We spoke with Isra Abdou, an incredibly talented German artist, daughter of Egyptian immigrants, and a force to watch in the Berlin art scene. What makes Isra different from other artists in the city? She’s Muslim, hijabi, proud of her heritage, and not afraid to push the socio-political boundaries of the art world that the patriarchy has created.
Please tell our readers about your background and upbringing. Where did
you grow up?
I was born in Berlin, Germany in 1995, but my parents are Egyptian. I wouldn’t say I’m a German or Egyptian. I’m more like a German with an Egyptian mind.
When and why did you become an artist and photographer?
I was always a kid who liked to build things with my hands. Drawing and painting were two very important things for me.
When I went to university, I started to grow interested in installation art and photography. These are two new languages that I have learned to help me translate the ideas in my mind for other people.
What’s your favorite piece of art or series you’ve created?
My favorite work is my “No Reflection” mirror from 2017. That was my first big project. The art tells about people who are not understood and no longer have a mirror image.
At the same time, these people reflect light and no image, so the whole room is lit. This work gave me strength and showed that I can also build complex things and ideas.
Where does your inspiration come from and who is your biggest role
I am inspired by many things and people. I always take down notes immediately when I think of something small, but special. My biggest role model has always been my mom.
Do you have any special projects that you’re working on?
I have just completed a very large photo project “REDA“, where I photographed women wearing Islamic head-coverings, which are transparent; they only hinted at concealment. Now I want to devote myself to smaller Photoshop projects.
Your photos tell incredible stories. What’s the most challenging, and the
most rewarding part, about capturing these stories?
The most challenging part of my work is it to translate my ideas into words, so that people know what I mean to say. It’s very easy to create a picture, to work on a idea, and to post or share stuff. I find that the hardest part is to step back and just say something about the art you actually created.
The alt-right has been very vocal in Germany the past year or so. How do
you feel about the socio-political climate in Berlin? Is it sometimes
difficult for you as a Muslim woman who wears hijab?
Some people think I am anti-feminism and stupid because I am a hijabi. As you can see in the image above, there are flowers growing out of my mind/hijab to show the beauty and knowledge of hijabi women. This is a simple, but important message to me.
It has always been difficult to wear a hijab in Berlin. There are a lot of friendly people, but all these alt-right politicians are making it very challenging for me to find a simple job as a teacher, because hijabs are not allowed in such positions.
They think I cannot be [politically] neutral as a hijabi. That’s why I might have to leave the city of Berlin, because an employer in Cologne, for example, would hire me. The law in Cologne says it is not legal to not hire a woman because she wears a religious symbol.
What’s your favorite place to visit in the MENA region and what kind of
art do you find most appealing there?
I’m totally in love with Cairo. I miss all of the small old streets, nice people, food, the cats, driving home at night with all the lights and signs, the smell, and all of the strange noises. The most appealing art is the history of the city.
It’s amazing to see how people dealt with all these old places over the past centuries. For example, in all of the crazy markets there are people are selling tech things, Western fast food, cheap rubbish and even cheaper art prints. It is really interesting to reflect on the paradox of someone selling glowing lollipops or neon belly dancing dresses, where maybe a past king rode by in his golden carriage with his butlers.
Your work often focuses on women and feminism. Is this very important
to you? Can women feel empowered by creating art?
Yes, it is important. In my university we almost always talk about Western men. Women, and especially women of color, are often ignored. I think it’s very important to show that we can create art and use it to empower one another.
Besides your art, what are other ways you like to express yourself
creatively (through fashion, cooking, travel, etc.)?
I just asked my sister. She said: “You’re doing art, you eat, and you sleep. Thats all and maybe enough.”
Do you have anything you would like to add–a final comment, quote, or
Sometimes you need to become your family’s disappointment, by dropping out of architecture school in order to become something bigger than you were before.
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