Interview with Fairouz El Tom
Through her artwork, an artist proposes a world where identity, diversity, and culture are intertwined and constantly changing.
ART Fairouz El Tom
“When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.”
— bell hooks
The words of the late author and social activist bell hooks reverberate through the works of artist Fairouz El Tom in her images of the world that present a blurring of boundaries and borders. It is the future she imagines that has drawn me to her iterative work, each piece contributing to a notion of futurity that seeks a greater equilibrium, an increased equity. It is this engagement with futurity, along with a new approach to ethics, that is integral to the impact of Fairouz’s practice.
Fairouz El Tom is a Sudanese and Swiss artist who works primarily in photography. She grew up in Sudan, India, Nepal, the United States, and Switzerland. This experience instilled in her a fascination with human and natural diversity and with identity construction. To explore these themes, she combines familiar imagery to create abstracted works that blur the line between the personal and the cultural, the familiar and the new. Fairouz is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the Glasgow School of Art and will be exhibiting at the Bamako Encounters – African Biennale of Photography in Mali later this year.
I first came across Fairouz’s work in September 2021 at the Glasgow School of Art, where we were, at the time, both pursuing our respective graduate degrees. I was immediately struck by how her abstract compositions created a new visual language, new propositions of how we can see and interact with people and the environment. Shortly thereafter, we had the opportunity to work on a project I co-curated. We had not yet met in person, however — this interview was conducted in November 2021 virtually, an apt sign of our pandemic times. Since then, we have had the chance to work together again, allowing us to continue to explore the topics we touched upon, delving deeper into the philosophical questions that underpin Fairouz’s work. Her view of the world is something that I aspire to, and I hope that this interview not only introduces you to her practice but also gets you, too, to think and see the world in a new light.
EMMA-CAITLIN COOPER: Your practice has evolved from an engagement with the figurative and the linguistic to a focus on the production of abstracted works. I’m curious about what led you to this shift, and how, if at all, this has influenced the subject matter of your work?
FAIROUZ EL TOM: Part of it was me experimenting, trying to find my voice. Looking back, I think it was also me unconsciously needing to get some things off my chest. I remember the process around these figurative works felt like an act of cleansing, where I spat out what didn’t belong to me, if you like.
The shift occurred over a short time. Despite what figuration brought me, something felt unsatisfactory, incomplete. I felt constrained and the works felt too direct. Abstraction gave me freedom. It enabled me to immediately address my preoccupation with boundaries and separation in a wholesome way. It also offered me a place where I could create new and endless possibilities.
By making things more ambiguous, the familiar unfamiliar, I hope that viewers can question what they are seeing, and perhaps even see something afresh.
As my work evolved, I became aware that the process of abstracting connected me to uncertainty, which is something dear to me. In the not knowing, the not being sure, I see openness and freedom. I’m interested in exploring how that can be transposed in an artwork. By making things more ambiguous, the familiar unfamiliar, I hope that viewers can question what they are seeing, and perhaps even see something afresh.
EMMA-CAITLIN: You work exclusively in a digital medium, which currently involves layering and merging multiple photographic images. What was your route into this type of practice, and how do you feel it facilitates an engagement with the themes that your work explores?
FAIROUZ: The layering and the merging came to me instinctively. Many human societies today are built on ideas of separation. Be it through the nature-culture divide, or through race, nationality, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and so on. I’m not proposing that all categories be rejected. What preoccupies me is the sense of separation and hierarchization that often accompanies them. Layering and merging get me closer to the world I dream of, which is a world of fluidity and multiplicity, where things are permitted to intertwine, where roots are often rhizomic, where lives are interconnected. A world of movement and constant change.
Layering and merging get me closer to the world I dream of, which is a world of fluidity and multiplicity, where things are permitted to intertwine, where roots are often rhizomic, where lives are interconnected. A world of movement and constant change.
I turned to photography for two reasons. First, it’s familiar. I started taking photographs in my teens. Second, it’s what gets me closest to the subjects I’m interested in (skin and land, for instance).
As for the digital, I’m drawn to it because I equate it with the future. It offers infinite possibilities. It asks us to make choices. Important choices. All this holds for my practice as well. A post-racial world is only a future possibility. A world that isn’t divided by artificial constructs, such as the nature-culture divide, offers new possibilities of relating. But to get there we have choices to make. Again, important choices.
And yes, racism is embedded in technology, but at the same time, technology offers us unprecedented ways of calling out racism. For example, what Derek Chauvin [the Minneapolis police officer convicted for the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man] did has been happening for centuries, and it’s in part thanks to technology that he couldn’t just walk away.
Practically speaking, the digital also offers me infinite possibilities of transforming and creating new cohesions.
A world that isn’t divided by artificial constructs, such as the nature-culture divide, offers new possibilities of relating.
EMMA-CAITLIN: Images of both landscapes and the human body are central to your work. Your compositions create equity between bodies and bodies of land, rendering any difference indistinguishable. In what ways do you feel your work speaks to issues of biocultural diversity and challenges the binary differences that Western cultures, in particular, have established between the human and the non-human?
FAIROUZ: Biocultural diversity shows us how diversity in both nature and culture are inextricably linked.
Western knowledge systems in particular have long separated us from nature, as well as from each other. My experience of the world is different. It’s one in which boundaries are porous and blurry. Objectively speaking, I believe that no form of life is more valuable than another. Each is just a manifestation of life. I also observe endless interconnections. On a very basic level, in my works on waves, I combine human irises with ocean waves. I aspire to reunite us with nature and remind us that some of the liquid we expel might end up being part of a wave, much like parts of waves might be inside us.
EMMA-CAITLIN: You have spoken to me about your interest in how the “beautiful” can be mobilized in relation to the “abject.” These are terms that stand in opposition to one another but are at the same time subjective. I’m interested in understanding where you draw your definitions of these terms from and what you feel the potential of this “mobilization” is.
FAIROUZ: True, countless people have grappled with defining these terms. I think of them in multiple definitions. Beauty, for instance, can be oma, as in self-awareness and balance in Igbo. It can be the Japanese concept of kintsugi, where beauty is created from what is broken. In the Western tradition, Aristotle was the first to suggest that beauty, ugliness, and pleasure are interrelated. The philosopher Bernard Bosanquet offered the concept of “difficult beauty.”
Rather than seeing these terms in opposition to each other, I see them as inextricably linked. Both provoke emotion and interest (and at times fascination) in the viewer. I see them as related to each other in contrast and in the type of emotion they trigger. On its own, each is perhaps only satisfied by time, in that, if only one or the other is present, it offers something temporary, such as a “cheap thrill.” But when both are present in a balanced way, they can connect us to the sublime, transcending time.
In my creative practice, I approach “the beautiful” and “the ugly” as judgments of taste. The sublime relates to another form of judgment. It’s about bodily sensations. It’s an experience. So, when I say I’m interested in seeing how “the beautiful” can be mobilized in relationship to “the abject,” I’m trying to approach the sublime. I’m interested in mobilizing “the beautiful” to draw viewers in before confronting them with “the abject.” A work can therefore be beautiful, captivating, and deeply unsettling at the same time. Much like joy, sorrow, lightness, and distress can live in the same work.
EMMA-CAITLIN: Over the past decade, across the globe, there has been a dangerous increase in nationalism and border control. Through the abstract nature of your practice, you break away from and interrogate the rigidity and polity of boundaries and borders. In what ways do you think your work responds to the current sociopolitical climate?
FAIROUZ: As I mentioned earlier, in my experience many human societies today are built on separation. Linked to this is the fallacy that identities are fixed.
My experience of the world has shown me otherwise.
In my work, I’m trying to see if we can sometimes shift our perceptions. By blurring our field of vision, I hope that new things might emerge.
I’m therefore interested in what unites and what disunites us, and in questioning and blurring boundaries we put between ourselves and others. In my work, I’m trying to see if we can sometimes shift our perceptions. By blurring our field of vision, I hope that new things might emerge. What happens, for instance, when we look at something we’re accustomed to seeing but which doesn’t look like what we expect?
EMMA-CAITLIN: Your work presents a holistic and at times sentient way of seeing the world. What influences and experiences in your life have led to this way of thinking and seeing?
FAIROUZ: I owe much of who I am to my parents. From a young age, they showed me that there are multiple ways of knowing and being in the world. My mother is Swiss, my father Sudanese. She is a Buddhist, he a humanist. Her family is Christian and his Muslim. They brought me up in India, Nepal, Sudan, Switzerland, and the United States. We spoke three languages at home, and I attended international schools. I was as touched by the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi as I was by the American painter Rothko and as moved by the music of Cesária Évora as by that of Peter Gabriel. This was simply my normal.
Nature was also an integral part of my upbringing.
I later came to understand that these experiences instilled in me a fascination with human and natural diversity.
As an adult, I was also shaped by other influences. The ones I’m probably most imbued by are métissage, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and nature. Métissage not just as a theory but also as a praxis that allows us to, as described by Cynthia Chambers et al. (2008), “imagine and create plural selves and communities that thrive on ambiguity and multiplicity.” Krishnamurti for emphasizing the importance of understanding the process of our own thinking and proposing that self-knowledge is the most practical approach to the external problems of the world. And finally, I turn increasingly to nature. Sufis say that those who taste, know. My interpretation of this is that knowledge is not simply a matter of pleasing the mind. It’s equally, if not more importantly, sensuous. Turning to the physical senses evoked by nature takes me into my body and therefore further connects me to nature.
EMMA-CAITLIN: Where do you envision your practice taking you in the future? What do you see as the emerging possibilities in your work?
FAIROUZ: At present, the themes I’m interested in are such an intrinsic part of my life that I imagine them evolving rather than shifting radically.
Scale is increasingly important. The aerial images I work with naturally call for a large scale, and my subjects do too. That said, the dynamic between macro and micro operates across all aspects of my practice. And this is something I want to pay more attention to. I’d like to experiment with using a microscope for instance. And, when time permits, I’d love to learn drone photography.
I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and she reminded me of the importance of language. For example, she wrote, “I grabbed the [Ojibwe] dictionary and flipped more pages and all kinds of things seemed to be verbs: ‘to be a hill,’ ‘to be red,’ ‘to be a long sandy stretch of beach,’ and then my finger rested on wikwegamaa: ‘to be a bay’” (p. 54). Language can change our perception of reality. It can influence how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. So, I have been experimenting with introducing language in my creative practice. For example, I started a series on African alphabets.
Finally, I would like to start exploring collaborations and to start incorporating other materials to accompany my work.
But who knows, right? After all, life is about constant movement and change.
View Emma and Fairouz’s latest collaborative work.
Emma-Caitlin Cooper is an emerging curator, writer, and researcher based in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a Master of Letters in Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art) from the Glasgow School of Art. Emma’s research and curatorial interests include feminist theories and practices, the abstract and the speculative, the quantum and the cosmic, theories of entanglement and leakiness, creative knowledge production, tangents, and the notion of the end as the continual beginning.