Why Mariam el-Quessny is Finally Calling Herself an Artist

Mariam el-Quessny, "Motherhood Illustrated Series", 2018
Welcome to ART CRUSH INTERNATIONAL! We take you to visit Mariam El-Quessny in the Oakland apartment she shares with her husband and two small children. Quessny, originally from Egypt, has lived in California for five years and, despite being a graduate of the Pratt Institute’s School of Design, only recently begun to call herself an artist. She serves us dandelion tea, shows us the tightly packed studio corner she has carved out for herself, and tells us about ‘Motherhood Illustrated’, in which she transforms women’s photographs of gritty, unflattering motherhood experiences into lovingly detailed watercolour paintings. We make a fort in her kid’s bed. 
Mariam el-Quessny in her studio
Mariam el-Quessny in her studio, 2018

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Transcription of Mariam el-Quessny's interview



jb - Jozefien Buydens

mq - Mariam El Quessny

sv - Svea Vikander

intro music

sv: I have missed you so, so much. Welcome back everybody! This is ART CRUSH INTERNATIONAL. I’m Svea Vikander.

jb: I'm Jozefien Buydens.

sv: And together we take you into the artist studios of the world.

jb: We have lots of news. We're launching a podcast!

sv: Ooooo

jb: Celebration time, come on!

sv: That’s not how it goes, that’s not how it goes.

jb: No?

sv: No.

jb: Celebration time, come on…

sv: No. “Celebrate good times, come on! Celebrate, have a good time, come on!”

jb: Oh, really?

sv: Celebration, let’s celebrate, it’s all right. All right, this is really long…

jb: Wow, yeah, yeah. I made my own version.

sv: Anyway. So, podcast is really exciting. Very keen for you to look up the show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast, subscribe, listen, review, rate, tell your friends, tell your pets, tell your plans.

jb: Write us emails.

sv: Write us emails, well, that’s good too. Our email address is contact@artcrushinternational.com.

jb: And, we’ll respond, ASAP.

sv: We didn’t do a good job with that last time, but we’ll do much better this season. Jozefien, who do we have a crush on this week?

jb: This week we have a crush on the Egyptian artist, who lives in Oakland, Mariam Quessny.

sv: Tell me more

jb: So, Mariam moved from Egypt to Oakland a few years ago. Besides being an artist, she's a mom of two small children. And, Mariam makes these beautiful drawings about motherhood. Exciting, right.

sv: Yeah.

jb: They're absolutely beautiful. If you want to go ahead and develop your crush on Mariam, you can follow her on Instagram, so her name is Mariam Quessny, and she goes by stay_at_home_artist. I think we should just go ahead and see what Mariam has to tell us.

sv: Right. I wish we got to Cairo, but she lives in Oakland now, so let’s head over to Oakland.

jb: Yeah.

sv: Okay, let’s go!

jb: Let’s go. 


mq: I am Mariam Quessny. I call myself an artist now, semi confidently. I’m helping mothers celebrate their story through art.


jb: Mariam Quessny lives in an apartment complex in the Grand Lake neighbourhood of Oakland with her husband and their two small children.

sv: We were early when we left to get to Mariam’s apartment. We actually got there early, but parking was nowhere to be found, our parking Gods having abandoned us.

They could look back and apologise or something. Right?

And then we got stuck behind a delivery van.

We’re being patient, but you still apologise for blocking the freakin’ road.

jb: Hi, man!

sv: Hi, man! I want your apology. I’m not mad, but I want an apology.

jb: We ended up circling her neighbourhood for 15 minutes before parking at the bottom of a very high hill.

sv: Anyway, we can walk. We’re European.

jb: We’re Europeans, we walk.

sv: Europeans, we walk.

jb: That sounds good.

sv: If we had gone directly to Mariam’s apartment, we would have been almost on time, but, we had a Google Maps problem.

You know what, we’ve, we've actually missed our…

jb: Oh, really?

sv: Yeah. I walked us too far in the wrong direction.

Ooo, look at this!

jb: We did stumble upon a pay-what-you-can farm stand under the freeway though.

sv: Feral Heart Farms, certified organic! Pay what you can, you just put the money in the little lock box.

jb: Because this, is Oakland!

sv: This is so cute.

We walk up a steep flight of stairs on the back of a hill and finally, finally make it.

Okay, number 6.

jb: Yeah.

sv: 10 minutes late to Mariam’s front gate.

mq: Hello?

sv: Hi! It's Svea.

jb: We walk up an open stairwell to the second floor, a long balcony reaches past other apartment doors. Mariam is standing in front of hers.

sv: Hello, baby.

mq: Hi!

sv: Hi. This is Jozefien.

jb: Hi!

mq: Hi, Jozefien.

jb: I’m Jozefien.

mq: Hi, you too! Please, come in.

sv: Thank you.

jb: Thank you.

mq: We have a guest today.

sv: Oh, hi!

Mariam’s husband is sitting at a desk facing the wall immediately opposite the entry of their small two-bedroom apartment.

Matas: Hi, I’m Matas.

sv: His name is Matas. He works in the nonprofit sector here, but in Egypt he was a comedian.

Can I put my shoes here?

mq: Yes, you can do anything.

sv: Okay. Oh my God, I love you place! It’s so cute.

jb: Their place is brightly coloured with art on the walls. It's not new, but it's open concept, with a beautiful newly renovated kitchen on the right.

mq: it’s cute and tiny and very convenient, ‘cause everything is, like, within…

sv: Totally, totally! You see an accident happen and you’re like: “Wow!”.

jb: They have a sliding glass door onto a very small cinder-block lined patio. You can hear the freeway nearby.

sv: Look, Jozefien!

jb: Ooo, this is great!

Mariam painted the walls of the yard space bright turquoise and it reflects a bluish light into the small living quarters. she's also gathered wood chips from the Berkeley city yard and created a playground-like space for her kids.

mq: I tried to make it convenient and accessible, but they rarely come and play here.

sv: Mariam offers us some refreshments.

mq: Can I offer you some snacks? I can make you…

sv: I'm okay.

mq: dandelion tea, which is this, like, really nice…

sv: That sounds good.

And, it is so good!

mq: These are my favourite, the turmeric and caramel nut.

sv: Ooo, caramel nut sounds good.

mq: And, they’re nice with cream, so, just, if you don’t do dairy they won’t be nice.

sv: The lactose induced indigestion is totally worth taking.

mq: Yeah, for a while I wasn’t making anything, it was down the outlet I had to, like, decorate the house and tweak and tinker and play, so, that's why it’s, every corner has something.

jb: It’s really cool.

She shows us a small corner where she does her drawings and paintings.

mq: This is where I work. Everything is very compressed and efficient and every, every little corner’s been utilised.

jb: There's a bright desk lamp, pegboard, almost all the way up the wall, and shelves above your head.

mq: As soon as you come into the house there’s a wall. On the left side I have a pegboard wall, has all our things from glue, staples, yarn, tape, everything you can possibly use to make something, drill some panels with drawings, envelopes, shoe rack, sewing stuff, you know, books. And, in the front you see shelves, it has lots of storage, books, paper, scraps, photos of us and printer and my desk and all the paints and my work.

Lots of light.

jb: One of the desk legs is covered in baby photos.

mq: Well, we have all the photos here for Taha, because when Karima, our youngest daughter, was born, he felt really left out, so, we had to, like, show him that he was here first, he's very much loved and all the people that love him, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, so, it’s only about him now, which has to change soon ‘cause she starts to understand what's going on.

sv: There’s a laptop stand on Mariam’s desk which she has angled so that it can be a height adjustable easel.

mq: I just got that ‘cause I was hunching over so much and hurting my back, so, it just raises up the the drawing.

It’s kind of like an easel for the desk.

sv: Artists, take note! This is a great idea.

And, do you sit on this chair?

mq: Yeah. It just happened ‘cause we have that chair, it wasn’t really intentional. I like ‘cause it's big enough for my bum. I guess that's here for longer. I like working from home, I wouldn't do a studio ever because I, I would have to replicate everything in the studio and I don't want to do that, and I work at night while the kids are sleeping, so, it’s really convenient for me to have this work space be at home.

sv: I spy a quote, written on a card and stuck above Mariam’s desk.

mq: A quote?

sv: An inspirational saying.

mq: Oh, yeah, “I am enough”. Yeah, it’s, it's been a journey to get to here. I've, like, struggle, struggled with making art for the past 10 plus years because I just didn’t, I don't see many people that looked like me or artists, and I didn't see people who are normal, normal artists that weren’t like eccentric and depressive and, like, I’m just a normal person. I’m, like, from Egypt, you know.

sv: We set up in Mariam’s child’s room. We drape a blanket over the bed’s wooden frame, it's a pink blanket and as we cuddle inside it's like a three of us are preschoolers in our own homemade fort.

jb: No boys allowed!


mq: I studied Fine Arts to begin with at American University of Cairo and then I transferred after two years, after finishing all my major requirements. I went to Pratt Institute in New York and studied interior design.

After that, I went back to Egypt, worked for a year, a year and a half, in interior design stuff and got my soul sucked out of me. Meanwhile I was working on, I was writing poetry, even though I don't write any poetry now, and I wouldn't even consider it poetry, but just writing stories that were really important for me to share and I didn't find an outlet in Egypt at the time, so, I just decided to start an open mic and had my first open mic in 2009, that was pre-revolution, Egyptian Revolution, and it just spiralled out of there and we became the biggest travelling open, open mic event in Egypt.

It's illegal to have groups of people come together in Egypt, like, you can't do that, we did that anyway in cafes and we somehow went under the radar and lots of people, like, found their voice through this movement. It was called ‘Mashrah i Marich’, which means the Mars project. It's one of these things that kind of took off even beyond my power, beyond my ability, like, I'm not a very charismatic person, but somehow, and I'm very shy, and somehow is MC’ing these events in front of hundreds and hundreds of people that didn't know, and we've had hundreds of open mic’s all over and it’s, it was, it was amazing.

‘Cause it wouldn’t, we didn’t even have much of an underground music and art movement in Egypt but it kind of took off from there. So, before the revolution people were more metaphorical about what they wanted to say, things were more hidden, read between the lines kind of thing, and after was like: “Waaahh!”, everything was being said out in the open, like, like people were just like tongues out, mouth open, like.

I think when you have more limitations you push to be more artistic, definitely, so after I feel like there was more ranting than artfullness and how good things were said, and after that, it balanced out again, people were trying to say something from their own self that was meaningful rather than just like running the first sprint.


mq: After five years of doing that I wasn't really having my own practice and it started to itch, like, I want to do something for myself and I just started to retract from the project. During that time I got married and it was, we were planning to move here to Oakland, so, there were a lot of identity changes for me, like, being married, moving.

I had so many more layers to who I was as a first perception of me, like, brown, Arab, whatever, Muslim, all these things that I don't know people are getting, or reading or not. To walk in the world as someone who knows how people see her or sees her identity and knows exactly the negative connotations that are associated with that, that I have to, like, counter that constantly in my movements at the grocery store, walking into the store, being with my kids, I don't want to shout at them, so they’ll think I'm this kind of person, like, just everything I do I feel like I'm being watched. So, anyway, identity has been like a hovering thing for me ever since I moved to the US, which is almost five years ago.


mq: When I was pregnant I got really anxious ‘cause I didn't feel like I would have a place in the art world as a mom, ‘cause I don't see many moms and I was researching who’s, who's an artist as a mom and I stumbled upon this video of this one artist who was saying: “You can't be an artist if you’re mom, you can't make good art if you’re a mom”, and at the same time bombarded with this ideal vision of a mom and all this beauty and and glowiness and slenderness and all these, like, perfection driven imagery of mom, motherhood, that was all very unrealistic for me.

At the beginning I was like: “Okay, when I'm a mom I'm going to feel this or when I'm pregnant I'm going to feel this glow or this beauty and I'm going to feel so good”, but I wasn't feeling so good, it was heavy and I, I didn't eat the things I wanted to eat and I couldn’t do things I wanted to do it, so, I wasn't feeling that like amazingness when I was pregnant and after that I was like: “I love my child but it was hard!”. I didn't see much of that struggle and I hear much of it, I felt like I was alone a lot of the time, because am I the only one struggling with this? Why are all the images so beautiful and perfect and powdery pink with like puppies on white carpets?

I'm like, there's this chaos in my life! And I feel like part of this project is receiving stories from mom’s. I put a a call for moms to send me their photos and I would illustrate it for them and part of that was reading their stories, it was so healing just to know that, wow, it's not just me, you know, even though I'm around lots of moms now and I do know that what I'm going through is normal, it's just to see that from all over the world mom’s are still, are struggling with the same issues and body image, you know, everyone has their unique perspective, but in a way it's also universal.

It's really important represent this kind of motherhood, the real, the raw, the chaotic and in a beautiful way, through art. So, I think it's actually important for more of this to happen, more people to acknowledge this invisible motherhood energy that's in everyone's life whether they like it or not,’cause they're born from a mother, even if they don't have contact with their mother, even if they're not a mother they have mothers, you know mothers. So, you're in constant contact with motherhood, yet, I feel as a mother I was extremely invisible and my work was extremely invalued.

I was always asked: “So, what do you do besides that?”, I'm like: “I can barely do that to begin with, I can barely do the whole motherhood thing to begin with”, there's so much expectation, yet no acknowledgement of effort, no the recognition, no credit. It's a very strange thing. It took me a such a long time to be like: “I’m a mom, yuck, I'm not young”. Now I’m like: “I’m a mom, it's okay”, I can also I'm whoever I am it doesn’t…

In a way the whole identity thing I was working with, struggling with, it got lifted, ‘cause now I don't care, I just want to live, I just want to have my my lunch, I just want to, like, make sure my kids are alive in the car seat buckled and then in their beds asleep. And everything else doesn't matter.


mq: The Motherhood Illustrated project, I feel like I'm exercising through it, exercising my skills, skill with materials and also my practice, like, how do I sit down and do things, like, just learning basics of how do I hold a brush again, how do I sit, like, discipline about that. So, in the beginning I was going to do line drawings, just the ink stuff, and and now I'm doing more watercolour and the watercolour is getting super detailed and is getting out of control for me and it’s taking me like a week, a week and a half for each one, it’s, it's taking way longer.

I'm getting super sucked into the detail, I don't know if that's good or bad, but for now I'm like going crazy. It's been a big learning process with the technique of watercolour, I've been learning so much about it. You do it and then it settles however it wants to settle and that's also a very telling of motherhood, like, I want it to go this way, but it's going to go wherever it needs to go, it's going to settle, it doesn’t settle really, it's going to go where it needs to go and this lack of control is what motherhood has, has taught me so much, like, you do what you can, when you can, and most of the time you don't do what you want.

The subjects I had were the things that layed around in my house, like, a vacuum cleaner, scrub brush. So, it started off, like, I’m not going to think about my subject, I'm just going to do what's in front of me. I was having so much fun! It was so fulfilling, so satisfying, so good to have something to do beyond the kids and the house and I think that led to the motherhood thing, because the most present function that's for me, as a person in this world is motherhood, I am mothering all the time, it's non-stop!

And, I remember, like, when I was pregnant, I had so much anxiety ‘cause I was hoping to move here and start my art career and like find myself and as soon as I came here I got pregnant. So, I was like: “Oh, no. Something’s going to take over, I don't know what it is, I don't know any mother artists”. I actually bought lots of mother, mother artist books that had stories in them and that really helped.

It was kind of depressing though, because a lot of them would say: “We have, like, three hours to work a day”, and I’d be like: “What? I need like sixteen hours, what are you talking about?”, and I remember being in a studio a while ago and this mom would come from 9am to 3pm and I’d be like: “How do you ever do anything? How could you ever do anything in six hours? You're crazy, you're never going to get anywhere”, and now I'm like: “Oh, I have an hour! What?! That’s crazy!”, which I do, that's what I have in a day, really, with commuting, dropping off and rehabilitating myself after the morning chaos, it’s really like an hour, an hour and a half if I’m lucky and after they’re asleep when I have zero energy.


sv: What do you love about your studio?

mq: I like that it's in my house. I like that I can make tea in my breaks and pee and change my clothes and check on my kids and run to the store quickly then come back and not that being a big deal. I like the convenience of it.

sv: So do you paint when your kids are playing?

mq: They’ll never let me do that.

sv: Yeah, you check on your kids.

mq: When they're sleeping, of course! Whenever I just, like, think about doing something or like

holding a brush my kid wants me to carry her.

jb: Do they try to join you?

mq: I think so, I think so. Sometimes I, I make it a thing, I put Taha next to me and give him a piece of paper and paint and it works for like 10 minutes.


mq: In Egypt, in transition from open mic’ing into designing and doing things, it was actually in a very interesting place called, ‘Dar Bersabad Sabad A Montoshar’, it’s a potter’s community and it’s originally a poor area. A bunch of artist came together and set up an art gallery there and my friend has a studio there and I would come, I would go work with her. It's a, it's very, it's a very interesting space.

I don't think there's many artist communities, but the ones that are there are really interesting and multi, multi-class. You know how, like, there's racial stuff here, there’s class issues in Egypt, so, to have a multi-class complex is kind of a rarity.

So, it was, it's nice to work side by side with people who have different backgrounds than you and to learn from them, because most of them don’t go to school or don't continue school, so, they have actually a much better grasp of their skill than most people who go to school because they practice more.

Things are changing in Egypt, like, this is a bigger conversation, but people that I grew up with are very much trying to distance themselves from religion. So, they're actually trying to represent themselves more as Westerners, so you wouldn't actually know the difference, except from the, how they look from their skin, but generally people in Egypt are very modest, very conservative,… Actually, they look more modest than they are, because it's a cultural norm to cover your hair and, and younger people tend to just like dress more tight, most girls cover their hair even though they wouldn't if they traveled.

People have, I would say, moved away from it being a religious thing to a social thing. I actually started wearing a head covering like five years ago. I wasn’t, I didn’t grow up with it, no one in my family do it, my social circle disapproves, actually, of it, because it does represent that conservative dark uneducated aspect of religion, but for me it was, it was a calling and I don't know exactly the source and it was very hard for me to come out, actually.

I feel like I haven't actually come out, because I don't want to get questioned, because I feel like it was such a cerebral decision, it was, not cerebral, a visceral decision, like, I don't actually know why, but this, eventually I’ll know why, ‘cause I, if there's one thing I knew I wasn’t going to do, it was to cover my hair, never. And then it just happened and it's been, like, a very difficult and amazing at the same time, like, it's very difficult to walk with an identity, and it is difficult in Egypt in my social circles and it's also difficult here because suddenly I’m, I represent so much more than who I am.

People that expect me to be ignorant or violent or whatever the news is saying these days, right, I feel like I have to  disprove people all the time. I am extra smiley sometimes, like, I try to speak to my kids in English in a very sweet tone, even though I don't always want to be sweet with them, you know, I’m a normal person. I want to scream at them sometimes.


mq: I love my religion, I love everything is brings, the more I learn about it, the more I just feel so comfortable having guidelines and having healing guides and knowing that everything is actually normal, everything I'm going through is normal and that there are ways to deal with this.

sv: So, the covering wasn’t a religious thing?

mq: It was.

sv: It was.

mq: It was, it was, it was a religious decision and that was the hardest part of it.

sv: A visceral, religious decision.

mq: Yeah. And, it's been great for me. It’s, it's been, like I said, difficult, because it's like that identity part and I've always seen myself as beautiful and people have always complimented my looks, my face, my hair, my body, I consider them still beautiful, but suddenly, like, it's not accessible and I'm not being affirmed in the world in a way like, I had to tell Matas: “You know, you have to tell me I'm beautiful way more now, because I'm not getting that”.


mq: My email is melquessny: m e l q u e s s n y, at gmail.


sv: And welcome back from Mariam Quessny’s kid’s bedroom. I'm so glad that you could join us.

jb: It was very soft and fluffy

sv: It was so soft and fluffy, it was really awesome girl time! I had so much fun talking to her. I know you're so sad to see us go, but the time is running out on our show today. Jozefien, who do we have a crush on next?

jb: Next episode, we have a crush on Elle Sofe Sara.

sv: Elle Sofe Sara is an incredible choreographer; she’s also an Indigenous woman and a reindeer herder here in Sápmi, the European Arctic. You can follow her on Instagram at ellesofe, all one word.

jb: get ready!

sv: My name is Svea Vikander.

jb: And, I'm Jozefien Buydens.

sv: Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review. We’re new here.

jb: See you next time!

sv: Bye!

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