Amira Hegazy

Kerry Cardoza on Amira Hegazy’s 2023 Bird Show Exhibition: “Ruin & Revival”

Amira Hegazy’s Bird Show installation “Ruin & Revival” is a mass of contradictions. Out of dried bricks, flowers bloom. Half-buried in the hard soil, fragile glass and ceramic tableware peek out. Handmade by Hegazy, the bricks function as a tribute of sorts to both the artist’s Egyptian heritage—where, thousands of years ago, some of the first bricks were made—and to her father—an engineer; they also serve as a rebuff to her father, who would let Hegazy’s brother—but not Hegazy—enter his world of engineering and construction.

The installation—made of 800 pounds of soil—stands about hip-height. It eschews Bird Show’s traditional table-top display and instead rests right on the porch’s floor. The bricks are stacked jenga-like in the corner. One sits by itself off to the side. Another rests atop the porch’s railing. Bird seed is scattered throughout. In the project’s early days, green plants and colorful native flowers—echinacea, marigold—burst proudly from a scattering of bricks; the glass and ceramic pieces hidden like treasures in the dirt. Two weeks later, the flora was wilting; a piece of the sculpture had broken off thanks to an overzealous squirrel. That’s part of the beauty of the Bird Show ethos: installations are outdoors, they are meant to shapeshift along with the elements and the bounty of wildlife in the adjoining backyard. In that sense, “Ruin & Revival” is a perfect Bird Show project; the bricks are made, in part, from the materials of past iterations, and once de-installed, they will break down and eventually be reused again.

For Hegazy, brickmaking began as a way to bring more joy into her work, which was often political in nature, and a way to embrace the possibility of failure. A printmaker by training, she taught herself how to construct the bricks by reading texts on engineering and on the history of mud bricks in Egypt. Similar to the building materials of ancient Egypt, Hegazy’s bricks are made out of a combination of topsoil, sand, clay, manure, and the detritus of her studio floor. The brickmaking process is time- and labor-intensive, and including an element of that labor to the actual material is crucial for the artist. (On the artist’s website, one can see a video of her unmaking one of these bricks. Titled “Women’s Work,” the video starts with a closeup of a brick on a pristine white floor. The artist scrubs off layers of dirt until the brick has disintegrated and the floor is filthy.) The bricks in the Bird Show installation also include some cement—added at the very end—to aid in the drying and setting process.

Hegazy got the idea for adding live plants to the bricks by chance. In her studio, she had been growing plants native to Egypt—another emblem of adding joy to her practice. “I started to think about the ways, when I was making the bricks, that they were falling apart and what it might mean for them to fall apart and how I might keep them together,” she explains. The plants are added to the bricks before they’re fully set, allowing them to take root when the mixture is still soft enough not to fall apart. The roots of the plants make the bricks stronger.

Unlike Egyptian brick, Hegazy’s are made from material obtained locally, including soil gathered from her hometown of Milford, Michigan. Though the process of making them is traditional. First the ingredients are mixed dry, then water is added and allowed to sit before being mixed a few times a day over the course of several days. Hegazy made a custom wooden mold, about 12x6x8 inches, to form them. To cast them, the mold is soaked in water, to allow for easier removal. The mud mixture is thrown in, the gravity of the downward motion assisting in filling the mold to the edges. Once full, the mud is packed and leveled off by hand. Then the mold is removed and the next brick is cast against the previous one.

This mix of ancient traditions and local materials is a potent symbol of the project as a whole: a merging of Hegazy’s identity as both a native and a migrant, a way to engage both homemaking and placelessness. For the artist, the bricks—foundational building material—serve as a stand-in for ideas of home, while the plants are totems of change and change. “Those two things have to exist simultaneously within my own understanding of my life and the place that I fit within, sort of the contradictions of myself,” Hegazy says. “It sort of naturally felt like that was what I was experiencing, that this change and this rooting has to happen within the frameworks of the traditions that I’m already given, but within that rooting, a lot of those traditions will fall away, and something else will be born from it.”

In the Qu’ran, Hegazy shared with me, gardens are equated with paradise; it says that “those who believe and do good” shall have “gardens beneath which rivers flow.” It’s a fitting vision; life would not be possible without the bounty of the earth, and stewarding and implementing traditional cultural practices—from seed-saving to closed-loop systems—is a crucial element of ensuring the health of the planet. And the most crucial element of all is the earth itself. As Wendell Berry notes, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” “Ruin & Revival” potently reminds us of all of this, by holding space for both rebirth and decay, tradition and contemporaneity.