interview with basim magdy

Basim Magdy at DISFF in Athens, 2022. Photo by Alexandros Iconomidis with image courtesy of ICO/DISFF.

Basim Magdy (born 1977) is Basel – based visual artist. He completed his BA degree in Painting at Cairo’s Faculty of Fine Arts, part of Helwan University. Selected recent solo exhibitions were at the following museums: Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg; M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp; MAAT Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, Lisbon; La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, Mulhouse; MCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; MAXXI National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, Rome; Jeu de Paume, Paris; Arnolfini, Bristol and CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux.

Magdy participated in the following group shows at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Castello di Rivoli, Turin; New Museum Triennial, New York; Istanbul Biennial; Sharjah Biennial; SeMA Media City Seoul Biennial; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris. His work is in the collections of MoMA Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim, New York; MCA Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Centre Pompidou, Paris; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; MAXXI – Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Rome; Castello di Rivoli – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Torino; among others.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How and when did you first encounter the field of artists’ publications and what attracted you to the medium?

BASIM MAGDY: It started when I was a young artist in Cairo. I had just finished a couple of residencies and workshops in Switzerland, England, and South Africa, where I came across lots of artist books and zines by other young artists. I was in my mid-20s and artist books felt like the perfect container for the colorful paintings, constructed photographs, and small drawings I was making at the time. I had just finished making animation and there was a lot of humor in it – a lot of sarcasm and playfulness. This was the beginning of my interest in subversion through the many layers of humor, but I was also interested in finding ways to make my work move in different directions and find alternative ways for showing my work to defy the boundaries of geography.

In 2005, I was invited to contribute to a group show at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. I proposed to make an artist book and it was called A Brighter Future Than the Ones We Had Before. The book was a collection of photo collages and works on paper made with spray paint, gouache, and acrylic that had no clear narrative, but somehow, they created a linear reading through the way I approached the works. There was a lot of storytelling in the individual drawings and I wanted to expand on that storytelling using the linearity of the format, where one could skip through a few pages and still be able to find meaning.

Another artists’ book I made was called Dream On and it was part of a collaborative project I did with artist Marianne Rinderknecht in 2004. We did two shows, one was at Townhouse Gallery in Cairo and the other at the Neue KunstHalle Sankt Gallen in Switzerland.

We mostly divided the work, where I designed pixel-based computer game characters and Marianne designed several landscapes that became a living environment for the characters. In the book, each page presents a different setting and scenario between the landscapes and these characters fighting fierce yet pathetic battles.

And this was all in line with what I was doing back then, I was playfully using the logic of children’s art to tackle contemporary issues like the politics of power and dissemination of information, focusing on the tactics of promoting wars and nationalism to the masses.

LŠ: How did your interest in rock and mineral specimens begin?

BM: I think it mostly began with curiosity. There are a lot of things about myself that I only managed to articulate as I got older. At some point a few years ago, I realized that curiosity is at the core of everything I do. Curiosity is how we progress, how we make friends, how we love – it all starts with curiosity. Because I don’t see how someone would pay attention to something new without being curious about it. There is always this spark.

Chalcanthite crystals grown by the artist on lava rock, 2020. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.

It started with a collection of rocks and minerals that my father had collected from a desert field trip in Egypt. I found them stored in a closet when I was a teenager and they looked intriguing. There was no Internet back then, so it wasn’t easy to get information about things. I asked my father, where he got them from and the circumstances why he went there and it was interesting to hear those stories. And I guess that was the spark that made me curious about not just minerals as objects but where they come from and how they are formed, what circumstances lead to their creation, and finally what elements are combined to create a mineral.

When I moved to Switzerland in my early 30s, I was suddenly in a place where every time I went to a market, there was a stand that sold rocks and minerals and I got to really see the diversity. I was attracted to the colors and shapes. I started buying these small specimens as I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and eventually, I got even more curious. I began to read about minerals which helped me to create an understanding of the families of minerals and how to identify their components through color. I started learning about localities and mines around the world, where different specimens I collected seemed to come from.

And as I travelled, I would look up abandoned mines to visit and see what I could find. Essentially, the specimens I collected became records of my trips and part of the chronology of my life. One of the milestones that shaped my interest in rocks and minerals was when I was doing a residency in Quebec in Canada. The residency was in a touristic small coastal town called Baie-Saint-Paul. I stopped at a local souvenir shop, where I found this small piece of rock that had a strange pattern carved on its surface. I asked the shopkeeper if he knew where it was mined and he did not, but he told me the person who gave the stones to him refused to reveal their locality. I later realized that what I was looking at, was a piece of Shatter cone, a rare geological phenomenon that is only known to form in the bedrock beneath meteorite impact(ed) craters. A few days later, I ended up at a beach, 3 hours away with 3 artists who also showed interest in collecting Shatter cone specimens hidden in the sand. It was one of the most rewarding and poetically beautiful experiences that came out of unquenched curiosity.

For me, it’s also very important to not live in the art world bubble alone but to have other interests. To maintain my personality beyond being an artist and to be a lot of different things. I always say that I think the best way to cheat death is to find a way to live different lives in one lifetime, to learn and work as a mineralogist, an artist, a baker, or a cook. I get obsessed with all these things and they somehow add to everything else, they add to my personality and maybe there are hints of them that appear in my work. Even though, I currently don’t necessarily have any interest in making work specifically about these things. Sometimes I’m asked if my other interests are part of my “research”, a word that gets thrown around haphazardly in art circles. I am not a scientist, I don’t do research, I am someone who is just curious. And I do these things because I want to know about them. I know the knowledge that I accumulate is never enough to contribute something new to that field but it definitely contributes to my personal happiness. I guess the constant quest is happiness.

Detail of Chalcanthite crystals grown by the artist on lava rock, 2020. Images by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.

LŠ: You also mentioned birdwatching. How did that interest start?

BM: When I was 12 I found a dead bird – I believe it was a bee-eater. I took it home and I decided to taxidermy it without knowing anything about the process. My father gave me a book about taxidermy as there was no internet back then. I opened up the bird, took everything out, cleaned it, and stuffed it with salt. A few hours later, I was failing miserably as the feathers were starting to fall. I ended up burying the bird in our garden. I grew up in a house surrounded by a garden and I spent a good part of my childhood inspecting all kinds of creatures in it.

Later in life, I found myself looking at European birds that were completely new to me.  Encountering a magpie in 2007 for the first time in Switzerland started a new chapter of my curiosity about birds. I was standing in front of this very loud, very beautiful but also a very aggressively present bird, an obvious relative of crows and ravens. I bought a meticulously illustrated book of all the birds of Europe and North Africa. And as I travelled within that region, I would take the book with me to mark the birds I encounter with colored dot stickers. Each color referenced the country where the bird was encountered.  I did this for three or four years and then I moved on, but the knowledge is still there. It’s fascinating to be able to identify the birds you see or hear. Different parts of the world have different birds but there are always overlaps due to migration. Sometimes I record bird sounds on my phone and they end up feeding into my work in one way or the other.

Spur-winged lapwing, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.
Cormorant, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.
Hoopoe, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.
Eurasian Jay, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.
Westen Reef Egert, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.
White Wagtail, 2008. Image by Basim Magdy with image courtesy of the artist.

LŠ: Your father’s work in botanical illustration was also an influence.

BM: Yes, that was another thing. My father studied agronomy but he was also an artist. So, he had a day job, which involved his field of study. But as he was also an artist and he merged both whenever he was asked by botanists to do illustrations for their books. He had the botanical knowledge to understand what he was drawing and he also had the skills to draw. At some point, he was the only botanical illustrator in the Arab-speaking world and he was commissioned to illustrate botanical books that covered the whole region; such as The Weed Flora of Egypt, Weed Flora of Kuwait, Medicinal Plants of North Africa, Street Trees in Egypt and many more.

A big part of my childhood was watching my father illustrate plant details while surrounded by stacks of labelled pressed plants. I learned that there’s a scientific way of structuring and presenting this kind of knowledge with Latin names, common names, and detailed measurements and naturally the scale is very important. He would patiently draw detailed illustrations with a very fine 0.1 millimetre ink pen while listening to classical and experimental music. This whole experience was extremely fascinating for me. That’s where my curiosity began. I started making my botanical illustrations and I had an unexplainable obsession with cacti and succulents. I think at some point I grew and cared for 77 different kinds of cacti. Cactus flowers are probably the most beautiful flowers on the planet, extremely colorful. I spent hours staring at them and drawing them.

Botanical illustration by Magdy El- Gohary for the book Medical Plants of Loutfy Boulos. Image copyright by Magdy El-Gohary and image courtesy of his son, Basim Magdy.
Botanical illustration by Magdy El- Gohary for the book Medical Plants of Loutfy Boulos. Image copyright by Magdy El-Gohary and image courtesy of his son, Basim Magdy.
Botanical illustration by Magdy El- Gohary for the book Medical Plants of Loutfy Boulos. Image copyright by Magdy El-Gohary and image courtesy of his son, Basim Magdy.
Botanical illustration by Magdy El- Gohary for the book Medical Plants of Loutfy Boulos. Image copyright by Magdy El-Gohary and image courtesy of his son, Basim Magdy.

LŠ: Speaking of curiosity, I wanted to revisit your fishing days in Egypt.

BM: I grew up in a city called Asyut in the centre of Egypt, that’s right on the Nile. It’s also where the longest man-made canal in Egypt is. The Ibrahimia Canal sprouts from the Nile and I used to go fishing with my friends exactly at this spot. I also had a fish tank at home. Most of the times I went fishing with a rod but sometimes I would go with a net and some of these adventures ended very badly for the fish because of course, there are kinds of fish that are not meant to be in a fish tank.

Almost every time I would catch a different kind of Tilapia and I would keep them in my fish tank.  I gave them names and for some reason, they all had the same name, Trotsky, one after the other. So, they were Trotsky 1, Trotsky 2, Trotsky 3, and so on. Most of them lived long and I had long imaginary conversations with them, where I would look like I’m talking to myself but still believed they responded. I had a plant pot on the balcony, where I buried them once they died and they were buried on top of each other. It wasn’t great that I was capturing them and keeping them in captivity but now I understand that for a child before the Internet, this was fuelled by that curiosity.

I learned a lot through watching the world around me, it was part of my attempt to understand the world I was surrounded by and growing up in. I think this is part of what made me an artist. The main purpose of what I do as an artist is to try to communicate things that I can’t communicate in words. A lot of the things that we have in our minds, we can’t articulate. And somehow the curiosity about the natural world that was around me as a kid contributed to the realization that there’s so much that we don’t have to articulate but we can just appreciate and try to communicate in a different way.