Interview with Nazir Tanbouli
Nazir Tanbouli is an Egyptian artist from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. He was born into a family of painters: his great uncle Lotfy El Tanbouli was one of the early Egyptian Modernists and his uncle Ibrahim El Tanbouli was a member of the Free Painters movement emerging in the 1970s, and still an active painter today.
Nazir Tanbouli studied interior and theatre design at Alexandria University School of Fine Arts, but before he even began his foundation year he was an exhibiting artist. From the first moment he could hold a pen in his hand, he has been drawing. He graduated from Camberwell in 2010 with an MA in printmaking and book art, and in 2011 he founded the award-winning artist-run Studio 75.
About drawing and ‘sensual geometry’
Nazir Tanbouli: I do what I do everyday for the last 30 + years. I draw every day. Just the chances are different, the places are different, the projects that my drawings might be involved in change, but the only things that does not change is that every day I sit at the table and draw.
Strangely enough, since I was 2 years old I got hooked on black, all black mediums – ink, pencil, graphite, markers, black acrylic…
Somehow with the simplicity of black on white paper, drawing becomes more of a practice of meditation or thinking, rather than doing art. Some people call it doodle – I wouldn’t like to say doodle. It’s more of; it’s a way of prayer, of meditation, a way of contact with your inner self. It’s a bit like drumming or writing your diary at the end of every night. It’s my every-night share of drawing that makes me stabilise things in my head and my thinking process. And while I’m doing that, drawings get to be produced – but it’s not mainly about making art. It’s thousands and thousands of A4 over the years and they’ve usually got all that I think of and they’ve got the progress of my life and the progress of my work, and my ambitions… that’s why they are very important. That’s why I keep them.
GM: So it’s like a diary or a journal? –
NT: No – it’s more of hieroglyphic or illustrated diary. Anyway I think they are the most important thing in my work, although I don’t usually exhibit any of them. Exhibiting is not the issue.
Drawing is a foundation for a lot of things and it can join a lot of things. At the same time, it can stand on its own as an art form. So, drawing being my art form provides me with individualism when I need to do my work on my own; I don’t need to join any other artists. At the same time, in doing drawing I can really join a lot of work and I love to join in co-operation with a lot of artists.
That’s why I think its really more interesting to be a drawer. It’s more open to practice a lot of things, you know, that link to drawing, because every visual can link to drawing.
GM: The thing you’re best known for here in the UK is murals – a couple in Nottingham, and in East London you did a number of them, including the massive King’s Land project, where you did murals on every one of 13 buildings. Why murals?
NT: What’s in it for me? Me enjoying the traffic getting slower near the mural, because people are looking at it while they’re driving! It’s like a pop tune that, you can’t help it, you have to listen. I enjoy that.
GM: How did you come up with composition for such large scale surfaces?
There is actually no composition. There is some certain system where the lines link to each other, and they could link forever, if the mural was one thousand metres…… Every single part is original, but when you practice drawing for mediation you learn to follow the logic of the line, not your own logic. So if you have no plan, start with a line; the line, as direction, as length, as width, as speed, as texture. The line will start to stimulate in your head its own logic, and you will build on this logic. And by the time you hook your brain to the logical equation of this line you started with, and the line that was based on it, it becomes just mathematical logic; but very sensual mathematical logic. It’s like sensual geometry.
GM: So you can apply this practice of sensual geometry to something 30 metres long?
NT: You can apply it to five kilometres long.
‘Young Egyptian art’
GM: Tell me about the influence of growing up in Alexandria, surrounded by Egyptian and Hellenic art. How does this affect your work?
NT: I discovered in the last few years that I’m deeply deeply deeply genetically involved with Egyptian art. All the time I used to think that I’m as far from it as possible, but when I left Egypt I discovered that I’m very close to Egypt how it used to be a couple of millennia ago. Now I know, I’m so Egyptian in my compositions, in my lines; my feelings are very, very very Alexandria-rooted. And somehow I started to like it.
Growing up in Egypt and growing up in Alexandria are a bit different, because Egypt is classical but Alexandria is a – somehow – really anti-classical sort of city. At the time it was built it was meant to be like the first New York, where artists and writers from everywhere go and live and do something. To belong to this mix, more than where they came from. So the Hellenic art in Alexandria was a new form of art that now after centuries you consider to be ‘classical’ but at the time it was made it was scrubbing the floor with both ‘classicals’ – Greek and Egyptian.
My family background is deeply embedded in Egypt too: my great uncle Lotfy was one of the first Egyptian modernist painters but he was also a renowned Egyptologist: he supervised the moving of the temples at Abu Simbel, and I heard he was also something of a mystic, a shaman … Another visual influence though is African art: my father collected African art and he had lived in Somalia for a time, so that was all around me at home.
GM: Lets look back at the Egyptian art scene. How do you see your place in it?
NT: In late 1980s early 90s there was what was called at the time ‘Young Egyptian Art’ and it was too much like Young British Art: it had the same characteristics, was in the same time and it looked very interesting in the beginning. I finished art school in ’93 and I just joined in the right time, and I’ve been to good places at a very young age. You know, winning big prizes and being sent to Biennials. It was amazing.
And then suddenly I felt like ‘I’m not happy with that, it’s not about that,’ and so I had to leave the whole scene and start again.
It’s not about hating success, but what happened is that we were all young graduates – there wasn’t actual success. It was nonsense. We were treated as successes at a time when we were just a bunch of raw talented boys and girls. It’s that vampiric fascination with youth, not with art at all. But I don’t care about being in some certain scene, or outside some certain scene. Art is about your own sense of fulfilment and that’s why I do the whole job in the first place. So if the whole thing looks hunky dory and I’m not happy, I’m not happy and if I’m not happy I’ll just go and start somewhere else, start it from scratch.
I was 24 years old and I was a big artist, but I was actually a young foolish boy. And while we’ve been treated nicely and put in very good places, I’ve seen old painters who’ve been in the business for years and working hard, just being buried because the scene wasn’t ready for anything except ‘Young Egyptian Art.’ So the idea of old became shameful, any work that was rooted in lifetime experience became ‘not interesting’ and the whole thing started to go in a direction that disgusted me and that I didn’t belong to. I got out: I did what a few Egyptians have done for ten thousand years: I went out into the desert!
GM: How was that an influence on you and your work?
NT: I went to the desert about eight months before I had to give my work to the Cairo International Biennial. I was thinking about my work and where I wanted it to go so I left: during this eight months I took with me some biros, some A4s and Leonardo da Vinci’s book of anatomy. I spent the months looking in my work without doing work, and if I needed really to draw I made myself stick to da Vinci’s anatomy book. Until the book got stolen. I lived alone on a huge tract of land and I had to build my own house with my own hands …
GM: So you lived a kind of hermit life?
NT: Not really a hermit! As long as you can go to market on a Saturday and buy a sack of potatoes, you’re not a hermit. Let’s say it was a sort of basic life, but a hermit life is when you really can’t reach a sack of potatoes! I lived on potatoes, tea, sugar and occasionally I could get the odd pint of milk. This itself was a bit of luxury compared to a hermit. But it was minimal.
GM: So the desert was a serious ‘reality check’?
NT: I remember when I first went there I had instant coffee and instant Coffee-Mate, so to live on potatoes after that – that was a
reality check. I had long hair and there was no water to wash it so I was bald, and that was a reality check. But the biggest reality check wasn’t in the hair or in the coffee it was – the desert is about zero noise. And the moonless night is zero light. And if there were clouds between you and the stars, you can’t see the palm of your hand. The human experience of living for 2-3 days where, by the time the sun sets, you’re on you own in the desert and you can not see the palm of your own hand … It’s real experience, real fear, real worry.
You feel small, because you are small. And you face the fact of being small and then you start to enjoy the fact of being small. And then after 8 months when you go back to the city, you feel that all of this ‘I’m big’ bullshit is quite fake. You can’t do it any more.
GM: That must have affected your approach to your work, didn’t it?
NT: My early work was more about looking good. It was, let’s say, flashy work. It won prizes and people were excited about it, but it was nothing but show. The desert made me want to strip the style out of the job and leave the substance. So when I did this in the beginning I had to face the fact that I was young, new graduate, who knew a few tricks that make style. When I took those tricks and the style out, the substance was near zero. But what was more important for me was facing the fact that I’m on ground zero as an artist and there’s a long way to go.
There are some issues in art, related to your human experience as age, and it doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how talented you are; it doesn’t matter how well trained you are, it doesn’t matter if you have been taught to draw and paint since you were two. All of this doesn’t matter. There are things in your psyche that will not even start to sit in your head until you’re 30 or 40. And until you feel this way you will not work this way. There are some points where you really need conscious experience being built in your practice and your work and your conception. And this could never happen while I’m 24.
I know that we live in a time where you can be 24 or 20 or under 30, and be ‘big and rich and famous’ and everybody’s talking about you and everything, but it is just illusion. The fact of the matter is, art is a human practice. It’s not about dealers getting some oligarch to buy your work. Making culture is more fundamental and important than that.
Subject matter: Art and Life
GM: Your work seems very critical, very topical. Do you agree with that?
NT: I work on everyday subjects, my feelings about everyday subjects. You might see a few guns, bits of violence in my drawings… I’m a just a guy, listening to the news, hearing about people being stabbed and killed every single day – and every single night I go out knowing that I might be the one who’ll be on the news tomorrow.
I did this strange drawing of a dog biting in a human hand. And I myself, I felt like ‘What on earth are you doing, man? Where do you get these twisted thoughts?’ And the following day on the radio, I heard about a guy who let his dog run out in the field, the dog came back carrying a human bone. So my panic and my drawings are not far-fetched after all. You really got dead bodies on the street and you got dogs running in the garden carrying back to the house carrying back human bones. So this disturbing drawing of mine actually happened and it’s not surreal – it’s too damned real. And that’s what makes it scary!
I feel that there’s enough people being cynical, and clinical, and I feel that I want to say things as it is, there’s no place for irony, there’s no place for cynicism. I despise “postmodern irony.” People today think that “political” art has to preach or to say “it’s a comment upon blah blah” – be really obviously political, and a lot of the time it’s hypocritical. But if you have views, they will appear in your work and you don’t have to be overt. Velásquez could paint Las Meninas and through it tell us a lot about what he thought about the place of the artist in society, and the illusion of kingship – yet he did it for the king who loved it. That’s political. Anyway, things around us are strange and if I don’t understand them at least I have to scream them out through art.
GM: Yet many of the images that occur in your work could be said to be almost archetypal.
NT: What you call archetypal images – it’s about images that most of us, as humans, we share in common. And my work has got some of that. But each one of us has got his or her own symbols.
For example the drawing series ‘Egyptian Songs of Love and Death’ It was about the things that mark significant process on the timeline between birth and death. It’s about the womb, and it’s about the birth, and it’s about celebration of the new child, and it’s about the ego and the bravado of the young man, and it’s about the weakness and the wisdom of the old, and it’s about how after the old dies and rots, he or she expects to come back as a very light new flying spirit. Yet to reconnect with and one to rejoin the same old body in a young state … it’s a butterfly circle.
It’s a butterfly circle and I always talk about death in general and I’m always obsessed by my own death. Egyptians are like that. And this series, it’s not about ‘talking about Egyptian culture’, as much as it’s my own culture, practised to sort out some issues I have with death. It wasn’t exploration of Egyptian motifs – it was my own exploration of my own motifs – and I happen to be Egyptian. And that’s why they look like Egyptian motifs.
GM: How do you approach the issue of audience in your work?
NT: This is the most interesting thing. I don’t see art as monologue. I’m always interested in the audience, I’m always interested in who’s going to see the work, where the work is going to be exhibited, how these people think and what is the best way to communicate with them. So my work changes with the change of the audience and the change of the country.
Success for me is finding a room ready for me to exhibit my work, and finding an audience who is happy to come and look at my work whenever I do it. Lack of success is to either not work, or to work and pile it in your studio – no-one wants to show it and no-one gets to see it. That’s why I founded Studio75, to bring people off the street into the studio every day to see me work or to let others show their work.
I’m a normal guy; I live in a normal flat in a normal street, with normal neighbours. I have normal problems and normal fears. So, just because I have a way to express these ordinary fears – this does not mean that my format has got to be for some certain people or about some certain people. It’s a form of contact; it’s my side of the dialogue.
When I came to England and I was restarting my career with no money and no support, I worked in a factory. It’s the best thing I could have done cos it introduced me to the real England, to the people. If I’d just have come to do the MA and sat in the art school first I would not have adjusted so well…. Anyway at the factory I sat in the canteen and I did some doodles on an old newspaper. And by the time I put some drawings on the paper, my relationships with the people in this place became different. So… I draw mainly for my own functionality. It provides me with better living, with better interaction with people. It’s very basic. Even if I didn’t make anything from art more than this I’m quite happy: it’s my tool for everyday life.
GM: What about your education at Alexandria Academy of Art and your MA at Camberwell?
NT: During my undergraduate, I was a bit of an anarchist. So I didn’t accept to listen much to the teachers while they were talking to me, as much as I sneaked and listened to the teachers while they were telling other people – you know. I was that kind of kid at the art school.
NT: No, not rebel. Trouble. [laughter]
So, as long as you know this about yourself – fantastic. I got my Art Degree and whatever I’m gonna learn after that every single day of my life, I learn it my own way. Even on the MA – I just lived in the studio the whole time, I didn’t bother with classes. Since childhood the existence in a classroom turns me naughty. I just can’t behave when you put me in a classroom; all the bad blood in my body runs.
GM: But you learned a lot outside the school, from older artists; which of course is an option that most students don’t really have here.
NT: Alexandria Art School started as an artist-run art school. Ahmed Osman, Alexandria-born sculptor educated in Cairo – Cairo art school was more aristocracy based, funded by the royal family and stuff. Alexandria Art School was more of a rebel institution, this sculptor came and collected his friends and they started to teach. After the Revolution the whole thing became nationalised, it became part of the government agenda. The ‘refugees’ of that generation were very interesting and these were the people I looked for and socialised with. Whenever I heard about somebody who was good back in the 1960s and now he lives in a small flat and nobody knows what he’s doing – I used to go and search for these guys and I was never disappointed. They were always doing great work.
One of the things I was doing at Studio75 was teaching young artists and I am still up for that. It’s the artist’s responsibility to pass on knowledge to the next generation, you can’t just expect institutions to do it.
GM: And what is next?
NT: There is no next, it’s all happening all the time. I’m travelling the world doing drawing performances. I’m painting murals, I’m working with traditional Egyptian craftsmen to make tapestries. I’m making books. It’s about art as life.