Interview: Fatima Moallim

Fatima Moallim. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

December, 2023

In September 2023, Fatima Moallim performed Markeringar in the Magasin III library. Her work was inspired by three of her drawings in the museum’s collection – Under sängen, Planlösning, and Galgadon Highlands from 2021. In November of the same year, curator Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten interviewed Fatima about her thoughts on Markeringar, leading to a discussion about memory, nostalgia, and the desire to work with seemingly small gestures.

Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten: Let’s start with the three drawings in the library. Can you tell us a bit about them?

Fatima Moallim: The drawings are from my first solo exhibition in Stockholm, titled State. They depict a kind of state of being, and I think the titles speak volumes about the individual works. When I drew Under sängen – under the bed – it was like revisiting the feeling one has as a child, spending so many hours and thoughts in bed, worrying about what might be underneath it. Planlösning – floor plan – is largely about the relationship with the childhood home and living in cramped spaces. As a child, constantly compromising your space and privacy. In a home, in a room. When I made it, I realized this is a floor plan of a mix of different apartments and homes we’ve lived in since fleeing our homeland. Do I remember correctly? An abstract memory of how we lived. Galgadon Highlands is a region in northern Somalia. I’ve never been there myself, and it was my way of connecting to Somalia. It might not look like a mountain landscape, but in my mind, it represents some kind of beautification of a beautiful nature that existed before the war. This is perhaps the myth of Galgadon Highlands.

OKM: Something that might be accessible to you through someone else’s memory and becomes as important as a physical place?

FM: Absolutely. Sometimes memories become less and less significant. Would these places hold the same importance for my parents and relatives, or is it me who grew up with these stories romanticizing them? What is nostalgia, what is memory? I take these memories and do something with them because I need to.

OKM: The works are in many ways connected to mental and physical places. Considering the library as a space – can you tell us a bit about the performance work and its development?

FM: I wanted to create a performance suitable for a library, where all senses could be activated. It was important for me that one wouldn’t exactly know what was going to happen – one should simply feel and see. The three drawings are done in pencil, oil pastel, and BIC pen. I thought it would be beautiful if a very thin, soft pencil connected these memories and places, so I walked back and forth across the room with a pencil. I also wanted to evoke memories and access the private by working with sound. How lovely it would be to play with an electric toothbrush in the library – a sound you otherwise only hear at home. There’s something incredibly personal about cleaning your mouth and teeth. What would it be like to hear that sound together with the sound of a mechanical pencil sharpener? I also wanted to use the sound of pencil directly on the wall. It’s very beautiful, I think. The library’s architecture – a room within a room – I tried to take advantage of. The audience could sit in the innermost room and not see what I was drawing on the walls behind the bookshelves. Just hearing these sounds makes one experience what’s happening in a different way.

OKM: It was like you were disrupting the routine of regular museum visitors. I think many felt a bit uncertain about how to approach the room. What’s expected of me as a visitor? Should I sit down or am I missing something then? I feel that this uncertainty made people more receptive.

FM: How nice that you say that, because I try to work consciously with those uncertainties and amplify them. I find that when you do performance in the Nordics, it’s expected to be like a show or theater – the audience expects to see someone step into a role. But I try to break that. It’s almost as if my entire performance is about just being as I always have been, and that can almost be more difficult to watch than seeing someone step into an active role. I never step into a role; I just step into the lines.

Fatima Moallim during the performance work Markeringar. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

OKM: In Markeringar, you actively worked with subtle gestures.

FM: If you do something that doesn’t thunder and scream, it’s like you haven’t done anything at all. When does a thing become something? Why are pencil lines considered less? I mean, why are the thin lines less because they are discreet? We don’t need to see everything for it to be worthy or exist. An example is sleeping as activism – taking care of oneself and resting can be as much a revolution as being the loudest. I find it interesting how we sometimes see art as entertainment and people think they should get a lot for their money. There’s an expectation that one must see something grand and loud for it to be art, but I want to break against that.

OKM: The small gestures were present in the thin pencil lines you drew on the wall, and in the etching of books in the bookshelf, but also in the sounds you chose to use. Besides the sounds from a mini synthesizer, pencil sharpener, and an electric toothbrush, there were other sounds for those who listened carefully.

FM: I always wear a blazer, tie, or white shirt during my performances. I grew up with the idea that one should be decent and iron one’s shirts, and in these situations, clothes act a bit like a shield. But this time, I thought I wanted to work more liberatingly with sound, so I wore my sports jacket that rustles a bit and flip-flop shoes that make a sound every time the sandals hit the sole of the foot. I decided that all the objects I had would be in a grocery bag too, for the sake of sound. I wanted that when I reached for these objects, I would make a little sound all the time.

Objects for the performance. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

OKM: There’s another remnant from your performance here in the library – a section of the bookshelf that you filled completely with books turned with their spines inward, where you made impressions on the surface of the tightly compressed book pages. Can you tell us a bit about that?

FM: It was a very spontaneous idea. I thought about what it would be like to fill an entire shelf with books and remove what we think we know about information when we read titles. What is information, how do we process information, and who is the information for? What new meaning do books get when you don’t know what’s in them? If you squeeze books very hard, they become almost as hard as stone. And that gives me the opportunity to scribble on them. What I draw becomes more like markings – I’m etching something. During this process, I also started thinking about scents and memories from when I was younger, drawing on the wall and then spraying it away with my father’s strong men’s perfume. So I thought – why not recreate that memory? What happens if you take one of these books and infuse it with a scent?

From Fatima Moallim’s performance in the library of Magasin III. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.
The men’s perfume that Fatima Moallim used during her performance. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

OKM: I know you’ve talked about the role of the performance artist as someone who is working. How do you think about that?

FM: I think that now I am someone doing my job. Now I’m going to work to stay in these memories and stay in myself. I see it as a job to access a time, to retrieve something that’s disappeared. The performance is the moment when I’m concentratedly searching for something.

OKM: What role does the audience play in your performances? Could you just as well perform your work without an audience?

FM: I’m very aware that there’s an audience and that I’m being watched, but I don’t change my content for that. Sometimes I think – why am I exposing myself to this? I have a lot of social anxiety. But maybe that’s what’s exciting too.

OKM: It became evident that we were all part of a sort of choreography. We wanted to participate, but at the same time, give you space to practice what you were practicing. That’s what we were constantly negotiating with our body language.

FM: When you mentioned choreography just now, I started thinking about the choreography of memory – these three different parts of my performance become like a sort of memory choreography. You move as when you were younger, get these memories that become markings in the bookshelf, then connections with lines along the walls – like a line that never ends and a choreography that has never begun.

Fatima Moallim is an artist based in Stockholm and Malmö. She works with performance, drawing, sculpture, and, more recently, sound. Central to her artistry is an exploration of memory, childhood, and place, and how these relate to identity and the present.

Fatima Moallim’s performance work Markeringar took place in the library of Magasin III on September 27, 2023. Curator: Sofia Ringstedt

Text: Katja Åberg, Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten