĒ.
HOLLER!: What are you teaching your students?
SJOGREN: I'm not teaching them anything! I'm allowing them to use the paints and color without adult direction and introspection and inspection. These kids are three and giving them paints and a safe place to paint is the best thing I can do for them. You can see that they find it a very engaging and purposeful activity! I love the way they use the materials so freely and with pleasure.
HOLLER!: What kinds of contacts have you made with Egyptian artists?
SJOGREN: The only contact I have had so far with Egyptian artists is with dead ones. I am awed by the ancient works (3200 BC) at places like Sakkara where early ceramic plates, painted with food stuffs present a prelude to the tradition of drawing food offerings on the walls of tombs. Along the road to Sakkara, I stopped to scoop clay out of the Nile and found a museum for the work of Nabil Darwish. Three thousand works stored on the property lie in danger as the ground water of the displaced Nile seeps to recover its influence. During my visit to Alexandria, the paintings at the Mahmoud Said Museum and the fabulous library by the sea require future returns; perhaps when the renovations for the Greco-Roman Museum are complete.
HOLLER!: What seems to be the view of the US at this time, in terms of the election and our economic crisis?
SJOGREN: Iím disappointed not to be experiencing the euphoria of the U. S. election first hand. The Egyptians Iíve met do not seem that enthusiastic one way or another. They support my excitement, but are not that Ďconcernedí. Although several taxi drivers commented that McCain seemed to be wearing a mask. We North Americans are so self-centered and hyped up. The only complaint I heard regarding the Western financial crisis is that Egypt lost money on Wall Street.
HOLLER!: It's interesting what you say about Egyptians' reactions to the election. While most of the world wanted him to win, the people who had the least interested attitude relatively were Arabs. Because either way he'll be more sympathetic to Israel; so for them it's a matter to what degree he is that makes a difference. Otherwise most think he'd be the best possibility.
SJOGREN: You are right about the Arab world not getting too hyped up about Obama, but I am certain that they prefer him to a Bush substitute, although they maybe holding out on the 'hope' piece of it with a wait and see, no great expectation.
HOLLER!: What is the Egyptian governmentís relationship with its artists? What kinds of support and what hindrances, if any, exist?
SJOGREN: Iím not sure about the relationship of the Egyptian government to its artists. While many contemporary works are exhibited at the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art, the relatively new building in the Opera complex contained few viewers on my visit there. The curatorial consideration and the lighting revealed little appreciation for the artists and their works.
HOLLER!: As an artist who is female and a foreigner how are you related to?
SJOGREN: Itís not that easy being female in Egypt and thus my security increases by finding an English/Arabic driver I am able to rely on. I discovered during Eid [the end of Ramadan] that women alone without a head scarf, (hijab) especially foreign women mark themselves as ďopen targetsĒ to the bands of young men on the streets celebrating the end of fasting. Donning the head scarf and walking behind the wings of family groups proved the best way to travel on foot.
Overall, the Egyptians Iíve met treat me in a friendly and helpful manner. It is one reason why I continue to like living here. The weather right now is superb and the fall foliage is very spring-like. Yellow daffodil clusters hang off high branches and bright pink lilies fall out of the trees. If the autumn is pastel here, I wonder what spring will be like. Perhaps Iíll find the grass roots of a new artistic movement by then!
HOLLER!: What kind of publications and other media are devoted to the arts?
SJOGREN: As a neophyte in town, my happiest art publication discovery is the Croc. I went to an exhibit with a driver who speaks both Arabic and British English to the art galleries to investigate the Townhouse Galleryís Exhibition Program titled Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie. The exhibition was reassuring and interesting and in some ways 'business as usual'. I did meet some good people and saw some work which is important to me. Media and information is very weak here and I missed the curatorís talk about the selection for the Lapdogs, but I did like the Townhouse space a lot, both the location and the work that was in it. I couldn't understand the videos in Arabic, but the photographs on the wall were as engaging as the space itself. It felt supportive of non commercial yet serious work. [Readers may visit the galleryís website at: http://www.thetownhousegallery.com/main7.html
HOLLER!: Letís talk some about your work. The installation titled Earth Mummy, tell me about that.
SJOGREN: The installation was a lot of fun. I made Earth Mummy as a resident at the Watershed center for ceramic arts in Maine which is in a retired brick factory turned ceramic artist colony. [The Watershed website is www.watershedceramics.org] Being influenced by my MFA course in Egyptian Art, I created the Earth Mummy inspired by proto-historical evidence of the burial of kings within the banks of the River Nile to associate themselves with the god, Ptah, and seasonal flooding of the Nile to feed the people. Earth Mummy was shown in Portland, Maine and in New York (Gallery X). I decided to install the Mummy to mark the site of a sod house my relatives made in the 1880ís when they immigrated to the U.S. I realized when I visited Arusha, Tanzania, a fast growing frontier town and saw waddle and daub houses next to concrete Nyerere-style housing and new concrete single dwelling homes that it really wasn't that long ago America had sod houses too. I told this to my young friend that I met there (who is now building a community arts center in Bagamoyo, Tanzania) when he asked how long I thought it would take for Tanzania to 'catch up' to the 'west'. Now reading about the life of Obama's family in Kenya adds much to this hope. Not that anyone wants a duplication, but when I think that my relatives built a sod house until their wood house which still stands today was ready in the middle of nowhere on the same land that is still being farmed by my cousin today with no heirs in sight that it is kind of remarkable to even know about a little piece of land somewhere that fed my present. So I decided to lay the mummy to rest as a marker of all the changes that land goes through without 'recognition' and that includes the residents of at least two different groups of indigenous population on the site. A renter on the property always goes out looking for arrowheads after the field is plowed and he has a couple of coffee cans full. Maybe someday the brick material from Maine contained in Earth Mummy will be found out of context in the middle of the country stimulating the unspoken memory of humans and their relationship to the landscape. That's the basic idea.