Taking up this issue’s theme of ‘The Diary of an Artist in Confinement Interesting Times’, Selections invited artists to share their thoughts on work, art and life in general since the beginning of the year. We guided them with the following questions:
What image(s) illustrate(s) 2020 for you so far?
If you were to write a note, a reminder, a memory to yourself, or to the world, in a time capsule, and you were to open it 15 years from now, what would it say?
If you had to describe the year 2020 in brief, what would it sound like?
Some of you have dedicated this year so far to working continuously in your studio; some others have found themselves completely demotivated and have halted everything. What have you been doing? Please describe in detail and share with us the work you have been doing during this period.
The pandemic has changed our perception of time and our relationship to our homes. What is your experience?
How do you see the future of art?
Have you been reading?
Some chose to respond in a diary form or with visual storytelling; others provided their answers at varying length and in different ways. Each provides a unique insight into and reflection of the most extraordinary period of our lives to date.
When my gallerist, Isabelle van den Eynde, called me in mid-February to ask me if I wanted to collaborate with the artist collective Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, I was thrilled and full of energy. At that time, I had no idea how tumultuous 2020 would be.
The Iranian trio invited me to show two large textile sculptures in their show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Straight after our first video call, we started planning the sculptures. We called the sculptures “the donkey tents”. The donkey is a central figure in the narrative of the artist trio. Since the artists live in Dubai and I live in Hamburg, the whole development process was online and mainly via WhatsApp. We sent each other sketches, texts, measurements and photos back and forth and virtually planned the sculptures. The exhibition was supposed to open in May 2020 in Frankfurt.
The artist trio made the metal construction in Dubai that looks like a minimalist and abstract skeleton of a donkey. At my end in Hamburg, I started to sketch the textile objects that I was planning to hang on the metal construction.
I wanted the textile objects to have something physical, resembling parts of a body and hinting at gender-specific features. Both the skeleton from Dubai and the flesh from Hamburg were supposed to unite in Frankfurt in May.
When the lockdown in Germany became imminent, I quickly stocked up on materials (mainly textiles) to be able to continue working. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was uncertainty, hastiness, and frustration. When the lockdown started, all projects that were in full swing were frozen or even cancelled. From that moment on, time slowed down for me. I was obliged to decelerate the pace. Deceleration is against my nature and it was a challenge for me to accept the new rhythm brought on by the pandemic. I had to take a three-week break and it was difficult to find the motivation to work without any perspective.
At the deepest and gloomiest point of isolation around mid-April, I received a package from Beirut. Abed Alkadiri invited me to participate in his project “Cities under quarantine”. Abed, artist and editor of Dongola Books, invited befriended artists all over the world to develop an artist book during lockdown. The project of Abed Alkadiri was the first hook that emotionally pulled me out of the isolation. I felt reconnected to a broader artist community, even without having a direct interaction with any of the participants. Simply by knowing that other artists were working on the same project and were struggling with similar issues, made me feel less alone. I am deeply thankful towards Abed for his generous and reinvigorating initiative.
Artist book “Cities Under Quarantine”, a project from Dongola Books and Abed Alkadiri Rear side of the Leporello
Shortly after I finished the artist book, it was announced that the show at the Schirn Kunsthalle had a good chance to open in September instead of May. I got back to my sewing machine and started to work again on the donkey tents. As fabric is my main material and sewing is central in my practice, my sewing machine is crucial to my work. People associate sewing machines with something homey and cosy. My sewing machine is nothing like it. She is an engine. She is powerful and delicate at the same time and she spits out thread and devours fabric. She is a monster and I love her.
The more I worked and advanced on the donkey tents, the more my relation to space changed: I experienced shrinkage. Because of the restrictions of the pandemic, I moved my studio to my home and worked from there. The fabric sculptures for the Schirn were swelling like a creature out of control in my home. This project involved hundreds of metres of fabric and masses of filling material. It was a challenging experience for me to work on this project while being in confinement. With time, the fabric sculpture gained in volume and started invading my space. There was a double effect of confinement. I was on the one hand isolated from the outside world moving in a smaller radius and on the other hand strangled in my home by the very voluminous and growing sculpture that was eating up my living space. All this made me feel trapped, like walking on quicksand. As soon as I could leave home again and move in the city, the whole situation improved.
I finalised the textile sculptures during the shutdown and partly during the beginning of the summer. At the end of August, I headed to Frankfurt to install the work. Unfortunately, Ramin, Rokni and Hesam could only attend the opening online. This was another downside of the pandemic for the artists, and for me too, as I would have loved to finally meet the trio in real life.
Left – Details of the male donkey installed in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Right – Female donkey installed in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt
The pandemic also made me think a lot about death, a topic I have been researching in recent years in relation to ancient Egyptian rituals. I was particularly interested in the idea of presence and absence related to mummification and the belief in eternal life. Because of the pandemic, death became very present. Sadly, many people have died, and the pictures from Italy showing the trucks that carried corpses in convoys to the cemeteries will remain etched in my memory.
The pandemic added another layer to my exploration. Death became more present in our lives, not only in terms of physical death, but also in terms of the ending of an era, the ending of what we had and took for granted. The ancient Egyptians believed that the end precedes a new beginning and that life is an endless cycle. When the sun sets, it dies, and when the sun rises, it is born again. This is what I felt after quarantine. What was swept away from the pandemic gave place to new ideas and new projects. I started to develop a new series of sarcophagi. I worked on ceramic eyes and amulets inspired by pieces I had previously seen at the Egyptian Museum in Turin or at the Louvre in Paris. I regard the sarcophagus as a cocoon or a chamber where a transformation takes place. The sarcophagus unites the sense of presence and absence, of life and death in one object and stands for me as a metaphor for 2020 and the pandemic.
It remains uncertain how the rest of the year will unfold and if 2021 will mark the end of the pandemic which has had such an enormous impact on the world.
Born in London and raised primarily in Paris, Hoda Tawakol is a Franco-Egyptian artist who lives and works in Hamburg, Germany. Her broad practice encompasses hand-dyed and sewn textile pieces, mixed media sculptures, and installations interweaving textures, grids and lattices, in addition to works on paper. Tawakol’s approach to contemporary textile art is deeply rooted in the feminist movement of the 1970s. Her research focuses on traditional ritual practices and imagery associated with those transitional and transformative moments in a woman’s life. Her work attempts to deconstruct symbols and archetypes that beset female agency. Through the variety and compositional complexity of her aesthetic interventions, her work touches on the boundary between the extreme figuration of personal identities and their dissolution, even to the point of disintegration. Tawakol is interested in relating formal aesthetic concerns to societal issues, especially to those of a gender-specific nature.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #53.