“I would like to change the way people view things”
Egyptian artist and art historian Heba Y. Amin is writing her doctoral thesis at Freie Universität while already teaching as a professor at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart
Nov 16, 2021
In 2013 a stork arrested as a spy in Egypt caused a strange news story. A fisherman had caught the migratory bird, which had a suspicious device attached to its back, and handed it over to the authorities. They suspected that enemies of the country or terrorists were using the stork for military reconnaissance. When they found out that it was a GPS tracking device attached by Hungarian scientists who wanted to record the bird’s journey, the Egyptian authorities let the bird go. After it was released from police custody in Egypt, residents caught the stork and ate it.
Heba Y. Amin uses this seemingly strange incident as an introduction to a complex topic. A visual artist, who is currently the recipient of a doctoral scholarship in art history at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies at Freie Universität, Amin also took up a professorship at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart in April 2021. A doctoral student who is already a professor – that has probably never happened before in the history of Freie Universität.
Via a DAAD Scholarship to Berlin
Heba Y. Amin was born in Cairo in 1980. She studied painting in the United States, but has not painted for a long time. In exhibitions she shows photographs, videos, archive material, and cross-media installations. She gained worldwide attention in 2015 when, in an act of artistic sabotage, she smuggled subversive graffiti messages into the backdrop of the Homeland television series in order to criticize the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims.
Heba Y. Amin came to Berlin, where she has been living since 2010, on a research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Since then she has exhibited at the 10th Berlin Biennale and the 15th Istanbul Biennale, among others. “I have pursued two career paths at the same time, one as an artist and one as a scholar; both are precarious,” says Heba Y. Amin. “There’s a lot of overlap between the two areas, and I’ve always combined the two.”
Her Research Influences Her Art
Heba Y. Amin points out that with her art and exhibitions, she reaches people outside of universities. Conversely, her academic career gives her recognition from which she also benefits as an artist. “I can substantiate my work with scholarly publications. People take things like that seriously,” she says and laughs.
The research that she is doing for her doctorate is essentially the same that flows into her art. “Because my artistic work is so research-intensive, it made sense to me at some point to apply for a doctoral scholarship and continue my research as part of a dissertation because I was doing the research anyway.”
Heba Y. Amin mainly became aware of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies through the intercultural and interdisciplinary art history professor Wendy Shaw, who is supervising her dissertation. Ms. Amin deals with the question of how technology, which is always embedded within a structure of power, creates images and representations of the Middle East. How, for example, have cartographic raster methods, aerial reconnaissance, and drone imaging shaped the landscape?
“I aim to change the unquestioned viewing habits with which most people look at history and to offer other perspectives, especially when it comes to how the Global South is represented,” says Amin, the artist.
In her work “The General’s Stork” (which led to the publication of a book in 2020), she tells the story of the unfortunate stork and with it the story of Egypt after the revolution of 2011. A stork is mistaken for a spy, something that is only possible in this climate of extreme political tension. At the same time, through the stork, she tells the story of a region that, even before World War I, became one of the first locations where Western nations tried out war from the air. The landscape has been shaped by different stages of colonization, says Amin, the scholar.
Heba Y. Amin’s interest in subversive tactics is also evident in her work “Project Speak2Tweet.” For the project, she collected voice messages that were recorded during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. “Please hold up the flag for me when I’m gone,” said a protester in Arabic as he entered Tahir Square in Cairo without knowing whether he would return.
Countless such monologues arose after the Egyptian government blocked access to the Internet in January 2011, aiming to stifle the protest organized via social media. But Speak2Tweet quickly emerged as a platform that could be used to post messages as voicemail on Twitter and that was used by thousands. Heba Y. Amin’s installations became a monument to this time of upheaval and change.
During the past summer semester Heba Amin taught a course at the Art Academy in Stuttgart via video chat entitled “Speculative Futures.” This course also dealt with the changeability of history. However, Ms. Amin does not only want to sensitize her students to the blind spots of Eurocentric art and scholarship. She says, “It is particularly important to me to encourage my students to really think about the violence that is inscribed in the tools they use to create art.”
This article originally appeared in German on October 15, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.