Interview with Sheyda Aisha Khaymaz, 2023 winner of the Rhonda A. Saad Prize | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Interview with Sheyda Aisha Khaymaz, 2023 winner of the Rhonda A. Saad Prize

Sheyda Aisha Khaymaz

Sheyda Aisha Khaymaz

  1. Can you share a little about how you became interested in thinking about Hurufiyya alongside Amazighism? 

My interest in Hurufiyya came about in an unconventional, backwards, as it were, manner. My doctoral dissertation centers on the use of the Tifinagh script not solely as a plastic element but also as a mode of resistance against the linguistic ideologies upheld by postcolonial nation-states across the region more accurately known as Tamazgha. I ironically used the term “backwards” because while there have been systematic studies on the use of Arabic letters in abstract painting, studies on the utilization of Tifinagh letterforms in a similar manner have been virtually absent. I, therefore, began with the lamentably under-attended Tifinagh, and from there, broadened my focus to encompass the concomitant efforts in the region. Needless to say, having Nada Shabout, who has written extensively on Hurufiyya, on my dissertation and examination committee was instrumental in guiding me to this subject.

The letter—I later expand this into the sign and the symbol in my dissertation—assumed myriad purposes for both Arab and Amazigh artists. In a sense, it became a battlefield and a signifier of cultural identity crucial in decolonization efforts. This allowed both groups to negotiate the aftereffects of colonialism and seek a distinct mode of abstraction that set them apart from their European counterparts. Although my dissertation is specifically focused on Amazigh art, juxtaposing it alongside Hurufiyya has allowed me to gain a better understanding of both, as this has revealed some shared tendencies, like liberating the letter from its semantic function, as well as points of divergence stemming from individual artists’ personal stakes and cultural loyalties.

  1. In your study, you highlight the importance of one’s methodological approach towards the project of decolonizing art history, and thinking about not counter-histories but rather writing histories of cohabitation and simultaneity. What do you see as some of the differences between counter-histories and histories of cohabitation? How do the stakes differ?

While both approaches aim to challenge the dominant narratives that have been shaped by colonialism and to redress its resultant effect of marginalization, counter-histories may still be viewed as being rooted in the colonial mind and perpetuating a binary worldview. My point is simply that the dichotomous nature of counter-histories reinforces a facile “us vs. them” reasoning, which precludes more tortuous instantiations of cultural and artistic production across the region in question. I still vividly recall a lecture by diasporic poet Dionne Brand titled “Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation” that I watched some years ago. Ever since, I have been enthralled by the idea of writing towards liberation. But what does it really mean? Earlier in my doctoral process, I indeed endeavored to amplify counter-histories, with the aim of foregrounding all that is marginalized and sidelined. Because of the long and grueling periods of conquest, colonialism, and even nationalism that have effectively obscured much of the cultural production of colonized peoples, I foolheartedly saw this as a liberatory process. Well, I was wrong. As my research progressed, I began to realize that the very framework of liberation is highly codified, and the parameters of resistance are likewise shaped by the enduring cultural values of colonialism.

My work would have hardly progressed had I continued to write within this dualistic framework. This is where the stakes diverge. Both approaches, while well-intended, seek to address the suppression of histories by colonial hegemony. However, leveraging counter-histories can itself be viewed as a byproduct of colonialism. There is a risk here of projecting a self-congratulatory narrative of recovery and preventative safeguarding that can easily result in highly antagonistic, binary analyses, which are all too prevalent in canonical art historiography. Those we write about neither require our protection nor need to be rescued from a seeming threat of erasure. I cannot exaggerate enough the sheer number of times I emphasize this in my dissertation. One could of course be impelled to speak for the subaltern who cannot, as Gayatri Spivak figuratively put it, speak. Yet, this is the very framework that typically relegated Indigenous cultures to objects of study, rather than recognizing them as producers of knowledge to equal degree.

When we treat colonialism not as simply the expropriation of land, but as a process that entails the modification of cultural codes and priorities, as numerous postcolonial scholars have argued, we see that bifurcating the collective consciousness has been a longstanding colonial strategy of division. Examining histories simultaneously and foregrounding multiple, though not necessarily hierarchical, narratives allow us to break free from such colonial constraints. On the topic of simultaneity, I want to add that colonial time is experienced linearly with a type of codified forward movement, but the cultures of the colonized have often been construed as outside of this time. Arguing that certain events were happening concomitantly, in dialogue, exchange, and tandem with each other, poses a direct challenge to colonial logics. That is why, as I argued in my paper, the West and what Stuart Hall referred to as the Rest are not bifurcated spheres where the former commonly appropriates the latter, and the opposite is disdained. Rather, the West and the Rest have always existed in a network of relationality, for better or worse, as they had no choice but to relate to one another. These networks were always plural, and moved not in a unidirectional but in a multidirectional, multilinear, and crosswise manner.

  1. How do you see you your project as related to the larger field of modernism in the region?

The Western conceptualization of aesthetic modernism as an overt yet generative rupture from the so-called tradition has long since become the norm in the study of modernism. However, the notion of modernism, particularly in relation to regions outside of Europe, is itself problematic. I will spare the reader the details here, as I am confident that many are well aware that “modernism” was experienced differently across Africa and Western Asia, and was somewhat out of sync with the West. Once again, a significant portion of my dissertation attempts to unpack this vexed question of modernism, including a chapter dedicated to analyzing word definitions that are not serving our field.

Walter Mignolo, for instance, has skillfully examined the fraught relationship between modernity and tradition and arrived at the significant conclusion that both are actually colonial fabrications. The notion of “modernity” emerged at the moment of colonial encounter, and central to this process was the formulation or even invention of “tradition” and the “Orient.” Tradition, therefore, is as modern a concept as modernity, with both being manufactured by the Western imagination in opposition to one another. The writings of the Arab and Amazigh artists I have analyzed in my paper similarly imply that tradition is inherently modern, albeit requiring a reworking and a reinvigoration to capture the essence of the artists’ present moment.

The term “modernity” is also marked by a temporal dimension. In the colonial framework, as I discussed earlier, the notion of time is problematic. In my paper, when I argued that scholars must decouple Western-centric semantics from their writings, I intended to call into question the indiscriminate use of certain words, with “modernism” taking the cake. Given this, it is not my intention to situate my project within the confines of modernism. In fact, I have found it almost impossible to categorize it. My project does not seem to fit in anywhere for a good reason: it rejects the Western obsession with categorizing and refuses to be categorised. Instead, I propose a way out of the troubling and troublesome impasse of definitions by borrowing an idea from Hawad, the Kel Aïr artist, whose work I examine in my dissertation. In Houle des horizons (2011), Hawad wrote, “I am not of your clock / don’t belong / to the linear track of your time,” and concluded with the following assertion, “I am the present moment.” In my dissertation project, the term “presentness” aptly embodies an ever-flowing and evolving stream of existence that holds the full spectrum of possibility. This includes, among other things, the rights of Indigenous peoples to be simultaneously “traditional” and “modern,” if they so choose, and to refuse being confined to any preconceived categories.

  1. What are some of the challenges and rewards you faced researching this material?

Encountering a multitude of challenges, of which I have had my fair share, is often the case when attempting to locate and access archival materials from overseas. As an example, I am currently faced with the task of locating the late artist Choukri Mesli’s works on paper. Mesli, during a research trip to the USA in 1982, meticulously produced a great number of monotypes, some of which were then acquired by undisclosed private collectors in the United States. While he did bring much of these works back to Algeria, he only shared them with a select few of his closest associates. Years later, he finally exhibited them at the M’hamed Issiakhem Gallery in Algeria. However, these works seem to be enveloped in a shroud of mystery, as no one appears to be willing to disclose their current whereabouts. To me, this is a source of frustration for a valid reason: despite identifying himself primarily as a painter, Mesli’s monotypes, a medium he regarded as transitory, offer in fact valuable insights into his sensibilities and his adeptness in handling color within an otherwise austere medium like monotype. The scholarship on Mesli’s oeuvre has always been deficient, and is almost entirely absent in the English-speaking world. His monotypes, on the other hand, appear to be even more elusive. I am actively working to address this situation and remain optimistic that I will have access to these works in the near future.

Choukri Mesli, Magical Signs, monotype, c. 1982. From the exhibition catalogue Mesli: Gouaches et Monotypes. Algiers: Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem, 1986. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized by and presented at Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem, November 20-December 15, 1986.

Choukri Mesli, Magical Signs, monotype, c. 1982. From the exhibition catalogue Mesli: Gouaches et Monotypes. Algiers: Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem, 1986. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized by and presented at Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem, November 20-December 15, 1986.

As someone who is naturally reserved, I am hesitant to inconvenience others. Yet, I am surprised by the number of people, both those whom I know and strangers from as far away as Algeria, whom I have approached for assistance. The challenges I mention above have also encouraged me to become more proactive and resourceful in my research, as I am learning to navigate obstacles and locate resources through various means. On a more positive note, thinking about Amazighism alongside Hurufiyya and attempting to formulate a decolonial ethical framework for this paper has proved helpful in identifying the colonial foundations of my own thinking and undoing my colonial education. I should also mention that this essay initially began as an exam response, and the process of research was primarily guided by Dr. Shabout. Passing my comprehensive exams as a result was undoubtedly one of its greatest accolades.

Choukri Mesli in the studio, discussing his monotypes, c. 1980s. © Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem & ENAD Réghaïa

Choukri Mesli in the studio, discussing his monotypes, c. 1980s. © Galerie M’hamed Issiakhem & ENAD Réghaïa

  1. Tell us about your current research

I am currently working on a chapter focused on Hawad, an extraordinarily prolific poet and painter from the Aïr region in the Sahara, who has been living in France for quite some time. Although Hawad has been extensively researched and translated in French, and to a lesser extent in English and a few other languages, his aesthetic language, which he terms “furygraphy,” (furry + calligraphy) is directly linked to the cursive and vocalized form of the Tifinagh alphabet that the artist developed himself. “Furygraphy” is a powerful aesthetic and poetic tool that Hawad employs to resist the culture of colonialism and statism in both visual and linguistic domains. As I delve into his vast poetic oeuvre, I am grappling with his unconventional and stylistic repetitions and grounding his work within the broader socio-political history of the Sahel-Sahara region. I am eager to organize a visit with the artist this fall. As he is an outspoken political figure, I am excited to hear his insights and perspectives on the politics of his homeland.