In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast my guest is Nada Elkalaawy, an Egyptian visual artist whose personal history is her primary work material dealing with loss, traces of memories and fiction.
“Ever since I could write I was drawing”, says Nada, “My family are all medics and in the back of my head I thought maybe I should be a doctor, but then I realised I hated blood.” In high school she knew she wanted to do something related to art but wasn’t aware what an artist actually was, so she ended up going on to study architecture for her first year of university. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be an artist”, she says, and then transferred to fine art, knowing that she wanted to be a painter all along.
Much of Nada’s work touches on her personal history, moving between the UK and Egypt. “It all started with me trying to understand my identity”, she says, “It’s still evident in the work, it will always be in the work.” That said, she explains that it was more obvious when she first started painting. “I realised what I’m mostly interested in is storytelling”, she says, “I don’t think it’s necessarily just my story.”
Nada takes many references from photographs, whether they be family snapshots or otherwise. “I’m very interested in people”, she says, “There is a sense of realism to the figures.” And, in the process of painting, those people become characters. “Sometimes it is a mix of so many people in one person”, she says, “I’m not trying to copy how that person looks exactly.”
So where does loss come into Nada’s work? “It could be loss of time, of a specific memory, of a person”, she says, “It’s just loss in general.” Rather than sadness though, Nada describes a sense of the bittersweet in her images. “I’m blurring the line between what’s real and what’s fictional”, she explains, “It’s like photographs. They are quite staged. It doesn’t have to be a true representation of what’s behind the camera.”
Recently she spent time in her hometown of Alexandria for a residency, which she describes as being great for her work. Instead of making work about longing, she was making work about being in a place physically. “I found myself making work mainly about the beach”, she says, “It’s the place where I felt most at home.” The experience cemented her interest in constructing a narrative which, in her words, “feels quite familiar.”
Besides painting, Nada has also made video and tapestry. “I feel like every single medium does something different”, she explains, “With painting I know what I’m doing, whereas with animation I start with one drawing and see where it will take me.” As for tapestry, she talks about the making process and how tapestry is an embodiment of time. In fact she was meant to have a residency this year in Morocco to continue working on them, but is hoping it will happen in 2021.
Now, she’s working on new paintings. And, as for the future? She has residencies in Morocco and Switzerland scheduled for next year. But for the moment, she’s enjoying being in the studio.