In a time when there is much talk about globalization and glocal art, roots as well as routes, about meanings getting lost but also found in translation, it is inspiring to see how the encounter of two female artists results in a close relationship with a lot of effects on both their work. Ellen Ligteringen from Suriname and Rehab el Sadek from Egypt share their stories with the readers of this blog.
Rehab and me
On January 13 2001, two new participants showed up at the first VASL¹ International Artists Workshop, at Gadani in Pakistan, in the desert near the Arabic Sea. The midday sun blazed overhead as their silhouettes appeared against the backdrop of a blue watery sky. The participants were checked over by armed guards as they arrived. One of them was Rehab El Sadek.
Rehab was cranky. We shook hands.
Twenty mid-career artists had been brought together for three weeks to create new work, talk about their work, and exchange ideas about contemporary art practice. Rehab was preparing herself to make a strong artistic statement and I was fighting with the need of an object to carry the concept.
During the first two weeks Rehab made portraits of the other participants. She also made drawings with coins and mumbled that she was not convinced about the work she was doing, or that of the other participants. We had that in common—being honest about the work we were making and what we wanted to say, and not wanting to leave ourselves out of the work.
For two days Rehab left Gadani and went to Karachi, where she bought supplies. Happily, she came back and made her “trouser” piece, a statement about the position and rights of women in societies like Egypt and Pakistan, as well as her anger over being “locked up” in the residency.
From then we became not just friends, but soul sisters. I discovered that her crankiness was merely a thin layer atop a great sense of humour.
In September of that year I went to Cairo to visit Rehab and her family. Then in 2004 Rehab came to Amsterdam for an artist-in-residency programme. That year we both stepped away from the masculine art industry. At the time the Egyptian art scene was ruled by a Eurocentric view of how contemporary art had to be. Despite the efforts of foundations like the Prince Claus Fund to stimulate young artists outside of Europe to be independent-minded, things worked out the opposite way. The artists began shaping themselves in a European mould. They became artists-on-demand. Rehab did not want to be forced to make that kind of contemporary art. And I left my over-subsidized, controlled life in the Netherlands for Suriname, to practice art without a strait-jacket.
In 2005 Rehab moved to the USA with her husband and son. Our friendship evolved through the possibilities of the internet. Our lives and work are much more interwoven. Women’s rights and telling women’s stories are still the backbone of Rehab’s work, but now the work speaks more about how she deals with domestic life and living in a foreign country. My work became a tool to understand an environment that was both mentally familiar and strange to me at the same time; a way of starting an ongoing dialogue.
Rehab and I are not “hardcore” artists anymore. That gives me the freedom to create anything, outside of conventions; most of the time the work has no evidence at all.
Rehab and I meet in the digital world to reflect on our work. It is amazing how we understand and are able to read each other’s work. Having direct, daily contact via Skype as well as broadcasting our thoughts via Facebook for an audience of friends is very inspiring. It is helping us to elicit more ideas about practicing art in a domestic environment, and the meaning and nature of locality.
Ellen and me
I met Ellen in Pakistan in 2001. I noticed how emotional and childlike she was from far away. We talked a lot during our time at Gadani and we slowly grew to enjoy spending most of the time together. Of the twenty artists locked in one place, Ellen was pretty much the only real one. We were laughing, eating like pigs and chasing ants. I listened to her stories and she listened to mine.
So many things made us close. I remember how when I borrowed her camera and it was stolen, Ellen refused to take the money I offered her to buy a new one. (We were definitely friends from then on!) Later, when we went to Karachi, Ellen wanted to change her ticket to an earlier date. On our way downtown we shared the most terrifying expedience—beggars carrying handicapped babies around our car. We both were choked up about the whole thing and held each other to feel secure. We’ve kept holding on to each other ever since.
I trust Ellen more than anyone. I feel like she is my daughter and my mom. When we were in Pakistan I came down with a horrible case of food poisoning. The other artists couldn’t care less and went shopping; Ellen was the only one who was there for me. I remember waking up in the hospital and there she was, sitting at the end of my bed. Since then I have felt that Ellen is part of me.
In September Ellen came to Egypt to visit me and we had wonderful time and all my family loved her as much as I do … Later when I traveled to Holland she was preparing to move to Suriname. I saw that she was miserable in Holland, out of place. Around this time I got married and less than a year later I had my son. We moved to the United States. I was so miserable and I knew then how Ellen had felt in Holland. I fell into a deep depression and was also suffering from serious physical problems. I was in pain 24/7. Ellen could not help as she was battling with her own demons. I blamed her for not being there. But I never thought that she did not care.
Years went by. I made a big decision to move back to Alexandria with my son try to find my lost self. One day I was riding home in the bus when my cell phone rang. It was Ellen! I cannot describe how I felt that day. I was lost, and she helped me find myself. We talked about life and I started to see things differently. I cannot imagine life without us laughing and making dirty jokes. We talk about everything. We Skype all the time. Now I am back in the States, struggling with life and loving my little family—and Ellen is a big part of it!
¹ VASL (which means “to come together” or “a meeting point”) is an artists’-led collective that has been running workshops and residencies in Karachi, Pakistan.
This is an additional website mentioning Rehab el Sadek.