Roski professor speaks on the power of art

The world is built on binaries: good and evil, war and peace and life and death. The work of Sherin Guirguis, an artist, associate professor and vice dean of faculty at the Roski School of Art and Design, challenges notions of the informal and formal, the structured and chaotic, the arts and the politics.

On Tuesday, Guirguis spoke to USC students and faculty about the power art has to connect different artistic methods and people. Born in Luxor and raised in Cairo until she was 14, Guirguis has experienced both urban and rural environments, American and the Egyptian ethnic identities, and has fused these experiences into her activism and art. Her work focuses on connecting opposites together, both in art and in life.

Her most recent work “One I Call,” which is currently on display at the Desert X exhibit in Palm Springs, is an interactive complex based on the pigeon towers of Egyptian villages. Often used to serve as beacons of the outskirts of civilizations or the ancient mail systems of rural communities, these pigeon towers were  central places for communities. “One I Call” aims to do the same by incorporating the natural landscape of the Whitewater Reserve of the Coachella Valley into a beautiful complex with which visitors can interact.

The final piece is a
beehive-esque tower, in which gold leaf circles and sticks align in geometric patterns that collect sunlight in a dazzling way. The landscape of the exhibit — tall mountains where sheep graze, and birds burrow in the boulders — complements the small tower nested in a beautiful desert. When visitors come, they truly are able to interact and experience the history behind the pigeon tower, the Coachella Valley and the civilizations before it.

“We came to a place, we made a work about that place and then we had people from that place engaged,” Guirguis said. “That felt good.”

Furthermore, the monument represents Guirguis’ goal when creating the art piece. Its sustainable resources and location connect what once belonged to another desert on the other side of the world to the animals and ecosystem of Southern California’s deserts. Just as it was created using the dust of the valley, the exhibit will soon deteriorate and return back to its roots: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

“I wanted to make sure the concept, the form, the research and the expectation I had was all really ingrained in that sight — that specific desert, that specific history,” Guirguis said.

Guirguis’ other work maintains this level of thought-out creation and representation. Her works, which have been featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as the California African American Museum, aim to connect the foreign with the familiar by breaking down the political notions of art.

After noticing how Eastern ornamentalism was considered decorative and frivolous when compared to Western use of abstraction and geometry, Guirguis decided to prove the validity of ornamentalism in modern art through her works concerning the feminist movement in Cairo.

Drawing inspiration from vintage photos of trailblazing feminists unveiled in front of a train station, Guirguis constructed large paintings that incorporated colorful watercolor splatters with the distinct, perfect design of minimalist, geometric patterns. Standing in front of depictions of the train station’s doors and the house of a feminist leader, the viewer is encouraged to pay attention to the details and see how Eastern and Western forms of art can work together — how the  spontaneous can complement the carefully constructed. In doing so, Guirguis challenges the viewer to question their beliefs about art and the politics that dictate our lives.

Blending minimalism and abstraction with Eastern ornamentalism and decoration, Guirguis redefines history and the modern world. Standing in front of the door to the house or the train station, the audience recognizes that the current perspective on history and society can be far from the truth. In order to really understand the world, one must challenge the structures our society has created and recognize what is valued and what needs to be valued.

“I was hoping that in presenting [this collection], I could then access a conceptual idea of that when formal systems fail us, we use informal systems to replace them,” Guirguis said. “It’s how we value these things in today’s world.”