Hassnaa is a local illustrator and photographer originally from Egypt. In this interview, she talked about the motivation behind her urge to create, and how that has changed based on her location and her experiences grappling with existentialist philosophy.
On a warm afternoon in Moab, Hassnaa and I escaped the heat in her cozy living room, listening to soft tunes in low lighting while sitting on her blue couch. I began with the general background of her art, asking, How did you get into producing illustrations?
Hassnaa began, “I had experimented with a lot of art mediums growing up and I went into art education school. I used to draw growing up and decided to go for fine arts studies, ended up studying all forms of arts except for digital illustration which is what I ended up going into once I graduated.”
She elaborated, “I started by taking references from photographs and turning it into digital line art. The idea behind it was to mix a photograph, taking people from different places and putting them in the same illustration, in places they would never be collided, merging them with geometric shapes.”
How many years did it take you to earn your degree?
“Four- it was just a bachelor’s degree.”
What kind of jobs in illustrating did you take after that?
“I mostly did album art and magazine covers. It paid well while I was in Egypt, because of the currency exchange. It wouldn’t work here unless I really promote myself.”
So you worked for people in other countries?
“Oh yeah. Most of my clients are non-Arabs. People from the UK, US, and Europe”
She thought for a moment and continued, “A little bit was for underground bands in Cairo. I was an underground artist and they were underground artists, so we kind of worked for each other in that way, They promoted my name, I promoted their band through my work.
“It was a very low-key scene in Egypt. We had to stay behind the curtains because politically we’re not allowed to be so expressive.”
What do you mean by that?
“Most of my work can be quite provocative. Some of it has sexual content, some of it will imply freedom of sexual orientation. You can get arrested, horribly judged or generally frowned upon if you openly say that you have no problem with homosexuality. Homophobia is real in Egypt.”
“Some of my concepts also had a lot of skepticism toward religion. I went through this whole trip of wondering about my own and other people’s, so it can provoke certain reactions that you don’t want to have, especially when you live in Egypt. So me and those people sort of stayed under that radar, and we still are.”
Do you still go back to Egypt, or is it more of a social concern?
“I do. Me and Ian [her husband] found a middle ground, finally.” With a far away look in her eyes, she added, “I kind forget to think about it every now and then.”
Curious about the transition she’s mentioned, I dug deeper, asking, Do you find that there’s less of a need to express yourself through art now that you’re living within a more liberal society?
Hassnaa nods emphatically. “Oh yeah. That’s well put. Oh my god. Most of my self expression was a result of repression, and the lack of having a life. Now I don’t need to do it to do whatever I want to do. Which wasn’t the case before.”
So do you create for yourself a lot less than you used to in Egypt?
“No… I think my motivation toward creating something now is more of a self-improvement. Like I have something to offer, I can create something nice, it can maybe become a job. Before I was like, ‘I am so frustrated so I’m going to put it into art, into something cryptic.’”
So it’s less cryptic now?
“Definitely. I used to be quite pretentious,” Hassnaa says and I laugh. She explains,
“I was like, look at all of my deep ideas. But now, my life is so simple. I don’t need to make it as complicated as it once was or as I once wanted it to be.”
“When I used to create this stuff, I was going through a lot of different philosophical ideas. I dove into existentialism and I read a lot of Kafka and Camus. Kafka was more on the depressive side and Camus was like 'ooh lala, life is good'.”
I ask about Camus, an existential theorist I’m unfamiliar with.
Hassnaa explains, “He has one of the healthiest approaches to existentialism I’ve seen. And that’s why my life became less complicated and more straightforward. Once I moved here I had this freedom, and I realized I will never have to lie to anybody again, so I might as well tell everybody exactly what is going on.I don’t have to make shit up anymore because I don’t really care about their opinion.”
“That kind of reflects in my creation. That’s why I got into photography, because I’m capturing what I’m seeing. I don’t have to make something up anymore.”
Interested the crossover from illustration to photography -- anothe aspect of transition in Hassnaa’s work -- I ask her to elaborate.
“It’s definitely liberating experience. Everything is what it is,” she says.
“Now I’m like, what else is there in the world to see? What else are people? I’m very interested in people. I really want to portray different personalities and portray the interesting sides of them, rather than make something up that’s not in existence really.”
Hassnaa concludes. “So it went from these nonexistent ideas to these real people that are living interesting lives and have interesting personalities that I want to dive into.”
“That’s me thinking out loud,” she says. I haven’t put much thought into it before.”
Do you have some work that would go well with this conversation?
“I have a lot that deals with existentialism. Everything I do is pointing toward that. It’s my entire life because it is the biggest realization in my life.”
“Just the fact that so much leads to existentialism and so much points to that. Existentialism is a thing. It’s not just a thought. It’s something that people approach as an idea and it’s so realistic, it’s so logical. Everything is an idea you create. This idea is so different from all the onion sense we’ve been fed our entire lives from older people and our families and our society.”
She sits quietly for a moment, contemplating her words, and adds, “You can just be yourself. You can just be a realistic, logical person, that does not hurt people, and your life is simple, and you just go about it. I think everything I do, and everything I’m going to do, will be influenced by that.”