In 2002, while visiting her family home in Egypt’s Nile Delta, Susan Hefuna was drawn to the view from the home’s windows, which looked out over the intersection of two village roads. She became interested in the way that the crossing of the two roads facilitated the daily movement and interactions of the village’s residents. Her long observations of this crossroads lead to the creation of her first video work, which she titled Life in the Delta (2002). The film centers on a continuous take of the intersection filmed from the roof of her home. Through this extended take, Life if the Delta captures the ebb and flow of people, animals, and vehicles as they traverse the quiet yet steadily trafficked country roads and surfaces layers of the crossroads’ meaning and value. The crossroads is a connection between fields and markets for farmers transporting crops and animals, a space of business for street vendors who gather customers in the intersection, and a social space for neighbors as they take time to greet one another in passing.
Following Life in the Delta, Hefuna has sustained an interested in the crossroads as a generative site of spatial negotiation and a larger metaphor for social and cultural encounter. She has since created ten additional films using the same conceit: each is filmed from a fixed vantage point in one continuous take. Collectively titled the Crossroads series, it is an ever-growing body of work that reflects the intersections that shape Hefuna’s own identity. Hefuna was born in Germany to an Egyptian father and German mother and raised in Egypt until the age of eight, when her family returned to Europe. In Germany and Egypt, she is both an intimate insider and an observant outsider, a position she characterizes as a state of “in-betweenness.” Hefuna carries this “in-between” awareness to each of the Crossroads films. Together, the films map Hefuna’s geographically spread practice. Often created in connection with other long-term projects, they chart her engagement–both personal and artistic–with spaces like London, New York, and Cairo. Individually, they each evidence Hefuna’s keen sense of space and intuitive understanding of the social and political nuances that undergird each site she chooses.
The focus on the intersection of two roads in each of the films provides a ready parallel to Hefuna’s drawing and sculpture practice, which foregrounds intersecting lines as prominent visual theme. Like the delicately networked lines of her drawings, each film reveals patterns in the traffic of cars and pedestrians as they move over the underlying grid of the crossroads. Many of Hefuna’s Crossroads films further parallel the movement of people in city streets to the choregraphed movement of dance. Produced as part of a three year collaboration with choreographer Luca Veggetti, NYC Crossroads (2011) facilitated a close study of how human bodies manifest line and shape in space. Filmed from a window in lower Manhattan, NYC Crossroads captures one of the city’s many busy intersections. When viewed from above through Hefuna’s lens, the movements of pedestrians form shifting shapes that fluidly morph as they navigate through the intersection and around each other. These observed movements became the foundation for NOTATIONOTATIONS (2013), a performance that accompanied the screening of NYC Crossroads at The Drawing Center in New York. For the performance, Hefuna created a network of chalk lines on the gallery floor echoing the patterns of movement seen in NYC Crossroads. These floor drawings then used as guiding lines for Veggetti’s choreography as performers gradually erased the chalk marks with their bodies. The movement of performers over Hefuna’s chalk lines and in relation to each other and their audience reflected the patterns and spatial relationships observed in streets of New York.
In London Crossroads (2016), Hefuna moved choreography into the space of the crossroads itself. Drawing on work of choreographer and dancer Rudolph von Laban (1879-1958), who developed a notation system for movement as part of his theoretical practice, Hefuna worked with the dancers of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London to develop a set of notations for the movement of pedestrians within a crossroads. Their culminating performance is captured in London Crossroads. Here, the performers cross the space of the crossroads like the repeated strokes of a pen across a page, tracing and retracing their movements into the intersection. As the dancers enact the notations within the crossroads, they also subtly draw the public into their performance as their movements enter into the larger flow of traffic.
While simple in their approach, the Crossroads films often pressure a given site to reveal underlying fissures and points of tension. In a telling moment while filming London Crossroads, for example, a police officer arrived to surveil the intersection, clearly suspicious of the dancer’s activities but unable to pinpoint exactly why. While seeking to integrate themselves into the flow of the crossroads using the vocabulary of everyday movement, the dancers inadvertently crossed an invisible tripwire, revealing the presence of state surveillance. With their attentive eye, the films can equally be called up to reframe a given site, opening space for reexamination.
In 2010, Hefuna was invited by the Serpentine Gallery in London to create a series of new works as part of a larger project titled The Edgware Road Project. The project looked to engage with the southern stretch of Edgware Road in London, which is known for its Middle Eastern shops and restaurants and is often referred to as “Little Cairo,” “Little Beirut,” or, disparagingly, as the “Gaza Strip.” This section of Edgware Road is seen as an anomaly in the otherwise white and wealthy enclave of London’s West End. As such, it has been labeled a “stress area” and is treated as a problem that needs to be contained and managed by both nearby residents and London’s municipal government. Responding to this pathologizing of an immigrant neighborhood, and as part of her larger contribution to The Edgware Road Project, Hefuna created a subseries of Crossroads films focused on Edgware Road: Edgware Road @ Waitrose (2010), Edgware Road @ Al Arez (2010), Edgware Road @ Edgware Road Tube Station (2010), and Edgware Road @ Church Street (2010).
In the context of London, and especially immigrant communities therein, Hefuna’s choice to film from a high vantage point echoes the view of surveillance mechanisms like CCTV, reflecting the increasingly present encroachment of the state surveillance in the lives of Arab and Muslim communities. Hefuna embeds herself as part of this monitored community as she appears in each of the five films as a pedestrian or shop patron. Armed with the knowledge of the area as a “stress area,” viewers of these films are challenged to find examples of threat or suspicious behavior. Instead, the films capture individuals caught up in day-to-day activities: shopping for fruits and vegetables, waiting for the arrival of a bus, enjoying coffee at a one of the street’s many cafés.
In 2015, Hefuna again turned her attention to the place of diasporic communities within Europe in Marxloh Crossroads (2015). For Marxloh Crossroads, Hefuna filmed a busy intersection in Marxloh, a district in the western German city of Duisburg located just north of Hefuna’s home in Düsseldorf. Like Edgware Road, Marxloh is home to a number of immigrant businesses and frequented by immigrant communities in Germany, especially those from Turkey. While many of these businesses and their patrons have resided in Marxloh for generations, they are still seen as an outside threat by many. Marxloh is often instrumentalized within German political discourse, held up as an example of the failure of immigrants to assimilate to German society and the dangers of accepting foreigners into the country. The media often refer to the district as a “no-go zone,” a designation driven by racism and xenophobia. In contrast to these hyperbolic descriptions, Hefuna’s Marxloh Crossroads presents a view of Marxloh that is almost shockingly benign. Young couples stroll side by side, families corral their small children across crosswalks, and patrons enter and exit the bright, inviting dress shop centered in the film’s frame. In the face of inflated, politicized rhetoric, Marxloh as represented in Marxloh Crossroads is powerfully quotidian.
While Hefuna appears, Hitchcock-like, in each of her Crossroads film, her presence is most confrontational in Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder)(2003). Filmed in Frankfurt an der Oder at the invitation of the St. Marienkirche Church, Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder) incisively pushes up against the limits of acceptance and accommodation for those perceived to be ‘other’ within Germany. Located in eastern Germany near its shared border with Poland, Frankfurt an der Oder has historically struggled with right-wing extremism and xenophobia. The city witnessed a particularly violent manifestation of this xenophobia when, in January 2003, a Jordanian man accidentally journey to the city by train, mistaking it for Frankfurt am Main in central Germany. While waiting for his train to return, he was attacked and brutally beaten by a group of people.
When invited to film in the city, Hefuna’s conceived of Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder) as a direct response to this incident and the extremism behind it. In the film, Hefuna deliberately chose to use her own body, indexed as ‘other,’ as a means of confrontation. The film opens onto a scene of Hefuna seated on a chair positioned in the street outside of the St. Marienkirche Church. While sitting in the street is common use of public space within Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, its displacement in Frankfurt an der Oder is made evident through responses to her presence. As the film progresses, cars navigate around her, sometime beeping, and crowds of pedestrians gather near her in groups before dispersing. Their suspicion is palpable, as is the tension in Hefuna’s own body as she sits unmoving. She recalls being asked what religion she practiced by one passerby, and if she was a gypsy by another.
Hefuna likens the behavior of the passing pedestrians in Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder) to that of white bloods cells in the body. Perceiving her presence in the street as a threat, they gather to investigate and contain her. As Hefuna herself describes, “Small things can have a very big impact, if they are put in different cultural contexts they can unveil people’s behaviors.” In the case of Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder), the simple act of sitting in the street unveiled an environment suspicious of otherness. The tangible friction in Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder) is made even more stark when viewed in relationship with Cairo Crossroads (2007), which Hefuna filmed from the window of the Townhouse Gallery two years later while residing in Cairo. In Cairo Crossroad, Hefuna’s action of sitting in the street becomes part of the norm. The main street in the film is lined with plastic chairs used by a local coffee shop; they invite passers-by to stop, rest, and socialize. While the crossroads is tight and narrow, vehicles carefully navigate past the sitters and one another. Here, the street is a shared space of gathering and negotiation, rather than exclusion and threat.
Hefuna most recent crossroads film, Crossroads Stein (2018), continues the kind of performative intervention seen in Via Fenestra/Frankfurt (Oder). Conceived and filmed while Hefuna was in residence at the Künstlerresidenz Chretzeturm in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, the film focuses on the picturesque pedestrian road that runs through the center of the medieval town. For Crossroads Stein, Hefuna created a patterned garment designed to cover a performer completely as they walked up and down the street. The garment was completed with an extended train used to pull a cobblestone from the street behind the performer. Dressed in the gown, the anonymized performer resembles a veiled woman, a figure that has become the target of so much politicized consternation in Europe. Yet, in turn the patterning of Hefuna’s design for the garment also reflects the knit of exposed timber beams seen in the surrounding architecture, making the figure into an animated structure. In Crossroads Stein, as in all of Hefuna’s Crossroads films, it is ultimately left to the viewer to determine what meaning comes to the fore.
Sarah Dwider, Chicago 2019
Title: Life in the Delta, 1423/2002
Nile Delta, Egypt 2002: A crossroads with unspectacular village scenes, a view from a roof above this dusty intersection, her access here underlines her position as both an outsider and insider. Its subtitle, 1423/2002 (Islamic time/Christian time), emphasizes the relative stasis at which life in a Delta village has remained, at times immune to the forces of time and modernity. This particular crossroads is quite busy with farmers, who exchange gossip on their way to the cotton and rice fields, while taking their animals to the fields. There is also a timeless quality about this spot, where apparently nothing happens, and where time stands still. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that this particular undramatic un_documentation shot in real time is dramatic in of itself, as a problem with the local sewer pipe elicits varying degrees of alarm amidst the village’s residents over the course of nearly two hours of footage. In all her crossroads movies Susan Hefuna shows such timeless images and activity, as if eternity is part of the present, with life repeating itself.
© Susan Hefuna
Title: Via Fenestra, Frankfurt/Oder
In Frankfurt (Oder) Susan Hefuna is sitting in front of a church on a chair, shot by a hidden camera from the city hall window. The artist is performing frozen as a sculpture for the entire shot engaging the audience actively like a magnet and manipulating the film scene through here presence in the scene. People observe her as strange or alien, asking what religion she was, if she was a Roma, why she was sitting in front of a church and so on, the crowd becomes bigger and bigger. The film visualizes how people project their thoughts
on others related to their own freer. Hefuna was inspired to use this specific city and to sit on a chair in the street, by the story she read in the newspaper of an Jordanian who was nearly beaten to death by German right wing extremists in Frankfurt/Oder, 2003. By accident the Jordanian had taken the wrong train assuming he would go to Frankfurt/ Main. Not knowing there is also another "Frankfurt" in Germany: Frankfurt/Oder with high right wing extremist population, located at the Polish border.
Later the video "Via Fenestra, Frankfurt/Oder"was screened inside the church on the wall.
© Susan Hefuna
Title: Cairo Crossroads
A view from the window of Townhouse Gallery, Cairo to the coffee shops on the lane of the streets in front of Townhouse is observing the activity of the community around the Gallery. Hefuna worked closely with the Gallery since 1998, a non profit space and important place for the Egyptian art scene. Between 1998 to 2012 the Gallery played an important role in developing the Egyptian art scene and helped to make artists visible internationally.
© Susan Hefuna
Title: London Crossroads
For London Crossroads 2016 Susan Hefuna collaborated with eleven students from Trinity Laban Dance Conservator, London Hefuna chose to collaborate with Trinity Laban method due to its history of teaching a dance methodology that investigates the relationship between the human body and architecture, a constant theme in Hefuna's works.
London Crossroads consists of a stationary 150-minute single-take shot filmed from a window near Oxford Circus, London. The camera’s angle and motionlessness in addition to the absence of post-production gives the film a starkly empirical and evidential feel reminiscent of CCTV camera footage. London crossroads observes human bodies as they move through the intersection unaware, that they are interconnected and influencing each other’s movement as they only meet once at this certain point in time.
Like Susan Hefuna’s drawings, the video work consists of multiple layers placed over the logic of the net that is a reoccurring element of Hefuna’s work. Moving amongst the tourists, shoppers, and workers are eleven Trinity Laban Dance School students have previously participated in improvisational rehearsals with the artist and been given notations for their scripted and improvised movement across the street. The viewer of the film may recognize a florescent wheeled pink suitcase moved by a woman repeatedly up and down the same street; a man in a beige jacket loiters by the corner; he lines up as a couple, then separates, appears again in the scene… The observer starts to view the beige jacket and follows the color as a pattern, an abstract structure. This net-like movement structure of 11 people interacting with structures of reality remind us of the layered sheets with dots and lines in Susan Hefuna’s drawings.
© Susan Hefuna
Times Square is the world’s best known Crossroads. In Hefuna’s film a woman is standing at Times Square carrying an oversized bag with the words: Be One. Crowded with advertisement and figures from films walking around like Superman or Micki mouse, the film becomes like a staged reality. The color of the film changes from red to blue or yellow depending on the huge
Media screens on this artificial and the world’s most exaggerated Crossroads of reality and fiction.
© Susan Hefuna
In Crossroads Harlem at 125th street Susan Hefuna walks though the scene with the Be One bag in front of the famous music hall Apollo Theatre. In the heart of Harlem at Apollo the most important African American artist such as Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, James Brown, Price etc performed Pop Music, Hip Hop, Jazz. In Harlem Crossroads Hefuna remains us of the most influential place for music in the world.
© Susan Hefuna