Nermine El Ansari worked from her home in the Giza neighborhood of Mohandiseen for 12 years, until 2012, when she rented a studio space in the original Townhouse building in downtown Cairo. Two years on, she has completed the construction of the main components of her current project and is now preparing to move back home.
She wanted to experiment with sculpture and felt that she needed to get out of her apartment, where she was beginning to feel less and less productive — her self-discipline was failing her and the apartment felt confining. Downtown made sense, because that is where she usually goes when she leaves the house, and materials are available nearby. At artist Huda Lutfi’s recommendation, Nermine went to see about a studio space at Townhouse.
Nermine believes that the best thing about a studio is having a place you can leave at the end of the day without cleaning up. When she worked from home, she hated constantly having to put everything back in order in case someone dropped by, and the idea of visitors seeing works in progress made her feel uncomfortable. She always dreamed of having her own basement or factory.
Even when she was just painting, she felt limited by the apartment’s lack of free space and low ceilings. She didn’t bring anything with her when she moved into the studio, as she only wanted it to accommodate the sculptural project she is currently producing. The pieces she is making are tied to the space she occupies. Although the studio is much smaller than her home in Mohandiseen, it is emptier, and its high ceilings and white, barren walls offer a greater sense of open space.
Her studio also gives her a sense of separation from her work that she was not getting at home. This distance enables her to really see the work.
Nermine needs to use her own hands to produce. Soon, she would like to start experimenting with actual bricks, as if they were Lego pieces, to build something.
Nermine finds it strange for an artist not to have their own separate working space, even if they do work from home, and feels that the time and space offered by the studio is integral to the process as a whole. She believes that artists must spend some time living with their work. Perhaps this happens for them during the research phase, she speculates.
She begins her process with an idea that is not fully formed, and immediately starts working on it. The rest is like a conversation, and the piece grows with her as she continues to manipulate it with her hands. Often, it turns out completely different than what she first semi-imagined.
Nermine always had a strong inclination toward two-dimensional works, like painting and various printmaking techniques, including silk-screening, lithography and etching. She got used to working with her hands, and as a student in Paris she apprenticed at many studios with heavy printing machinery. Her bathroom in Mohandiseen also functions as a dark room where she develops her own black-and-white photographs.
The first sculpture she displayed publicly appeared in the exhibition Invisible Presence, held at the Mawlawi complex in Islamic Cairo in 2010. The piece, which was commissioned for the exhibition, was shown again at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 2012. It is very frustrating for her to produce sculptures on commission, as it is difficult to get the results that she originally imagined, she explains. Sculptors leave a bit of themselves in the objects they create, and an interesting chemistry between artist and producer is necessary to get what you want. It’s frustrating for Nermine to see different hands produce her sculptures, and she often has to fight with herself not to jump in.
Nermine has been drawing buildings and construction sites for a long time, and although her drawings are two dimensional, her subjects begin as three-dimensional volumes in her head. She wanted to transform these imagined shapes into something closer to reality. Nermine is a “free-hand sculptor” — she doesn’t sketch or draw models, and instead works straight from the idea she envisions. She likes to display her works as installations, even her drawings and paintings. She is always thinking about the exhibition space and how it will be inhabited by the artwork, making the space into what she imagines to be a theatrical experience, creating a different world, an alternative urban landscape. She wanted to bring the sculptures to life, to turn them into something more intimately related to life. It’s a feeling she does not have with still images.
For Nermine, the process of making art is related to the movement of the body, and she feels she must use her whole body to make something. Since she left France, however, she finds that she is moving less and less.
Movement is mainly why she is interested in urban construction, the workers and the process of deconstruction that has to happen before construction can settle in. She observes these sites obsessively, watching from her window the tremendous machinery and its operators clocking in everyday, only to disappear once the project is complete.
When it comes to painting, Nermine always has trouble knowing when to stop adding layers. It is difficult for her to explain, but she says she begins with a sensation and can only stop once it is felt again. It is difficult for her to look at something she has made that she is unhappy with — it feels unfinished. There are two sculptures that are facing the wall in a corner of her studio, as if they were being punished for not evoking the sensation they were intended to produce. She keeps adding layers of gypsum, but unless she manages to change the sculptures somehow, she will not use them.
Now that Nermine is back to working from home, she is slightly apprehensive about feeling claustrophobic again. Although moving all the work was a strenuous task, seeing it now in her apartment, on her working table, is allowing her to envision different possibilities, as well.
She is considering teaching again, and expresses the wish to start making some real money. She wants to live between places and have Egypt serve as her home base. She does not want to go back to Paris, but she can imagine herself living between Egypt and Iceland, or somewhere that has nothing to do with anything she knows, someplace where there are no potatoes.
All photographs by the author.
Mada will be publishing one part of Shehab Awad’s artists’ studios project each month. This project was carried out in the framework of MHWLN, a research and writing group dedicated to the history of contemporary art in Egypt.