Interview with Sabrina Mahfouz

DM: I’m going to ask you first and foremost, why do you do art?

SABRINA-MAHFOUZ-facebookSB: Well, I tried a lot of stuff. I was a bit of a serial careerist, and what you were saying about being encouraged to find a vocation as soon as you left university; I think that was definitely beginning whilst I was there. So I did an MA, just to delay the fact of having to decide that, in International Politics and Diplomacy. Whilst I was doing that, I applied to work at the government on a fast-stream, fast track civil service graduate programme, which I got. I started to work there whilst doing the second year of my MA in the evenings. So that was my first proper attempt at a career, though before that I’d worked all through university. I’d worked in nightclubs, strip clubs, bars, shops and events and all that kind of stuff so I had considered doing that more professionally, like management in those areas. And then along the way somewhere, I think it was around the time when I was at a training camp for the Ministry of Defence, where I was working at the time. This soldier who was giving us a little speech, put on a video with their tanks, being really happy about it, with the soundtrack of ‘When Two Tribes go to War’ in the background. And I just thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I do not want to be part of this so soon after that I left. It’s also because I’m half Egyptian, and you can’t have a non-European non-friendly passport and work at top secret level, which is where I would have had to work to continue on that career path. So, I started doing some journalism bits and then all the editors were saying to me, ‘Can you make it a bit less poetic?’ I never really thought of my writing as poetic. I used to do writing as a kid, then I stopped when I was about 14. I studied English Literature at uni so I was studying poems but I wasn’t writing them. And then one of those comments just made me think actually maybe I want to write poems so that’s what I started doing. It was the first thing I did that didn’t feel like I was pretending. So I thought after all these jobs and the roles I’ve worked in, to find something that you feel like you don’t really care if nobody gives you an appraisal, you’re just going to do it anyway. Whereas, at the other jobs, you were just constantly doing things to make sure your boss was happy or make sure you would be in line for promotion or a bigger tip or whatever. And with this, at the time – I think that did change – but at the time, at the beginning it was like, “I need to do this”. So I guess I did art because I had done so much other stuff and art was the thing that felt the most comfortable and the most real. I guess I do art now in a much more complicated way because it’s become my full-time professional career so it feels a little bit like I do it because it is my job sometimes. But, I never stop doing it. So at the same time I know that’s it not just because it’s my job. Because even when I’m working on things that nobody’s commissioned and hasn’t got anything to do with any sort of paid work, I would still sit up all night and read about that thing, and then get excited and write about it and make notes on my phone wherever I am, about that thing. I don’t think I would be able to not do it anymore, even if there’s no money and everyone said, “right that’s it, it’s over”. I’d still do it; I’d just do it myself.

DM: Just to explore that a bit more, what motivates you to do it everyday? If it’s not about the money, what is it about?

SM: I think it’s about questioning because I just question everything so much in my head that it gets quite tiring. And to question things through a tangible medium, whether that’s writing, taking photos, or making diagrams, or whatever it is, that might eventually become something that could be called art. It lessens the stress of the questions in my head I suppose. I just see stories everywhere and I get upset to think that nobody will have that story to hear, or to see, or feel. I think sometimes, in this country anyway, because there is so much of a certain type of story told, I feel quite a severe drive to tell my side of that story. Sometimes it might not work out, maybe I’m just telling the same stories as everyone else but that initial drive comes from that opposition. I don’t want to exist only in opposition, like I don’t want to tell this story to only be in opposition to your story. It’s not just that, but an element of some particular things.

DM: How do you sustain it? How do you keep going? It sounds exhausting!

SM: Ha yeah! I think it is really exhausting. I know some people are really into it in the moment of creating and that’s what sustains them – they’re just waiting to get into that moment where they’re actually typing or drawing or whatever. Whereas for me, that moment is not something that I particularly look forward to. It’s much more about the research, I don’t plan that much but I research a lot, I write a lot of notes, I think about characters and situations a lot. The constant intrigue in that keeps me going. Then when it gets to the actual writing, the only thing that keeps me going a lot of the time is the deadline because I find the actual writing quite difficult. And then when it is actually written, then what keeps me going is the thought of seeing if people can see what I’ve been trying to do. If it’s going to inspire any body. If it’s going to do anything. And if it doesn’t, sometimes I don’t mind if I’ve just written it and I want to write it.

DM: Tell me about reflecting on your practice. How do you reflect on what you’ve done?

SM: I’m really bad at that. I think that it’s something that people – if you didn’t do art courses at university or you weren’t trained in it – don’t necessarily learn that. I don’t know if it comes naturally to reflect on your work. Maybe it does. I’ve just got so many projects, that when one’s finished, it feels like now all my mind energy has to go on the next one now because it’s been simmering away and I’ve felt it there but I haven’t been able to pay it that much attention. So now that one’s sort of finished, I’ve just got to get it out, put it in the pot and start cooking it. So the reflection on the previous thing gets lost a bit. But I would like to do that more. I’m not sure how to do that, so maybe I’ll learn that from your website!

DM: Maybe it’s about doing less and maybe if that’s not feasible it will become more feasible in the future. It’s good to hear you recognize the importance of it, but pragmatically I can understand how difficult that might be.

SM: But I think it’s probably a psychological thing because I’m not massively comfortable with the fact of being an artist. In my other work, when I’ve worked in offices and stuff like that, reflection on what you’ve done was just so standard. Maybe it’s because things are so personal that to reflect on what you’ve done just seems really draining because you’re not just reflecting on your work, you have to then reflect on yourself as well in a way, that you don’t have to in other jobs potentially. So there might be some sort of block there that I do on purpose and that I just go to the next project and not have to think about it. But yeah I’ll address that.

DM: To what extent are other people important in your practice?

SM: Really important – I don’t really work on anything on my own any more. Even poems – that used to be quite a solitary thing, though always drawn from the characters around me. Now it feels like they come out of collaborative projects whether that’s with a theatre group, or a group of school children, or other artists. Everything seems to stem from collaboration now. I feel confident enough in my own ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily need other people to tell me that they want to work on it for me to do it, I’d just do it anyway. But it’s just so much better to have different minds working on things and different points of view. There’s something very romantic about being that kind of artist who just stays in their studio or their room or whatever and doesn’t get input or collaborate with anybody. Maybe if I do a novel that would be one of those times when that would happen. With theatre, that’s impossible to do that on your own.

DM: And how do you collaborate with people? Can you give me a flavour of what that means?

SM: In the extreme case, I’m just doing a project with the National Theatre of China. There’s a Chinese playwright, an Israeli playwright, me, a dramaturge, a movement director and some other people. We’ve all sat in a room with loads of translators – very stressful! – and attempted to collaborate on writing a piece from scratch from improvisation with five actors who are also involved. That’s just complete collaboration because no one’s really in charge, everyone’s trying to work together. That’s really difficult because unless you’re all really clear about what you want to write about or what story you’re trying to tell, that kind of collaboration to that extent can be a little bit counter-productive. But the show I’m doing for Edinburgh for example, I’ve pretty much done all the writing. I’ve had no dramaturge, no feedback really apart from the director of it. But that’s more of a production collaboration I suppose.

DM: What difference does having an audience make to your work?

SM: Well, it doesn’t exist without an audience I guess. I don’t know if anything exists without an audience. I guess visual art, if it’s hanging there and there’s no one looking at it, it’s still a work of art. But if a theatre piece is happening and nobody is watching it, I guess it’s still is a theatre piece, just quite a sad one.

DM: Are you writing with an audience in mind?

SM: Yeah, sometimes. It depends so much on the project. If I’ve been specifically commissioned, and it’s for a festival or an event and you know it’s quite light-hearted or it’s addressing a particular issue, it’s difficult not to take the audience into consideration because they’re coming with that expectation that it will be fulfilling those things. That’s why doing the Sky Arts project with this show I’m doing in Edinburgh was so amazing because it made me realize how much I’ve had audiences in mind and so because of this I didn’t. I just wrote what I wanted to write, in the same way as the first thing I’d ever written – I’d never had a big audience before so I’d didn’t really have them in mind. Audiences are always there but not in an oppressive way. I don’t allow it to control everything. Like TV people always say that has to be your number one concern, if you’re doing one of those American shows, you’ve got 10 million people watching. Every single word has to be whether you’re bothered about it or not. I think you get a bit more choosy with theatre, which is good because you can’t possibly write for every audience member. There’s going to be some people who don’t like stuff. But poems I think, that’s a funny one, because some poems I definitely don’t write with an audience in mind at all. And others, especially the more humorous ones, I would think of an audience and think, they’ll get bored now so I should switch it to this. Whereas I could potentially write about that thing and not be bored about it but I think the audience would be.

DM: The final question I have is what would you say to somebody who was not an artist who was thinking about doing something creative?

SM: Definitely do it. Don’t have the expectation that you’ll be doing it for money. I worked for four years full-time on art and the whole time I had a night job in order to make that sustainable. And that’s literally four years of full-time work that had absolutely no way of financially enabling my life. That’s the reality of it. That’s doing work that wasn’t completely on the outskirts; it was with good people and stuff like that. Even then, it’s not a financial thing. But yeah if you don’t do it, then it will definitely be one of the biggest regrets of your life so you might as well.

DM: That’s brilliant, a great way to end the interview. Thank you.

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