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Frieze Week London 2023

In Conversation: Frieze Artist Award Winner Adham Faramawy

The artist discusses their new work And these deceitful waters and its themes of colonialization and transformation with art historian Edwin Coomasuru  

BY Edwin Coomasaru in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 09 OCT 23

Edwin Coomasaru And these deceitful waters (2023) is a powerfully poetic and political mixing of myth and history. Filmed along the Thames, from the River Lea to the Cliffs of Dover, the video-essay encompasses archival material and site-specific performance. The artwork explores connections between imperialism and ecology across deep spans of time. Your narrator describes ‘a cornucopia of goods pillaged from the empire’ over footage of John Bacon’s sculpture George III and the River Thames (1788–89) at Somerset House, and implores viewers to welcome ‘those whose land was taken and divided / through climate breakdown, extraction and war’. Why is water important as a material and metaphor?

Adham Faramawy The performance uses movement to describe a staging of intimacies, made in collaboration and produced in concert, a coming together. Theorist Astrida Neimanis’s book Bodies of Water (2017) talks about a ‘hydrocommons’, where water is part of all of us, connecting us beyond boundaries and borders or interspecies division. ‘Deceit’ refers to an image of the Thames’s cornucopia, shaped by logics of empire, taking from elsewhere and bringing back to the UK. Empire is capitalism and white supremacy, the logic of putting money ahead of life. If we pollute the water or air, then we can’t breathe or eat.

Adam Faramawy, Welcome the Newcomers, 2023
Adham Faramawy, Welcome the Newcomers (iii), 2023. Courtesy: the artist

EC Over footage of performers making fluvial movements in the river, your narrator reflects on pollution by Thames Water and other formerly public but since privatized utilities, calling on a ‘goddess of the sewers, the purifier / We ask for your help’. Theorist Silvia Federici has argued that capitalism began with the colonization of the Americas, alongside the enclosure of common land and witch hunts in Europe. The Thames, in particular, has been associated with magical ceremonies and ritual practices for thousands of years.

AF And these deceitful waters follows on from an earlier performance for the Serpentine Galleries, Daughters of the River (2022), which draws from writer Alexander Pope’s poem ‘Windsor-Forest’ (1713). The poem celebrated the 1713–15 Peace of Utrecht treaty, which helped lay the cultural foundations for later English imperialism with images of Old Father Thames marrying the Egyptian goddess Isis. I found it interesting, when I read some of your writing, that the river was once gendered as feminine at its source and male through London. In Oxfordshire, the water is called the Isis.

EC The Thames is also lined with obelisks on its banks. Could you tell me about the connections And these deceitful waters makes between the histories of Egypt and the UK?

AF I wanted to relay the story of the Suez Canal, a waterway that allows a retelling of the colonial histories of Egypt as well as my own personal history and experience of colonialism or postcolonialism.

EC In Thames: Sacred River (2007), Peter Ackroyd writes that ‘the waters of the world might be interpreted as one extended Thames.’ He calls the river ‘an image of the nation […] a museum of Englishness itself. It embodies the history of the nation.’

Adham Faramawy, And these deceitful waters, 2023, video still
Adham Faramawy, And these deceitful waters, 2023, video still. Courtesy: the artist

AF That quote is really useful. I am probably coming from a similar place, with an idea of the Thames as a kind of portrait of the country. And these deceitful waters thinks about nationhood and what makes a nation. I wanted to dissolve the border along the south coast, or the idea that England is somehow not related to its European neighbours. I was also thinking about the lives lived along the river’s banks: 16th-century oak trees turned into a national symbol as they were being destroyed to build ships for Britain’s empire. Sculptures of Barbary lions, rendered extinct in North Africa by colonial hunters, are also found along the Thames. These moments of environmental extraction leading to collapse kept presenting themselves, and so that’s the story I ended up telling. I’m very keen on this idea of the local as global: How do you situate yourself where you are?

EC ‘I’m here because you were there,’ as you say in the narration. In Border and Rule (2021), Harsha Walia argues that borders are structural tools of capitalist colonialism and calls for us to ‘weave solidarities through the lens of abundance’ instead. And these deceitful waters draws and disrupts national boundaries, imagining other ways of being together collectively. There is another line in the film: ‘If you can’t gather, you can’t resist.’

AF I’m telling personal stories, which talk about complicity and implicate me. So much of what we’ve been saying has to do with theoretical alignments, but I think it’s also important to find ways to support people financially and materially. I’ve made a two-part print edition, which will be exhibited as part of the installation and available to buy online, with all of the proceeds going to the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers charity.

EC Apt to conclude on, as the imaginative and the material are deeply interconnected.

Adham Faramawy is an artist. Their commission for the Frieze Artist Award, co-produced and co-commissioned with Forma, And these deceitful waters (2023), is on view at Frieze London for the duration of the fair. They live in London, UK.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week London 2023 under the headline ‘Part of All of Us’

Main Image: Adham Faramawy, And these deceitful waters, 2023, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Edwin Coomasaru is a historian of modern and contemporary art. He lives in London, UK.