A Conversation with Hend Samir

In part two of Cognitions, Metahaven talk with the artist Hend Samir about her work, its entanglements, and art after AI.

Text Metahaven
Published 11 Dec 2023

We first met Hend Samir while she was a resident at Rijksakademie. The focus of our conversations ranged from how figuration and abstraction combine in her paintings—although we did not use quite these terms, and her work seems designed to defy these categories—to the necessity of maintaining a research-oriented painting practice whilst facing the art market. Since we last spoke, several of Samir’s works have appeared in museum collections, including the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. With Cairo-based Gypsum Gallery, Samir participated in Art Basel 2023. The conversation below took place over email from 2022 onwards and was concluded in August 2023.

Samir’s paintings range from relatively small to mural-sized. Figures and shapes emerge from wavelike patterning, making the paintings feel like oceanic movements or volcanic pits from which likenesses, events, and stories are being born, or into which they are being dreamt. The waveform or, glacier-form, carries the eye from one focal point to the next in a kind of rollercoaster. Some motifs, which would traditionally be called “figurative,” provide anchor points and focal zones, whereas others, belonging to the same continuous wave, transport the observer from one area to another.

With whirls of slow-moving multicolored energy carrying the eye from one place to the next, all is neither figurative nor abstract, challenging the separation that carved out both as painting genres. At the same time, the paintings reference traditional tableaux, many of them rooted in the depiction of everyday life. Small anecdotes play out within the wavelike superstructures. Often, the figures emerging from and through the glacier-like or fire-like patterns are children, about whom her paintings seem to be especially celebrational.

Samir’s work activates a thought about something it is clearly not: the AI-generated image. Artificial intelligence does not, like humans, create art directly from lived experience. It optimizes parameters in response to tokens of information, generating probabilistic interdependencies between them, and it can only do so based on vast amounts of learned data. Within AI-generated images, we often see vague or undecidable areas between more clearly pictorial or figurative elements. Seemingly these are areas where the AI was not sure what to show, or where one set of parameters was bridging to the next, with ambiguous, gradient zones accounting for a “fluid” transition from one to the other. It is these areas in AI images, flickering with fuzzy uncertainty, that Samir’s paintings made us think of, though they and the AI share no common denominator with one another, especially ethically. Samir’s work, to us at least, provides a kind of hand-processed reality check to these digital visions. If AI-generated images are characterized by a lack of embodied, material poetics, Samir’s work presents the opposite. It’s almost like a physical AI made them, feeling specifically through each depicted scene. In his 2022 book Objections: Forms of Abstraction, Vol. 1., the art historian Sven Lütticken proposes that “[w]orks of visual art tend to be concrete things, yet they have invisible and often checkered histories. Their sensuous presence comes with barely visible strings attached.” What fascinates us about Samir’s paintings is how concretely the strings are attached. These highly physical, highly material, highly lyrical paintings invoke an element of their polar opposite contemporary: an element of computational uncertainty, of inferentiality, present in current AI.

The paintings form concrete tableaux, physical scenes, but also invoke mental states about them. These mental states take on a physical form—the wave, the glacier, the fire. This leads us to think about the relationship—or the lack thereof—that the works bear to recent trends within the categories of abstract and figurative art. Whereas Samir’s paintings completely surpass the binary between abstraction and depiction, the works retain an affinity with the latter that’s hard to miss.

In recent years, an upsurge of figurative painting has affirmed several social trends that may be seen as intimately related to our changing times. For example, it correlates to the return of art as a representative practice. Subjects depicted, in their likeness, are represented. Figurative painting may also have returned as an antidote to the uncertainty of our contemporary moment, in which abstraction is seen to cohere with subjugation to ambiguous, delocalized forces. What was the turning point, historically? Maybe the 2008 financial crisis? In the volume In the Mind But Not From There, edited by Gean Moreno, the writer Alberto Toscano muses that

it is difficult to ignore that much of the force of the Marxian matrix—when compared to contemporary discourses of abstraction, with their frequent reliance on notions of complexity and information—is based on its depiction of capitalism as the culture of abstraction par excellence, as a society that […] is often really driven by abstract entities.

Then, in the face of an ever-growing body of perceived political and environmental abstractions, from globalization to financial algorithms to climate change, figurative art would (symbolically) provide a kind of “legibility” that life itself, or the future, increasingly lacks. Other concerns come from physics. The variation of fundamental physics that adheres to our directly and optically observable reality as a dominant scientific paradigm has been considerably marginalized with the advent of relativity and quantum theories. Yet the Newtonian, the “classical,” or “macroscopic” world is still the place from where concepts of identity, position, speed, momentum, size, weight, and likeness are formed in human minds. How does art, obeying the laws of physics but not any particular picture of reality, traverse and translate these dilemmas?

If the description of the figurative-abstract space presented here is at least marginally correct, Samir’s work takes a novel turn within it, defying the binary that is still upheld by insisting on these categories. She has developed a novel poetics of painting: one that’s glowing, overflowing with inferential lyricality. A substrate-dependent way of being about concrete uncertainties, rendered as scenes: anecdotes, stories, songs, events, and acts—recursively including the acts of painting.

Hend Samir, Hula Hoop Labyrinth, acrylic on canvas, 45 x 55.5 cm, 2018. Courtesy the artist

Metahaven: We see a three-dimensional setting of children swinging hula-hoops. It is flattened, extended, filling the two-dimensional frame so that the viewer begins to infer a causal chain or connection between the hula-hooping children, in which they become something of a single entity, or festive dragon, or indeed a labyrinth. There is a bifurcating line of figures splitting on the bottom of the painting, or directly in front of the viewer. This painting seems to speak clearly of something that art-historically would be deemed “abstract” (geometric) together with something that (in the same system) would be called “figurative,” yet essentially, like much of your work, defies these categories altogether. What is the feeling you get from this painting? What was, so to say, “behind” this living labyrinth?

Hend Samir: I painted this work in our family home in Giza back in 2018. I came across a kindergarten photo on the internet of three children with a teacher walking in a queue in a classroom, each of them stretching their hands to hold the hula hoop of the other kid in front of them. It was intriguing, as I immediately knew that they had been guided into playing in this exhausting and funny, but certainly not laughable way. The hula hoop, a very amusing and joyful tool, together with the energy of children that could not be contained by a family or authoritarian institution, transformed into a circular cage as they walked simultaneously forward and inside it in a sequence. By observing such conformity in an institutional environment, I imagined a reiteration of the same traumatic scenario with a multiplied number of kids with lost gazes in the form of a labyrinth contained in metaphysical space.

MH: Could you speak to your interest in the role of the family in Egypt, and how it has informed your work?

HS: It started from a personal perspective, through observing the surrounding environment. From there, I realized the power of social rules and moral values is very much a culture constructed from these family-oriented environments. I didn’t want to just create a sort of diary that is a reflection of my personal experience, but rather see the larger picture, which is informed by the prevalence of the internet and the speed of information exchange. I was interested in the way that new generations express themselves despite the threat of being exposed, which could be scandalous, revealing the contradictions and secrets that stoke people’s curiosity. So I began creating fragmented narratives that sometimes directly show imaginary ceremonial rituals that need an audience. Like in Flickering by the Lotus Pond, a painting that is an extension of this series that I started in 2016. These new worlds inside the painting also make me feel legitimately powerful. So before I started painting I created a digital sketch of cutouts of different images. My idea was very structured and articulated and later it became the main reference for the painting. I might go back to the digital references that I used in this painting, if I felt so, but I don’t follow a consistent strategy and make a grand plan each time before I paint.

Hend Samir, A Disruptive Impulse, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 120 cm, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Harkawik Gallery

MH: In A Disruptive Impulse, the coloration present in some of your other works has been reduced to blacks, whites, and grays, giving the impression that we are dealing, somehow, with a memory of a black-and-white image that invites us to explore time. There appears to be a house or domestic setting, overflown by a figure gazing down, with a hand extending and a friendly, dreamy, solemn expression. But all this emerges out of and in between patterns—wavy, jagged, disruptive, and downpouring. The painting seems to give us some coordinates to imagine a story and, most of all, a spatial hierarchy, and we infer the kindness of the figure, but we are just short of information, perhaps purposefully. Can you talk about this painting?

HS: The construction and layering of this painting was different in the way I responded to its demands. I started with one precise decision, which was to use abstract blacks and whites. Later on, I make what is invisible more visible. What could at the outset be just one eye could perhaps later become a whole face, leading to a singular figure. In this method there is a kind of sequence and a sense of time. I saw him or her jumping out of the void and crushing an empty or abandoned home, creating some sort of interrelation between what is inside and outside. But this time, as you said, the “spatial hierarchy” is rather in what is above and what is below. I saw it as a theatrical play in which an extracted individual body is no longer subordinated to the logic of a familial atmosphere or space.

MH: How would you speak about a painting’s demands? Would this be the internal rules or requirements set out by its process? Are such demands clear at the beginning, or do they unfold during making?

HS: I mainly start the painting by selecting and preparing the colors that I feel I want to use. I don’t necessarily choose what I want to paint yet. Then, I start with abstract backgrounds that could later become an open landscape, or something that has an architectural element. Starting this way is a way to lose my attachment to a self-narrative and build momentum in the absence of obstacles, and to be open to what is yet to come. Then there is another stage that demands looking and finding open possibilities. Like a recognizable barrier, or a portal, or an open door leading to an open space. But, for instance, when I decide that this is going to be a room I don’t think of it as just a space; it could also be a carrier room that is in constant movement, being displaced while someone is static there or being transported. Then I add other layers. With that, I crack it open so I see an emerging figure, after which I become open to possibilities on how to go further. I can either go to my references archive, or maybe make a sketch or a digital collage of cutouts of pictures that resonate, or refer to a print that will later be my reference for the next step. Sometimes I don't end up using any of these.

Hend Samir, A Turbulent Building, acrylic on canvas, 140 x 170 cm, 2020. Courtesy the artist

MH: Set in hues of black, white, grey, and hot pink, A Turbulent Building shows the worked-open side view of a house with many rooms and many people doing many things in it, as the title indicates, exploring, in a manner that defies scale (despite it being a scaled-down building), variations of human intimacy. The pink itself seems to hand us that subject matter without being literal or descriptive. It’s dark and lyrical (to us). Again, there are ways in which sudden abstract, gradient incidents, enlargements, or scalar mix-ups work to unsettle the picture becoming “still,” enticing the viewer to keep gazing, and realizing that they are, indeed, watching a liveness of intimacy. This painting could be a picture but also a summary of a dream. How do you relate to it?

HS: I painted this work during the pandemic in 2020, and I had very mixed emotions at the time towards these sorts of gatherings. I was working within the form of a cutout of a building, and it became abstract, while at the same time, there were scattered remnants of familiar memories that I thought would never be the same again. Looking at it drew me into a kind of a dream state, but it wasn’t a dream that I necessarily had. It’s filmic, like stories that we see come together cyclically, in various stages or actions, or a narrative climax. I wanted to show all the memories that give a sense of absence, isolation, alienation, festivity, loneliness, as well as empty rooms and taboo sex, all coexisting in the same space.

MH: So indeed, you are saying that this painting may be read as a succession of events happening to the same protagonist(s) brought into a single frame and moment, as if we are watching all scenes from a film at the same time in a kind of tableau, right? We would love to ask you about something that draws you, as an artist, to complicating perception in these intricate ways. (We initially wrote “depiction” instead of “perception,” but found that word lacking a bit.) So, what draws you to complicate perception, even further than it already is complicated?

HS: I think of a painting as opposed to words, because finding words is quite difficult and requires different sensors, maybe. I also created a few videos, and the process for me was similar to making a painting in the sense that it had this filmic quality, everything was staged with performative actions. Making an image is a way to get into my imagination and to understand things and experiences and emotions and reflect them into new worlds. I think the role of my paintings would be motivating a proliferation of interpretations in the form of an open narrative, rather than just one clear assumption. It is related to the way we seek knowledge and how we observe certain phenomena and events in life that we don’t fully understand the cause of. But the truth for me would be how I see others and myself, how I actually feel about the painting. And in all ways I would want it to keep us wanting to discover more. Any of the figures appear individual in relation to the collective, going through these episodic events while the others are disappearing, sometimes pushing the anonymous protagonists into more secrecy, feeding the cycle of curiosity.

Hend Samir, Hide and Seek, acrylic on canvas, 195.5 x 513 cm, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Harkawik gallery

MH: Hide and Seek, unlike some of the earlier works, is more than 5 meters wide and spans an enormous, immersive space akin almost to a movie screen. In our previous exchanges, we have discussed scaling and space, but we have not yet talked about size. From our perspective, this work refuses any commodification, especially when seen against the backdrop of the collectors’ art market. Can you speak to the act(s) of creating this work?

HS: The size format was a way to have more physical space to make the large extended brushstrokes that I love. Having it in the panoramic format gave me the chance to create an open scene across non-contiguous space-times. Before painting Hide and Seek, I started by gathering and stitching together images of interior spaces, like a bedroom or a living room opened to a balcony, and inside there was a room with a desk. Then you find a wall in between, and then another room with a bed, and at the end a circular carousel. I stitched these cutouts together and started looking at their dimensional perspective. While painting, I made another form out of it and I started following the new direction, following the spaces emerging. When I found out that I didn’t need this carousel anymore, I let it become a pond. Then I wanted to paint children and maybe a fish jumping out of the pond. That is what I see, and what I am going to give importance to and target. I didn’t know how it would work out or change, but it made sense and it became itself like a playground, just like outside the painting of hiding and seeking. But I consider all this image-thought to be like a few clues, like in a musical note to perform smooth or fast on the keyboard of a piano. I see painting as a whole as rhythmic or musical. And so it is about me applying a dynamic variety and energy to the act of painting itself.

This is the second installment in Metahaven's Cognitions series. Read the first here.

The cover images for this article are taken from Hend Samir’s Water Gun Game, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 40 cm, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Harkawik Gallery.

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