Artist Susan Hefuna: ‘Questioning and observing is always in my work’

Susan Hefuna is an important artist of her generation and 30 years of her work are currently on display in Sharjah.

Some of Susan Hefuna's drawings and prints. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
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As you approach Bait Al Serkal in Sharjah’s arts district, the sound of a heart beating emanates from the doorway. It is coming from an abstract video art piece playing in a room close to the entrance, depicting an X-ray of a heart and its connecting structures.

But importantly, it is also the signal to the viewer that the house is alive.

Because not only is the building filled to the rafters with 30 years’ worth of work by Susan Hefuna, it also works as a metaphor to encase her work.

“The house is like a human being,” says Hefuna, a German-Egyptian artist with a well-established international reputation. “It is not a show but an experience – each time you visit, you see it differently. If you spend time with it then you will find hidden corners and hidden memories, just like you would with any human being.”

The dialogue between the house, the works and the viewers was a very deliberate decision made by Sheihka Hoor Al Qasimi, the curator of the exhibition and the president of Sharjah Art Foundation. Walking through the house, which is one of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s prime locations for exhibiting, the prolific nature of Hefuna’s ouevre comes to life in front of your eyes.

Although it traces her story from 1984 until today, there is no chronological progression. It is, as Hefuna explains, about the journey and the discovery. As you dip in and out of darkened rooms to watch her video clips, climb narrow flights of stairs to discover drawings hanging in the upstairs rooms and traverse the open corridors filled with her installations, there is one constant that makes use of the house’s nascent design: Sharjah Afaz Drawings, a site-­specific installation made from palm wood that inhabits the courtyard. Criss-crossing structures that resemble towers but reference a network of influences stand in the central space and, as a viewer traverses the woven story of Hefuna’s career, they continually and forcibly return to this piece – a rhythm that Hefuna says mirrors life.

“The inspiration for my work is more clear if you see it in this context – the shadows, the movement and the structure are at the centre of my process,” she says.

The structures in Bait Al Serkal can be compared with the palmwood baskets used to carry daily shopping and groceries around the streets of Egypt, which come up time and time again in the photographs peppered around the house of Hefuna’s childhood family home in the Nile delta and in videos made outside the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. They could also reference the grid-like lattice of a mashrabiya screen (which reframes a woman’s vision looking out and obscures all potential of a gaze being returned back in) and even the grilles of birdcages.

The mashrabiya plays a central role in Hefuna’s work. The repetitive patterns are continually depicted in her drawings, while her sculptures incorporate words into these traditional patterns, creating the possibility for dialogue. The works are often abstract, so it is easy to compare the patterns of the mashrabiya to that of organic structures and DNA, which makes the viewer question what they see and, therefore, where they are.

“Questioning and observing is always in my work,” says Hefuna. “But it is more clear in this show; I have never seen so many works in one space.”

One of the most interesting pieces are the vitrines filled with seemingly random objects. In 2007, she collected these items from the wives, sisters and mothers of the workers at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, where she has exhibited many times.

“I became interested in the families of the men who installed my works and their complete disconnection to the world of art,” she says. “I visited them in the suburbs and asked them to give me something that has a meaning for them and that I would travel around the world with it. For me, this is a whole story about fantasy about how things and objects

capture that fantasy.”

• Susan Hefuna: Another Place runs until June 13 in Sharjah Art Foundation’s Beit Al-Serkal, Arts Area