Sobey Art Award 2022: Azza El Siddique

Azza El Siddique, Azza El Siddique, Measure of One, 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks

Azza El Siddique, Measure of One, 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks. Collection of the artist. © Azza El Siddique Photo: NGC


Azza El Siddique’s practice is sustained by her sensitivity towards transformation – how slowing down and observing the changing state of things encourages new reflections on what it means to be alive and inevitably pass away. But passing when, how, into whom, where or what, exactly? El Siddique explores this through her artworks that combine liquids, scents, soils, metals and heat. Painstakingly assembled into active environments resembling laboratories, game sets and manufacturing plants, her chosen elements react to and inform one another, producing new outcomes. “I work by posing questions to myself,” says El Siddique, “creating hypotheses, and then setting up a system to let everything unfold naturally.” Not unlike a materials scientist or engineer, the artist is after how things work under particular conditions, conducting physical experiments to learn about loss and possibility.

Each of El Siddique’s large-scale installations build on the previous ones, which is apt given her artistic choices are influenced by long-standing research into ancient funerary literature, notably Egyptian and Nubian books on how-to navigate the afterlife. To date, The Amduat (the netherworld), has been critical to El Siddique’s thoughts. The book tracks Re, the Egyptian sun god’s regeneration over twelve hours from dusk (death) to dawn (rebirth). She describes the text as “essentially a cheat sheet that helps you move forward. There is something powerful in the way it lays everything out, as opposed to leaving such mystery.” El Siddique is not averse to ambiguity – her work possesses it after all – but her bent towards manuals is connected to an understanding that any system, across time, cultures and fields, is intrinsically partial to some subjects and not others. How one advances or regresses is often determined by access, position and mobility.

Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun, 2021. Steel, expanded steel, water, unfired clay slip, bisque-fired slip clay, enamel spraypaint, slow-drip irrigation system, heat lamps, bakhoo, sandalwood oil

Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun, 2021. Steel, expanded steel, water, unfired clay slip, bisque-fired slip clay, enamel spraypaint, slow-drip irrigation system, heat lamps, bakhoo, sandalwood oil, 7.62 x 7.62 x 3.05 m. © Azza El Siddique. Installation view at MOCA, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Since 2017 El Siddique has been refining a visual vocabulary that is distinctively hers, though it continues to expand with each new endeavour. “It’s really important for me to find pivotal moments when humans discover new ways to make meaning of the world,” she expresses. The meaning of her work accrues with fresh research, site specificity and the viewer’s experience. In the spirit of guidebooks, what follows is a type of inventory (part myth, part reality), intended to be insightful and open as one navigates El Siddique’s inventions:

Clay: Across varying belief systems, including those shared by ancient Egyptian and Nubian peoples, God is perceived to be a potter who sculpted humankind from clay. Spanning El Siddique’s installations are multiples of unfired or enamel-covered clay objects. Cast from moulds prepared by the artist, her source materials are second-hand knick-knacks and “talismanic” figures that she imagines could be related to creation myths. Like bodies, the clay objects are positioned strategically within the lines of her composition. In their nearly raw state, they are open to transformation, shifting according to their proximity to the changing atmosphere.

Azza El Siddique, Measure of One (detai), 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks

Azza El Siddique, Measure of One (detail), 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks. Collection of the artist. © Azza El Siddique Photo: NGC

Pyramids and Ziggurats: The architecture of El Siddique’s work follows that of divine spaces, namely the profiles and logic of pyramids, but possibly ziggurats too. Because she works in situ, her installations are interpretive, fusing research with intuition.

Pyramids were imagined as monuments to the afterlife. Built from mostly limestone, they are distinguished by two elements: the temple where communities can congregate and perform rituals, and a subterranean burial chamber where the bodies of pharaohs were safely preserved. The floor plans of such resting places are complex, incorporating multiple rooms, dead ends and false doors to ensure the soul had room to roam, and for added security. As El Siddique describes, the Nubian schematic prioritized the necessary passageways to the afterlife.

From a different perspective, one could decipher an image of a ziggurat, an ancient Mesopotamian structure, pyramidal in shape, typically made of baked bricks. The lines of the ziggurat ascend to a single point (they could also be used to descend), like a staircase, symbolizing progress as well as a link between humanity and the gods. Unlike the ancient Egyptian and Nubian pyramids, ziggurats are temples. Practically, the ziggurat is designed to provide refuge from seasonal flooding.

Azza El Siddique, Azza El Siddique, Measure of One, 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks

Azza El Siddique, Measure of One, 2020, steel, expanded steel, water, unfired slip clay, slow-drip irrigation system, EPDM pond liner, cement bricks. Collection of the artist. © Azza El Siddique Photo: NGC

Water: The sound component of each artwork is sparked by water. It courses, flows, drips and sublimates throughout. It’s a basic element and vital force capable of nourishment and destruction, which El Siddique sets in motion. Vapour or irrigation systems carry water over clay elements, washing them at various measures and over a sustained period to the point that they become altered, or disintegrate entirely. By way of low tanks, the formless clay trickles into the stream of water that causes it to erode, drawing a winding circuit from life to death and back again. According to Egyptian and Nubian cultures, the universe originated from the primordial waters of the deity Nun – various myths maintain that at the end of the world everything will return to these same waters.

Bakhoor and Sandaliya: Chunks of bakhoor (a compressed incense made with wood chips, sandalwood, myrrh, rose and frankincense) can be seen burning under heat lamps, the scent mingling with sandaliya (sandalwood infused oil). These substances recall Muslim Sudanese burial traditions, where the body is cleansed in oils as an act of devotion and to help transition from one life into the next. Within El Siddique’s grasp, this combination is an ode to the Sudanese diasporic women of her upbringing, their power and sensuality lifting off and permeating institutionalized spaces.

Steel: Due to its cost-efficiency, availability and strength, steel is one of the most common building materials used in the Western world since the mid-20th century. Rearranged, the letters in steel make the word stele, which in Latin denotes a carved or painted stone raised in the ancient world as a memorial. Steel factors in almost all Azza El Siddique’s work. She fabricates everything herself, producing tanks, columns, ledges and pathways out of untreated beams. Her constructions are angular and spare, at once a minimalist sculpture and skeleton frame. Sometimes one can encounter inscribed symbols and patterns on their surfaces, if they have not yet been obscured by the oxidation of lapping and running water. The steel framework supports all the elements included in this catalogue, extending a space for visitors to grieve, remember, meditate, invent and rejoice.

 

The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada,  from October 28, 2022 until March 12, 2023, with the winner announced at a gala ceremony on November 16, 2022. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 20232 published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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