It is 3:05 PM on a Monday afternoon, and Amira Hanafi and I both hesitantly emerge from different corners of the cafe where we have been instructed to meet. “I googled YOU!” Amira laughs after I admit to scanning the “Amira Hanafi” Google image results so I could recognize her in this instance. Hanafi is a visiting artist at the University of Michigan and gave the talk, Other People’s Words, on Monday, November 4th, 2019, the same day of this interview.
As an art and design student, I was interested in speaking with Amira to better understand how she skillfully contextualizes other people’s words and creates work that responds to the happenings of her life.
We banter about meeting strangers, where to find the best cup of coffee in Ann Arbor, and the allure of walkable cities. Hanafi moved to Cairo, Egypt in 2010 after a walking project, Cairo on the Length, brought her to the place of her family’s heritage.
“Throughout the project, I was trying to negotiate my position in this place as both foreign and a citizen,” Hanafi states.
Hanafi describes her process as living her projects because they are the work she wants to do on herself: “The project [Cairo on the Length] itself pointed out how much I needed to do that work for my life,” said Hanafi. One of her favorite words to describe her work is “inhabiting,” meaning work that is deeply embedded in her own context.
In the case of her work, A Dictionary of the Revolution, described as “a series of 125 texts woven from the voices of hundreds of people who were asked to define the evolving language of the Egyptian revolution,” Hanafi’s life became the project.
She sets the scene with noise-canceling headphones and an extreme withdrawal from her social life: the three year process of listening to disembodied voices allowed Hanafi to process the strife of the Revolution. The recorded voices created a new environment for Hanafi in which the voices accompanied her in her everyday life.
“I reorganized the narrative of what happened to me during the revolution, reviewed it, and complicated it by bringing in other narratives. [The voices] helped me as traces: I asked myself, “are those voices theirs or my own?,” said Hanafi.
The intrinsic nature of Hanafi’s work explains why she hated her formative art education: the rigid assignments limit creativity and disconnect the artist from their own curiosities explored through life. “Assignments are antithetical to art,” Hanafi explains. With an undergraduate degree in political science and an MFA in writing, Hanafi never felt the need to complete a formal art education; she has always simply acted on the creative impulse to make and record things throughout her life.
Hanafi wants to be engaged in the world in more than one way. She makes her living by freelance writing and has held cultural administrative positions in Cairo. On strategy for a healthy art practice, Hanafi advises: “There is an advantage to having ways of making a living not from a creative practice. The further you can escape agendas [in your creative practice] and make money another way, you have more agency over your practice, what you doing, and its meaning.”
On continuing her creative practice, she says “my success is that I’m still making work.” Hanafi’s approach is admirable in its connectivity to the individual and collective, with an infrastructure built out of curiosity and the everyday.
Article by Erin Wakeland, a BFA senior at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. She is a multidisciplinary artist and works in mediums of painting, photography, design, fibers, and writing. Find her work at erinraywakeland.com.