10 Minutes with Hoda Tawakol

Hoda Tawakol’s practice is built on the twin pillars of wit and criticality. Her colorful, engaging textile works—collages, sculptures, installations—ripple with vitality, while tackling compelling issues of gender and bodily control. At once captivating and disarming, the works spring from a range of media, yet focus largely on the female body, its distortions and transformations across a woman’s lifecycle. The artist’s hallmark fabric sculptures of date palm trees, while stemming from the plant realm, wittily probe bodily questions of gender fluidity.

Tawakol herself is culturally liminal. Egypt-born, raised in France and Germany by an interchanging trio of ‘mothers,’ she not only navigates an ‘in-between’ that percolates through her identity, she layers this suspension into her practice. Her works are spirited—boisterous, wall-filling textile collages, rambunctious fabric installations, and plump sculptures that revel in the uncanny. Yet wrapped within these vigorous creations lie deeper questions around biopower, control, and corporal manipulation. 

Tawakol’s practice vibrates with feminist energy. While her hand-dyed and intimately sewn textile pieces clearly signpost questions of women’s labor, she also interrogates the wider yet more insidious forces (social, biological, cultural) impacting the female body. Sculptural gestures of abstraction and manipulation probe gender restrictions; superposed grids and lattices conjure sensations of confinement, concealment, repression; allusions to ancient rituals and embodied practices fathom death and procreation. 

While her artistic strategy is focused—stay vivacious yet critical, vaguely salacious yet deeply earnest—her material mastery is vast. A diversity of unpredictable hand-dyeing techniques—batik, spotting, painting, tie-dye—vivify her textile work. Similarly, her watercolour and ink compositions on paper are the fruit of a teetering negotiation with chance, and a surprising relinquishing of control. Her sculptures, whether assertively figurative or cryptically morphed, enlist a variety of materials with which she consistently experiments. 

Hoda Tawakol’s work has been exhibited in numerous institutions and galleries in Germany, including Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Weserburg Museum of Modern Art in Bremen, Religio Westfälisches Museum für religiöse Kultur in Telgte, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Kunsthaus in Hamburg and Produzentgalerie in Hamburg and Berlin. Internationally, she has shown at gallery Isabelle van den Eynde in Dubai, at Sfeir-Semler gallery in Germany and Lebanon, Beton Art Space in Denmark, and at 10th Velada Santa Lucia in Venezuela. Her work appears in the following collections: The Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation (SHF), Abu Dhabi; The Progressive Art Collection, USA; Huma Kabakci Collection, Turkey, UK; Sammlung Haus N, Germany; Sohst-Brennenstuhl Collection, Germany, among others.

As Open Space is committed to provide a platform and give voice to multidisciplinary art practitioners internationally, we are continuing with our 10 Minute interviews. This week, Huma Kabakcı invites the artist Hoda Towakol to talk about her influences, inspirations, feminism, motivation and body of work.

You were born in London and you live and work in Hamburg. How does different cultures inspire your work?

I was born in London; my parents are Egyptian. I grew up in Germany and in France. Growing up and living in different cultures made me feel at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You feel you are between two worlds, like being in a transition zone, not departed and not arrived yet. And this is exactly the power of a multi-cultural background. You are more flexible, you question unspoken socio-cultural rules, transform and redefine your perception of the world in which you live.

Living between cultures seeps into my work and is expressed in shape and content. I mostly work with textiles. But I also like to use nylons, synthetic hair or paper in my work. Whatever the material, it undergoes a transformation. The fabric takes the shape of a fragmented body like in the Lure series. In the Mummy series, nylons are filled with rice and shaped into a female body and frozen or mummified with resin. In the Hair series, I shape synthetic hair into a veil and fix it with a thin layer of resin, evoking the presence and the absence of a woman. I transform material, I evoke the feminine and its presence and I make it vanish just leaving a trace. This transformation of materials that expresses existence and absence as well as transition is a connection to the cultural mix of my background.

I am interested in the feminine. I point out at cross-cultural societal and patriarchal control mechanisms and deconstruct them. I fragment the feminine to simultaneously make it disappear, to preserve it, repossess it. Mashrabeya #5 is another example where I combined elements related to the European and the Egyptian culture. The work is made of trellis fences, a European architectural element from the 19th century that is used until today in gardening. With the trellis, I rebuild an ornament recalling the Mashrabeya windows found in Islamic architecture in Egypt, protecting female inhabitants of a house from the viewers on the street. I connect this work to confinement and control.

Lure #20 (2020)
Fabric, sequin, plastic, styrofoam
300 x 97 x 110 cm
Credit: H. Franck

What has influenced your work the most?

Apart from the cultural mix that plays an important role in my work, my upbringing in a very feminine background also influenced my artistic practice and my perception of the feminine. I was raised by “three mothers”: my mother, my grandmother and my nanny. All three women had voluptuous bodies. The shapes, the abundance and opulence that are connected to their bodies can be found in my work, such as in the Jungle series, the Palm Trees, the Nudes or again in the Lures. But these three women were very different in their nature, their roles and their social integration. Unconsciously, I observed and studied each one of them. I internalised this wide palette in my childhood, and it flows in my work.

Nude with Eyes #1 (2020)
Water color, china ink on paper
48 x 36 cm
Courtesy of Hoda Tawakol

You work with a range of media and your body of work is quite immersive, when you work towards an exhibition, how do you decide what to create?

I will show new works in November at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde in Dubai. The path to this solo exhibition was quite long. Six years ago, I started working on the topic of death and renewal, related to ancient Egyptian rituals. I was interested in the concept of mummification; the wrapping techniques and the idea of preserving a body, making it disappear and creating a moment where two different worlds overlap; death and afterlife. I started researching this topic and part of my research aimed at studying the wrapping and layering techniques that were used for mummification. I recreated patterns, layering works such as Study #2, as well as the Mummy of a Falcon to “feel” and re-live the gesture of mummification. This part of the work was like reconnecting to an ancient gesture. Holding the corpse of a creature (in reality I was holding “Ken”, Barbie’s boyfriend, who I used as the falcon) in my hand and wrapping it with thin layers of linen, was an emotional gesture. It made me understand how nurturing and caring the act of mummification was. It also made me realize that the gesture is not only one of preserving but also of holding onto what will fade away. It is an attempt to stop the disappearance. Based on these first steps of exploration, I created a series of Sarcophagi and little Mummies made of nylons and rice, fixed with resin. I also decided to use hand-dyed fabric in my works and to show works on paper also using dyeing techniques. I was interested in using ink and have it “bleed” on the medium, penetrate the fabric or leaving a trace on the paper like in the Immaculate series. All my decisions regarding an exhibition are based on an idea that I am pursuing. And the execution of the idea is very experimental and spreads on different materials and techniques.

What motivates you to wake up every morning?

Living in the now and being rooted in my life as a woman, a wife, a mother motivates me to wake up every morning. Of course, being an artist and my work as an artist is an intense driver in my life. Since the age of 11, I wanted to study art. Because of familiar circumstances, I had to forget about studying art and chose a path that would assure me a stable income. I ended up studying business and economics. Following my studies, I started working in marketing in a big company and I stayed there over 12 years. When I got pregnant with my first son, I started questioning my carrier and the desire to go back to my first impulse to study art got bigger from year to year. When I got my second son, I was ready to quit my “comfortable” job and to apply at the university of fine arts in Hamburg. I was accepted at the university although I was by far the oldest student with my 38 years. My fellow students used to call me “Mom”. I feel very privileged to do what I always wanted to do. Being in my studio, preparing a show or creating a new piece is what I burn for.

Immaculate #12 (2018)
Ink on paper, 119 x 89 x 8,5 cm
Credits: Rebekka Seubert

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on an exhibition planned to open in Januray 2021 at the Institut Francais (French Institute) in Berlin in January 2021. The curator, Liberty Adrien, invited me to show my work in an unusual setting; the windows of the Institut Francais. The exhibition will only be visible from the street. Many exhibition spaces had to close in Germany because of the pandemic and exhibiting in windows is a good way to outwit the new regulations during the pandemic. The windows of the institute extend over 23 meters and are located at the Kudamm in Berlin.

I plan to develop a new series of Lures and a series of oversized objects resembling fragmented bodies. It is interesting to show works in a long window instead of a “normal” exhibition space. Pieces will be show cased in a different way, it will be more blunt, more direct, thus more hermetic as it is kept behind a window and not accessible. It is interesting for me to reflect on the representation of the female body and on the interaction of the viewer with the object in such a setting.