Heba Y. Amin

Heba Y. Amin discusses her work in the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

Heba Y. Amin, The Master’s Tools I, 2018, black-and-white photograph, 34 x 43".

The Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin’s latest project, Operation Sunken Sea, 2018, is well suited for “We don’t need another hero,” the next iteration of the Berlin Biennale, which opens June 9, 2018. With a room-wide installation, Amin imagines herself as the mastermind of a bureaucratic plan to drain the Mediterranean Sea—a singular solution to the crises of terrorism and immigration in the Middle East and Africa. With an air of autocracy, her project exposes long-standing colonial convictions, as well as the inherent bias and violence of power.

OPERATION SUNKEN SEA is an attempt to flip a historical narrative and to place myself at its center as a radical act. I recently discovered Atlantropa, which was a proposal for a giant engineering project to drain the Mediterranean Sea, devised by a German architect named Herman Sörgel in the 1920s. He believed that uniting Europe and Africa as one continent could create the resources needed to rival the economic power of Asia and the Americas. It was a techno-utopian idea, typical of the early twentieth century, when people really believed that technology could solve the world’s problems—or Europe’s, at least.

When I looked into Atlantropa further, I discovered that many other people had proposed similar ideas at around roughly the same time. Jules Verne was one of the first; his last novel, Invasion of the Sea, is about French colonizers who channel the Mediterranean into the Sahara Desert and run up against North African tribes. Shortly after it was published in 1905, a few other French and German geographers devised their own versions. Ultimately, they all use Africa’s resources to rebuild Europe’s strength. Of course, none of them are pitted as colonial projects; they're portrayed as projects of peace and as a coming-together of the two continents, which is funny.

I became really fascinated by these ownership claims to the Mediterranean Sea, which carries so many histories and belongs to so many cultures. Who were these megalomaniacal men who felt that it was theirs to control? Where does that entitlement come from, and what does it feel like? I thought it’d be interesting to replicate that viewpoint, but from the other side. What would happen if these projects were proposed by an African Arab woman who used the exact same logic and the same constructs—how would that read?

I wanted to embody these men. I'm plagiarizing their ideas, drawings, and plans, and I’m restaging their portraits, putting myself in their place. In turn, I am claiming their stories and erasing them from history. I recently gave my inaugural speech in Malta, where Operation Sunken Sea was first staged in the exhibition “Dal Bahar Madwarha” (The Island is What the Sea Surrounds) for Valletta 2018, and I’ve been researching dictators’ speeches, trying to understand their mannerisms, gestures, and language. I believe that a masculinist, patriarchal spirit is fundamental to these colonialist projects and attitudes.

The installation itself has a bureaucratic, old-world feel, with dictatorial motifs and props mixed in. The flags that flank my desk are emblazoned with the project’s insignia, which is derived from a map of the Mediterranean Sea by Persian geographer Al-Istakhri in a tenth-century Islamic manuscript. Many of these old manuscripts illustrated the sea as a positive space and everything around it as negative. It was wonderful to discover this reversal. It also speaks so well to why so many artists in the Middle East have research-based practices. We suddenly have access to many archives we couldn’t access before, and we can now investigate our own histories and do our own anthropological studies. For those of us who have been colonized, I believe this is how we break the stronghold—by rewriting history.