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When Art Takes a Backseat: An Interview With Malak El Mahmoudy – Yaasrah Ahmed

Societal principles within the West are no strangers to evolution. Art had once sprouted from generational contexts of extreme censorship and surveillance, as a means of communicating the realities behind governing bodies—bodies whose socio-political presence was practically palpable. Classical satirical artists such as Edouard Monet (Olympia, 1863) helped shape our societal perspectives towards women, identity, equality and liberation as a whole. Japanese artist Lady Aiko is a contemporary figure that challenges social constructs through satiric street art. Aiko’s depiction of Rani Lakshmibai for The St+Art India foundation has become a symbol for budding female empowerment within the country,  and has compelled onlookers to question their own values and beliefs. Western art as a whole currently tends to embody self-expression and liberation, rather than artistic social commentary. But for many, the act of embracing art remains a privilege, rather than a right. A new wave of diasporic art is entering Western spaces. Western art is now more inclusive of work from artists of various races, genders, classes, and sexual orientations. This begs the question: Does a non-Western upbringing influence an artist’s drive to pursue their art? Does the importance of art vary within different cultures? How does this upbringing influence a diasporic artist’s identity and self-expression?

To shed light on a neglected perspective, contributor Yaasrah Ahmed interviews international student Malak El Mahmoudy. Malak is an up-and-coming graphic designer who dabbles in photography. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Al Akhawayn University (AUI) in Ifran, Morocco, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Marketing Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Malak is torn between a desire to pursue her passion and a need to fulfill her inherent familial responsibilities. This interview examines how art and self-expression must take a backseat in Malak’s life, giving us a glimpse into the realities of other artists that are like her.

Yaasrah Ahmed [YA]: As a Morroccan student, how do you interpret the relationship between Western art and North African art in relation to art as a whole? 

Malak El Mahmoudy [MM]: A lot of [North African art], especially in the last ten years, has been focused on a type of freedom. Much of it is a form of self-expression, but not in the sense of “art for the sake of art”… more like, “art for the sake of liberation.” Most North African artists who become popular remain relevant due to their strong opinions in regards to female freedom.

YA: How do you feel art is viewed in Morocco?

MM: It depends on what type of art. Modern art is not really that valued… I mean, it is used as shock value in the media. Like, it could go viral on the Internet, but when you compare it to traditional art, it lacks [a significant amount of] value––especially since Morocco is known for its traditional art. So any [art] that’s new, especially if there’s an opinion behind it, isn’t valued nearly as much. 

YA: I know you’re currently studying Marketing Science, but do you see yourself pursuing any post-secondary education in graphic design or photography?

MM: I feel like it’s going to be a huge waste of money, at this point. My undergrad was expensive, and I only went there because I had a scholarship. Moving here [was expensive], and international student fees tend to be expensive [too]. Starting over is a privilege I don’t have, because that’s like taking my dad’s money and throwing it out the window. 

YA: From what you’re telling me, I feel that, more than your own drive for pursuing art, it could be your own morals stopping you. Could this be related to financial stability? Or your relationship with your family?

MM: For sure. That’s the problem. Ninety-nine percent of it is ethics, and morals, and trying to please your family. You want them to be proud of you. Like, I’m getting a Masters degree in Marketing Science, but is it really worth it for me? Am I enjoying it as much as I would be if I were doing graphic design? I don’t know, but it’s also not my money to spend. 

YA: Let’s talk about immigration for a moment, as I’m aware that you intend to apply for Canadian citizenship. Immigration is a very pivotal act—do you think it has influenced your artistic pursuit at all? 

MM: Oh, absolutely. I wanted to study abroad, but that would have lengthened the completion of my degree. My mom wants me to finish my Masters in a year and a half, so I can [acquire] my citizenship fast—because it’s not just my citizenship, it’s my little sister’s, and then my parents’. Being able to bring my little sister here means that she will be able to get her education here. This future isn’t just [my own]; it’s mine and three other peoples’. Every choice I make will impact my family, so I can’t drop everything I’m doing just because I have a love for design, or photography. 

YA: What advice would you offer someone who is in your position, or a similar position? 

MM: I would tell them to create a portfolio, or to publish [their] work online—regardless of whether or not [they are] studying/pursuing art. In this day and age it’s become super easy to share your work. It’s all about progress, and being able to develop your art over time. Especially when you live in a place like this [Montreal] where art is encouraged. You should take advantage of all the opportunities around you—opportunities that many people don’t have. 

Featured image by the artist.

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