Living as a Boomer painter of bourgeois nightmares in Heliopolis, Egypt, Ahmed Nosseir is a monster. Using experimental ambient thoughts, Sherif el-Azma, an Egyptian artist 20 years younger, is looking straight into Nosseir’s life and works.
00. Doom Metal
I think I saw a painting first. I saw this untreated black acrylic on canvas, shiny, vulgar, almost like acrylic. A face was scratched out. It was a bit like when you’re a teenager and you’re drunk and you wanna make something scary. I am not putting the work down of course, but at the time, I was into doom metal and stuff like this so that was part of the aesthetics I was attracted to. Anyway, it came from heavy metal and horror movies so I instantly thought that this was the work of a young person whose into heavy metal. I didn’t know it was Nosseir’s, as I hadn’t met him yet. Then I started to meet Nosseir and I started to think : ‘No, he’s not really into heavy metal. He’s more into classical painting.’ And this was weird for me because his paintings were not speaking at all to Aesthetics, to this sort of perfect formal kind of Leonardo Da Vinci thing that you learn in College here. It was more completely punk. As if he is drawing on the wall. As if he is just using black tar. I think that’s how he paints, he paints as if it’s an action.
And this dirt… Anyhow, I got to know his paintings and I kind of liked them because of that sort of… You know you can write books about kids who walk in the streets and kick bottles out of frustration some people could say, or out of boredom, or out of stagnation. They’re walking in the village and they just kick bottles. That small action, that kick of the bottle is subversion to me; it’s bigger than just a gesture, it’s rebellion, it’s the need to move you know. And that’s what I felt about the paintings. I felt ‘Ok, let’s bring out the ghosts, let’s bring out the ghosts with full force, not beauty.’ We’re not bringing out beautiful mermaids out of the sea, no, we’re really bringing out the bottom of the barrel.
01. Nazi Rock
I used to be one of those people who are black and white, right. Everybody is black and white now I guess, especially now. Nosseir is not exactly a liberalized person, he’s not your utopian idea of a liberal artist. He’s really not the kind of clear cut feminism- human rights type. His ideas about governments might not be like most of these liberal artists. Maybe he likes right wing governments, maybe he likes the army, maybe… And that’s what I like about him: he is not afraid to be himself. But even himself is not monumental. If he was in America he would like Trump, I mean, he would like Trump and he would have a kind of rednecks aesthetics, but with this nerve of intellectuality.
So it’s the mix of aesthetics that interests me about Nosseir. The idea of mythology, for example, the spirits and how Egyptians used to have witch doctors, and Gazzar, and all of this mixed with heavy metal.
I mean he’s from Heliopolis and he’s from an older generation than me but Heliopolis was the epicenter of doom metal and heavy metal in the 90s, and it must have brushed by him unconsciously somehow, like all the rock music. The vibe must have, yeah, because here you get middle class kids who buy Harley Davidsons and pretend that they’re in America every Friday, playing loud guitars. At the end of the day, it’s a suburb that’s copying America except that when you copy America in the Third World, you’re not aware of the politics. You can listen to Nazi Rock but it won’t be Nazi Rock, here, it will just be Rock.
02. Raw expression
I like it when these aesthetics collide without any political correctness. I mean, you know, political correctness would mean Nosseir could possibly lose a lot of social things, but Nosseir is not after social things anyway. I think he’s very much an isolationist. Also what I noticed at Karim Francis’s exhibition when I went, is that they just hung his paintings showing these sorts of cultish things, and lepers, and spirits and all of that times a million, you know.
But then, I don’t know, I mean I felt that… I don’t know. I felt that these spirits or these things have a certain madness, there is a madness. They are mad themselves. I mean the characters in the pictures are, they’re laughing and roaring at the same time, you know, roaring like a lion scaring you and laughing at the same time, this is pure madness. There is this element of hysteria, and it’s an Eastern hysteria.
And also of course, the subject and the background issue. The way he deals with subject and background is fascinating for me because when they build a picture, painters are always trying to create the illusion of foreground and background. It’s an illusion in the end, it’s an optical illusion at the end of the day. Nosseir is not concerned with creating the illusion of space, he is interested in that raw expression, you know, this messy monumentalisation of madness – messy in a good way, of course.
04. The Ugly Duckling
I like how his work naturally collides with subcultural references. He does realize it, a little bit. He knows that the world is crazy and full of references and he’s happy when he hits the reference. If you tell him: ‘Yo, Nosseir, this reminds me of songs…’ he’ll be happy about it ! He won’t say: ‘No I didn’t mean this blablablabla.’ He is actually happy when his work sort of touches subculture, and that’s very special.
The interesting thing is that when he does build a picture, he’s not aware of the audience’s psychology and references, or media references, but the minute, the second you look at his paintings you’re reminded of a lot of films that you saw, of a lot of fairytales and a lot of media you consumed. You know, some very popular media, like Hans Christian Andersen, for example, as children, you know, The Ugly Duckling and stuff like that. There is a fairytale-ness and childishness about his work.
Sometimes his ghosts are Eastern and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they are in the Mosque and in the mausoleum and in these spiritual places…
The difference between Nosseir and I is that I was too self-conscious about conceptualism, I was very conscious. I was over-educated, let say : over-educated. This created a kind of fog for me that Nosseir and people from his generation didn’t have, and I was kind of envious of them, not of their work per se but of their practice. Because they had contemporaneity and conceptualisation within their work without forcing it, they just had it. It spoke to Art History automatically. But, in the case of Nosseir, I think it’s not so automatic, it’s because of what he looks at, in the iPad and in his own messy archives, right in his head, you know.
I think this guy is constantly looking at stuff. He’s constantly looking at the Net yeah, and any picture that he finds closely related to his life project, he really looks at. On the Internet I posted this picture of, I think it was Poseidon in bronze, coming out of the sea, his waves crashing behind him – he looked like this devil coming out of the sea. Nosseir left everything that I posted behind, and he went straight there. He knows what he wants. He is drawn to what he wants. And I think what he wants – beside mythology and demons and the underworld and… – which you can intellectualize for 3 phDs, which I don’t wanna do.
But I mean what he is really interested in, is how the painting has a presence on the body more than on the mind, you know. His paintings have a presence on your stomach, like when your stomach drops when you’re ‘bwaaah’ like this. This is the feeling, the immediate feeling you have to get from the paintings and not a feeling of being immersed in bliss, or being immersed in thoughts or contemplations. They’re not contemplative works, you know. I mean they’re immediate. They don’t need the very civilized processing, even if it can work with the head, it doesn’t work with the subconscious. Well, it does work with the subconscious but only after you saw it, not while you’re looking at it.
After you saw it and left, you might see it again, it might re-haunt you and evoke something that you saw before that reminds you of it – that’s what’s interesting about the immediacy of these works.
06. Forgotten histories of the street
I don’t know how people see them in Egypt, or want to see them in Egypt, because intellectuals want to see things in a very polished way, related to History, and I think Nosseir likes that a little bit but that’s not the point. He does like that his works are associated with important aesthetic painters but that’s not the whole point, you know. If you talk about subculture, if you talk about forgotten histories, not histories written in books, but the ones Gazzar looked at, the forgotten histories of the streets, these witches, these underworlds, well I think that intellectuals are unable to look at these margins you know, and at Nosseir, consequently.
In the street, it’s almost at every turn. At every turn you take, there is a a very very very exclusive process happening, in every corner of the street, some people might be cooking a certain thing that nobody else is cooking, someone might be building something : what you find on the street is not standard.
07. Quincy Jones
Sometimes I feel like people should have collect his works to build a curiosity cabinet like in the Victorian times, when you kept some skeleton of elephant man. The bourgeois is always interested in the unknown and in death. But Nosseir doesn’t get along with the bourgeois, he simply doesn’t get along with them.
Some people say that Quincy Jones and these people where providing dreams for the people. You know, that’s what America does. Disneyland provides dreams for the people, but Nosseir provides nightmares for the bourgeois ahahaha.
It’s impossible to look at Nosseir’s work without looking at Nosseir himself because within the context of Egypt, or a place like Egypt, Nosseir is ultra-interesting. Again, he carries controversial and paradoxical references in his personality, and that’s not fitting you know.
08. Redneck little life
Nosseir is a phenomena of course, because he’s not part of a movement, and it’s almost like he’s Egyptian by mistake. He could have been born in Mexico or in Argentina or … He lived ten years in Buenos Aires and speaks Spanish ? Woah, I didn’t know, that’s amazing. To me he’s a phenomena because… I was gonna say something actually but I forgot, it was an interesting thing that I was gonna say but hmmm.
Yeah, yeah, I was trying to say that there has been many collisions within History in Egypt. There were some very prominent things, like the revolution, colonialism, modernism and like socialism, those were very prominent things in Egyptian history that Nosseir has lived through, and through his life as he’s 65 right. But all these experiences, plus his depression, plus his neurosis perhaps, right, it really creates something, it creates something more than the work almost. Someone like Nosseir, and the way he is, can teach you about history. Here, in Heliopolis, it’s kind of half colonial, half fascist and he’s got these two things inside him, really – he has these two things inside him and inside his work. Downtown Cairo is more like street life, dirty people and tricks, and he’s got this inside his personality as well. He’s got any single thing that this country has been through and that doesn’t stick together ahahaha you know, like capitalism with fascism. I am not saying he is a fascist yeah, but it does become a part of him.
At the same time he seems politically fixated but he is not – he is not because if he was fully nationalistic he would be defending Islam for example, but he’s always attacking Islam ! I mean someone like him who like the Army, who like nationalism, should like the religion of the country. No, he left it completely, discarded it. So he’s actually designing his own kind of redneck little life. I say redneck because rednecks are very creative in a way, they make a life for themselves out of thrash you know. I am not saying he’s poor or has to be that way, but that he built a life for himself from little bits: maybe the bit about Argentina, maybe the bit about his hatred for certain politics… His isolation is part of it, I mean it all somehow works, and if you look at someone else who had that exact same set, they would be completely dysfunctional, completely.
Heliopolis is a suburb where people have jobs and families as you can see. It must be very confusing for people like Nosseir. Rania and I are maybe more conformed, our image might look like we conform to society, maybe we don’t a little bit or maybe we do a little bit. But Nosseir stands out in Heliopolis. He is alone. He is 65 and he’s young in spirits. At 65, here, they sit in their pyjamas on the balcony, as you can see, and they have grand children… they’re tired old fucking people you know ! This guy, he’s a monster – touch wood – he’s got a special energy for his age, for his generation and for Heliopolis, even for Heliopolis.
Triumph, you told me he lives in Triumph. His father was probably an important guy in the government or something like that. Because in Heliopolis it’s either you’re a doctor, an engineer, a cop or military. It’s weird to have artists in Heliopolis, that’s what is fascinating about Nosseir: he is on the margins of the art scene and on the margins of ahahah.
The sort of privacy that you have in the suburbs helped people live their isolated strange lives actually. In Downtown it’s impossible to be alone. That’s why I left Downtown, because I didn’t want to see people all the time that I didn’t wanna see, you know, they were everywhere !
10. Mike Tyson
Actually, I once wanted to do a show with Nosseir as I was working on ritual, death and monumentality and such, you know, and I felt that if I was gonna show with anybody it would be with Nosseir you know, like instinctually. Sandrine who did similar sculpture work was part of it of course. But I felt like Nosseir. So he came and he was happy to be part of the show. When I called him first I thought that he would be like: ‘Who is Sandrine ? Why are you doing this ? Why ?’ But he wasn’t like that at all, he was more like: ‘Yeah let’s do it, let’s’. His generation worked the other way round, they were very suspicious like ‘Do you know who I am ?’, all this muddy business.
When you meet isolated people or loners you kind of get scared of them because they’re not used to people so they might end up not communicating with you properly. But Nosseir is quite social actually ahahah.
When he was at Karim Francis’ gallery, he was talking to Karim about the fact that sometimes you just wanna have an exhibition to eat. Why do people think that artists are living off inspiration ? How do they see them as such magical creatures, after meeting them just once in an opening ? After he lost all his money, Mike Tyson had this one fight that he lost, so they asked him: ‘Why are you fighting if you’re not ready ?’ He said :’I’m trying to pay the bills… who do you think I am ? A magician ?’
Nosseir is more real in the sense that he doesn’t need to build a mythology around himself.
There’s this stupid pornographic view of artists, especially here in Egypt, that they are supposed to be sensitive souls. And then you meet Nosseir. He’s fine, gentle and everything but he’s not afraid of shouting – not being vulgar but raising his voice and say : ‘HEY YA, what the fuck !’ You know, all this pseudo-nobility. What’s interesting about his generation is that they never knew how to negotiate the new generation and properly let go of this 1950s salon type of artists’ gatherings and artist status. They didn’t know how to be flexible, which is normal in any country. Nosseir never got along with that very common salon type here.
11. Analog fingerprint
His work has this ventriloquist quality. Ventriloquist I don’t know… like throwing words or throwing ideas for another time. You’re not getting the idea while looking at the work, but after. It’s talking to you at another time ahahah.
Yeah it’s better, I almost think that it’s better to remember Nosseir’s painting, rather than seeing them directly. It’s not designed to sensually tickle your eyes with technic and color, it’s not designed like that.
Sometimes I think that about his digital sensibility – with the pad. How he’s trying to work in virtual medium, that’s interesting. How he’s processing this raw quality of analog fingerprint dirt into digital stuff. People are supposed to do the opposite you know. Yeah it’s very interesting that this tool showed him other ways of working analog.
12. Almost scientific
He’s kind of a trickster, as there’s something playful in his practice, like the school boy in him. And I think he enjoys people interpreting his work in different ways, he enjoys watching them while they interpret his work. I noticed that in him, that he finds pleasure in it. Maybe because he has no absolute discourse about his work. He never wrote it down in stone. So he’s like: ‘Oh really ! you saw this.. oh that’s interesting ! let’s see how you see it, let’s see !’ He’s the kind of artist that never solidified any textual discourse, contrary to someone like Hassan Khan who would go like: ‘This is the work and this is it and you must see it like this !’Forcing context.
When that gallerist came to see my works earlier today, some of them come from borrowing language and borrowed references and stuff but I felt: ‘Why do I have to explain every single reference and every single frame to this woman ?’ I mean yeah it comes from conceptualizing and from these almost scientific practices, but at the end, while I’m making the works, something else comes out you know. Maybe the hand is a bit to the left or to the right, and that’s a decision I make without any calculation. I’s almost like, when they see work like these, they have to see the roots of it.
Well, try to see the roots in Nosseir works ! it’s easier maybe to find the roots in my work because it’s research based…maybe maybe.
I was surprised that she found half of the works inaccessible, but I’m not surprised because those people, they want meaning, they want quick meanings. They like things that look like visual arts. Nosseir is protected from that because his work is so (?).
Recorded live from Bunny Chow Studio, Heliopolis, on January 16, 2022
by Jean Colombain