Artist Mandy El-Sayegh has received international acclaim for her multidimensional paintings, but a breakdown in 2020 pushed her in an entirely new direction
It was in the spring of 2020 that Mandy El-Sayegh felt herself losing touch with reality. “I kind of had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “It was quite public.”
At the time, El-Sayegh was coming out of a turbulent six-year relationship and the Covid-19 virus was tearing across the UK. A national lockdown forced her to isolate in her studio, away from family and friends, and to retreat into her work. At first, she was thrilled at having so much time to focus on the sculptures, installations, videos and the fleshy, multilayered paintings that have made her one of the world’s most in-demand young artists. But as galleries and museums were closed, there was nowhere for her art to go. It accumulated in piles around her, filling every inch of her space. It was suffocating.
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El-Sayegh veered wildly between a deep depression and manic anxiety. In crisis, she tried to find comfort in a new friend, who was dealing with her own trauma. “I ended up overly identifying with this stranger who was outside the studio and who lived in a caravan,” she says. El-Sayegh was initially unnerved by this mysterious woman, who parked her caravan on the street one night and stayed hidden inside for weeks. “She was a sex worker and also an artist. After months of being very paranoid about this presence because I didn’t know what she looked like, I saw her one night and she was a 26-year-old, very frail and beautiful person. We ended up making art together and going through a whole process of healing, until it got to a point where it wasn’t OK.” First, the stranger moved in to El-Sayegh’s studio and refused to leave. Then she stole El-Sayegh’s laptop. Finally, she began to physically threaten her.
“She’d worked in a circus, so she was really good with knives,” says El-Sayegh. “She would always challenge me. She’d say, ‘Do you want me to harm you or hug you: what do you want? You need to decide exactly what you want—you can’t be complacent any more in this life.’ I was like, ‘I just want you out’. It got dangerous.”
Eventually both El-Sayegh and the intruder were evicted by the landlord, which gave El-Sayegh the chance to start afresh. “Something needed to snap. I had to move studios. It was like a divorce,” she says. It took months for El-Sayegh to rebuild her mental health but now, more than a year later, her experiences are feeding into several upcoming shows: she currently has a painting in the prestigious group exhibition British Art Show 9, which is touring the UK till the end of the year; she has a solo show opening in March in Lehmann Maupin’s gallery in Palm Beach, Florida; and another coming up at the sprawling non-profit UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles, which will open in April.
It is the latter exhibition that is most directly inspired by El-Sayegh’s recent experiences. After moving studios, El-Sayegh began experimenting with performance, a medium she had never worked with before, which resulted in her presenting a nearly 20-minute-long, six-person dance at the Frieze London fair in October 2020. She is currently planning a follow-up performance for UTA.
Her piece at Frieze, Your Words Will be Used Against You, was performed in a cube-like room that was flooded with purple light. El-Sayegh moved robot-like through the space, exchanging items of clothing with a series of dancers, all against a backdrop of unnerving electronic beats by composer Lily Oakes. Throughout, El-Sayegh wore a homemade bulletproof vest, inspired by a period when she was so scared of being attacked by the woman in her studio that she taped fashion magazines to her chest to protect against stabbing. “Vogue magazines are the best for protection,” she says.
Looking back, El-Sayegh can’t quite believe she was willing to experiment with performance so publicly. “Normally, my anxiety would be like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? I’m not a dancer,’” she says. “But that’s the nice thing about losing yourself—there’s no shame. I was like, ‘I have to be in this.’ But for the UTA show, coming back to a normal state of mind, I don’t think I’m going to use my body. I’m not a performer.”
The UTA exhibition may also feature some of El-Sayegh’s vitrines, which she fills with paintings, drawings and ephemera from her studio, as well as items she has accumulated over the years. “It’s a nice way to frame how to look at painting: more as flypaper that debris sticks to, rather than something transcendent,” she says.
El-Sayegh’s paintings are packed with materials she has collected over the years, often mixing her own drawings and writing with sheets from newspapers, maps, books and magazines, as well as pages of Arabic calligraphy and occasionally Chinese characters. They are organised chaos, fragmenting language and images and in the process exploring politics, history, geography, the human body and much more. Often, El-Sayegh not only hangs her paintings on the walls of her exhibitions but also papers the floors with them, so that visitors are totally immersed in her cacophonous world.
The diversity of references in her work is partly inspired by her background. El-Sayegh, who is now 36, was born in Malaysia to a Chinese-Malaysian mother and a Palestinian father. She spent her early childhood in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, before her family moved to London, where she is still based, when she was five. She grew up speaking English, Chinese, Malay and Arabic, but has lost all except English.
Every summer, El-Sayegh’s family would return to Malaysia for up to eight weeks at a time. “I think painters are naturally sensualists, so that landscape, those textures, smells, foods were really feeding my sensibility,” she says. “Those sunsets of very saturated colours; the very rich palette; the jungle. We never stayed in Kuala Lumpur, we’d always go back to my grandmother’s village in Selangor. Village life has its own rhythm; the silence there is not silence—there’s crickets, there’s geckos, there’s dogs, there’s cockerels. You have to have three showers a day minimum because it’s so humid. Everything is so visceral.”
El-Sayegh’s Malaysian family were rubber farmers who would tap trees to extract latex, which El-Sayegh now regularly uses in her art. “The stuff [that comes out of the tree] is really smelly—it smells quite faecal,” recalls El-Sayegh. But I think any child likes gunge and goo and sticky stuff, like PVA peeling off your fingers. There’s something very primitive about that. I’m still as curious as a child and I still like all that gungy stuff.”
Southeast Asia has been in El-Sayegh’s mind recently because she has been working on a research project for London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in collaboration with Philippines-based curator Renan Laru-an and British artist, poet and performer Helena Hunter. For her part, El-Sayegh talked through everything she had experienced during her breakdown with a Filipino psychologist who blends Indigenous and western forms of therapy. She also had regular video calls with Hunter, with whom she shared an interest in trying to find ways of building intimacy when people are unable to meet in person. There was no set plan for an end product, but El-Sayegh says they are consolidating their work into a “video lecture, of sorts”.
Asia is also important to El-Sayegh as a market for her art, which is sought after by collectors around the region. Lehmann Maupin has hosted successful solo shows of her work in its galleries in Hong Kong and Seoul, and has brought her paintings to fairs in South Korea, Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore. Last year, the gallery sold a piece for an undisclosed price between US$50,000 and US$60,000 at the Korea International Art Fair and sold another at Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design event to a museum in Beijing.
Her relationship with Palestine is more complicated. She has only visited twice: once in 2016 and once when she was a child. “We’re from Gaza and we can’t go back,” says El-Sayegh. “And the family who are still there, with the current events that have happened recently, they have been displaced even further. It’s not a good time.”
This experience of statelessness and her multicultural background jointly sparked El-Sayegh’s lifelong obsession with the body, which is at the core of all her art. Poking through the layers of paint and paper on her canvasses, you can often find drawings of body parts, or sometimes an organ. Occasionally, a face stares back at you. “When your identity isn’t fixed, all you have is the body. This applies in every sense—to statelessness, to anxiety, to an emotional sense: just never feeling at home, anywhere, so your only house is your body,” says El-Sayegh.
El-Sayegh was also hyper-aware of her body from an early age due to her mother’s work as a midwife and her father’s chronic illness, which features heavily in some of her childhood memories. “I grew up learning languages and then forgetting them. The only language that was consistent was the language of illness,” she says. “There was always this [idea] that the most important thing was to stay alive and how to maintain health.”
Even now, the language she uses to discuss her art is rooted in medicine. El-Sayegh regularly describes her recurring colour palette of purples, blues and pinks as “bruised tones” and discusses “suturing” materials together. In one particularly vivid description, on the Talk Art podcast, she explains that she starts a painting by making a “wound in the canvas”. When discussing the vitrines that might appear in the UTA show, she says “they can be as big as morgue tables”.
To El-Sayegh, this gory language is not meant to put people off—it’s meant to help them understand her art. “It’s the most democratic way in to my art because we all have bodies,” she says. “It’s a very human thing, to have a body and suffer—and everyone does, at different levels. It’s as universal as the sky is blue.”
The subject of the body also appeals because it allows El-Sayegh to work in a variety of media. In her current studio, which she says is “way too small”, she is constrained to mostly working with paint, but she has recently bought a larger building in south London that will allow her to experiment with sculptures, installations and performance again. “It will allow for all of that cross-contamination of mediums to happen again, which is lovely,” she says. “I have to go into unknown territory to get me excited.”
And, outside of work, El-Sayegh feels, if not fully back to her old self, at least on the road to recovery. “It was a year of extremes. It was this big event that needed to happen, actually, I think,” she says. “This whole thing I really want to make into a film one day because I’m still processing it. I think it was really a rebuilding of self.”