Susan Hefuna's creations are a meditation on personal and intimate feelings
Susan Hefuna is well known for her thought-provoking photographs, art installations and beautifully crafted wooden mashrabiya screens, inspired by Islamic architecture. But she often takes a break from these projects to return to drawing. "To create those artworks I have to work with craftsmen or a camera. But drawing is the only medium where I can express myself without any sort of filter in between. The need to focus within myself compels me to create new series of drawings every year," she says.
The artist is of German and Egyptian origin and lives and works in Duesseldorf, New York and Cairo. Her latest exhibition, Cairo Dreams 2011, features two series of ink drawings that are intimate and personal and reveal her inner world. For the first time, the artist is also exhibiting a series of aluminium sculptures that add a new dimension to her self-exploration. Created spontaneously in a dream-like state, the drawings and sculptures present a physical analogue of our mental structure. They reflect the patterns and grids we construct to navigate our inner and outer worlds and the emotional and cultural screens we use to protect our sense of self. Hefuna does months of preparation before beginning a new series of drawings. But that does not involve looking for inspiration or conceptualising and researching ideas. In fact, it is all about avoiding these things.
"With the constant inputs of information around you, it is difficult to keep your mind open and free from thoughts and emotions. Before I begin a series, I avoid going out and meeting people and do lots of meditation to empty my mind and focus inwards," she says.
Her drawing technique and materials are interesting. She only uses a pencil or fine ink pen and tracing paper. She begins with a drawing on one sheet of tracing paper and then places another sheet on top. The drawing on this sheet is connected to the one below. Thus each artwork is built up layer by layer, with the lower, hazy layers connected in interesting ways with the darker upper layers. Although the process is deliberate, the drawings are spontaneous and the work is finished in one sitting.
At first glance, Hefuna's new series, Memory, appears to be a set of grids made up of random dots connected by lines. The resulting structures look like buildings or organic molecules. "I start with no plans and allow the memories and emotions from my subconscious to unfold on paper, direct and unedited. Making these drawings is like mapping the state of my mind. The abstract images are an abstraction of my thoughts and memories and they offer a visible representation of the invisible inner core of my being," the artist says.
The simple black-and-white drawings are a perfect metaphor for the subconscious. Our inner fragility and vulnerability are reflected by the delicate tracing paper and the fine lines. The complex mesh of interconnected lines spread across many layers of paper represents the network of impulses and memories buried within the many layers of our mind that define who we are. The bold lines on the top layers are connected to and influenced by the hazy ones below, just as what we are today, and how we respond to different situations is influenced by a network of past experiences and learnings stored in the depths of our subconscious.
Hefuna's sculptures are three dimensional versions of her drawings. And like the drawings, they are simple yet quite complex. The artist begins with clay moulds covered with a thin layer of wax. She then carefully cuts out the wax in the shape of a meandering line going around the solid core, which is later removed. Cast in aluminium, these lopsided, empty, cage-like structures present 3-D models of the mind, with everything around them reflected on their silvery surfaces. They appear heavy but are really light and look different from every angle, perhaps alluding to the many facets of the mind.
"These are also created with one spontaneous, uninterrupted movement of the hand. If I make a wrong cut and the lines are not connected, the whole structure will fall apart. Hence I have to be totally focused to make sure all the lines are connected and the entire structure is balanced," the artist says.
The second series of drawings in this exhibition is titled Cairo Dreams. It consists of coloured ink and pencil drawings on handmade paper of windows screened with patterns inspired by the mashrabiya screens the artist has seen in windows and balconies in Cairo. The reference is to windows that offer a glimpse into the mind and also to the masks and veils behind which we hide our innermost thoughts and feelings to protect ourselves not only from others but also from ourselves. Perhaps the windows also allude to Hefuna's cross-cultural background, which gives her an understanding of those who experience the world and deal with it from behind the security of a screen, and those who demand open and direct interaction.
Like the superimposed layers of tracing paper and the empty aluminium cages, the half-opened windows beckon viewers into an indefinable space that is intimate yet unknown, vulnerable yet protected, and fragile yet strong.