From Cairo to Stockholm

As new director of Konsthall C, Mariam Elnozahy will dive headfirst into the conflicts between art and religion.

Mariam Elnozahy is new director of Konsthall C in Stockholm.

Located in an old wash house from the 1940s in Hökarängen, a suburb south of Stockholm, Konsthall C is a unusual art institution. Since 2004, the wash house, once designed as a social meeting place by Swedish architect David Helldén, has functioned as part konsthall, in an attempt to combine postwar social engineering with socially committed contemporary art. 

Next year, as Konsthall C celebrates its 20th anniversary, the Cairo-based curator Mariam Elnozahy will take up the position of artistic director. With the project Sacred Spaces, Plural Futures, she will, together with managing director Erik Annerborn, turn the konsthall into a “sacred space,” which is bound to raise some eyebrows given the profane context.

But if you can mix dirty laundry with contemporary art, why not with religious rituals, discussions about new blasphemy laws, and a program which promises to “dive headfirst into the conflicts that emerge between art and religion”? Indeed, the interest in public debate comes as no surprise at an institution where earlier directors have run programs like Home Works, about the politics of domestic work (Jenny Richards and Jens Strandberg, 2015–2016) and The Decolonial Turn (Corina Oprea, 2017–2018). Yet, Elnozahy’s new theme stands out with a head on approach to a disputed territory.

Elnozahy has a broad vocational background, but was most recently curator at Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. She will take over from Ulrika Flink who has been director since 2020, during a period when Konsthall C’s program has increasingly had difficulties reaching the media’s attention. Perhaps this is about to change? I contacted Elnozahy to ask about her plans for the coming three years.

You have degrees in history and architecture studies, and you recently worked as managing editor of Ma3azef, an online journal for Middle Eastern music. This seems like a broad scope. How did you get into contemporary art? 

Yes, my educational and vocational background is broad indeed, but I would like to think I am always consistent in my involvement in creative or academic work that engages with important political and social questions and is not afraid to confront them head on. 

I started working in contemporary art because I was attracted to the work of the Townhouse Gallery in the area of Downtown Cairo, my family’s neighbourhood. I started working as an intern in the archive and eventually got more involved in the programming, learning about contemporary art on the job. I love working directly with artists and other creative practitioners to brainstorm, develop, and contextualise their work. I’ve tried to position myself in ways that allow me to nourish collaborative relationships across different cultural platforms.

How do you view the difference between working in Cairo and Hökarängen, a small suburb south of Stockholm? 

I’m not sure yet. Maybe I’ll be better positioned to answer in a few months. In any case, I’m approaching the role with openness and humility. I’m excited to learn about the arts scene in Stockholm and engage with local practitioners – maybe I can bring some of my background and experience to the table as well. 

Malak Yacout, Dialogue with 10 Nabrawy, installation view from the Townhouse Gallery, 2018. Curator: Mariam Elnozahy.

You have stated that you want to transform Konsthall C into a sacred place, which is bound to turn some heads given the profane context of an institution located in an old wash house. Why did you opt for this particular theme?

I love your characterisation of the Konsthall C as a profane context. I really want to think about how profanity and sacrality function in our experience of art and culture. How does that binary inform our ability to have sublime experiences outside the church or see art outside the context of a museum? Is it possible to break this binary? The recent resurgence of the role of ritual in contemporary art – ranging from Indigenous rituals and wellness rituals to self-care rituals and community rituals – prompts the question of the role of the art space in producing sacred experiences, a role that was once served by the church, mosque, synagogue or other religious sites. 

One of the primary social and geopolitical questions facing Sweden today is its ability to uphold standards of religious pluralism. The recent incident of the burning of the Quran sparked demonstrations by individuals across Sweden to burn various religious texts including the Torah and the Bible. These acts have resonated in a horrific incident in Brussels, where two Swedish football fans were killed, potentially – though not confirmed – in a religiously-motivated retaliation against increasing Islamophobia in Sweden. 

These incidents have sparked national conversations about the role of the state in regulating hate speech, upholding religious freedom for minorities, and the potential re-introduction of blasphemy laws. The stakes for such regulations are not only the role of the state in upholding religious pluralism and the role of Sweden in NATO, but also the safety of various vulnerable communities – religious communities, immigrant communities, minority communities – and their ability to participate in civic life in Sweden. Those are just some of the broader socio-political questions that contextualise the theme of “sacred spaces” I proposed for Konsthall C. 

Will you show religious or spiritual art as such? Or rather art which (critically) reflects on religious practices? Or both? 

The program framework is broad and there are many potential interpretations of the theme. A sacred space can range from a special spot in the forest to a church, mosque, temple, or even just a bedroom. It can also be an art space! This loose understanding of the sacred also allows us to work alongside artists and performers to accommodate their particular interpretations of the proposed theme. 

The artist and critic Ferdinand Ahm Krag recently argued in Kunstkritikk that a bill proposing a new blasphemy law would compromise artistic freedom in Denmark. Will such discussions take place at Konsthall C, or will you focus more on the sacred as a less conflicted connection between art and religion? 

Discussions of blasphemy laws and the criticism posed by Krag are exactly what this theme is about. Of the law, Krag writes, “the ban thus strikes directly at the artistic and critical processing of religious symbols, which is why any future position critical of religion will not only be highly precarious, but incur the risk of prosecution and a penalty of up to two years in prison.” Having been engaged in critical discussions regarding blasphemy laws in places such as Egypt and Pakistan, I recognize the importance of creating a space to interrogate such legal measures, from the pernicious threat of censorship to the danger of violence that emerges from bigotry and hatred. As such, the theme will certainly dive headfirst into the conflicts that emerge between art and religion.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Water: Archaeology, Hydropower, Indigeneity, installation view from Kunsthal Oslo, 2023. Curators: Mariam Elnozahy og Rado Ištok. In 2022, an earlier version of the exhibition was shown at Uppsala Art Museum, Sweden.