Marwan Bassiouni is a photographic artist based in Amsterdam. Growing up in the Western surroundings of Switzerland but regularly in touch with his Egyptian, American and Muslim roots, Marwan learned to see the world through multiple perspectives from an early age. He questioned local narratives in the West surrounding Arabic and Muslim culture, observing the mainstream media’s perceptions from a distance. As a consequence, his work focuses on the representation of Islam through an exploration of the documentary and formal qualities of the photographic medium.
We talked to Marwan about how his identity as a Muslim influences his work, experience of Islam in the West and the emotional impact of his work.
Image: New Dutch View #08, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch Views. 165 x 125 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
Why photography and what led you to that medium of artistic expression?
As a teenager I used to avidly write poetry up until I graduated from high school. When I discovered photography some 15 years ago I think that I wanted to approach photography similarly to the poetry. But without words.
Image: 17:15:38, November 11th 2020. Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
You explore your aspects of your heritage and identity through your work, why did you focus particularly on your faith as a Muslim?
I was looking for a way to make photographs with purpose and meaning as a Muslim. I also wanted to respond to the need I saw in my environment of presenting the religion from a different perspective. Growing up in Switzerland confronted me with different ideas and cliches that people had about Islam. When I was 15, 9/11 happened. This had a dramatic effect on all of us. And on the reputation of Islam. When I first began making work I hoped InshaAllah that I could contribute to a more truthful representation of the Muslim religion.
What has your experience of Islam in the Netherlands been in comparison to other places you have lived?
I used to live in Switzerland and over there it was more difficult to attend prayer in a mosque, to meet Muslim brothers or to find halal food. Here there are larger numbers of Muslims and it is quite easy to find such things in most of the cities. However, things are changing for the Islamic community in Switzerland. The community is growing and developing more. I see a lot happening within Muslim communities all across the West. There seems to be a lot more going on.
Image: 14:00:34, July 21st 2019. Pindos National Park, Greece. From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...). 44 x 44 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
New Dutch Views positions itself in the perspective of a Muslim who is looking at his country from inside mosques. How did the idea for the New Dutch Views series come to you?
The idea came about progressively. I photographed inside dozens of mosques with the intention of making an image that could question the Western perception of Islam. I hoped that the mosque would be a clear symbol for the religion. That was my starting point. Then, while photographing inside mosques one day I focused on the window and discovered something unexpected. That led me to making an image that would bring both the Dutch landscape and the inside of the mosque together in an image.
mage: New Dutch View #15, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch Views. 165 x 125 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
You’re not presenting these “views” as something alternative. Instead, they are Dutch. What was the thought process behind this and why was this series important for you to make?
Dutch mosques are built on Dutch soil, with Dutch bricks; Dutch architects design them and they combine a diversity of cultural and artistic influences. They are the product of a geography and a set of national building standards. Besides, despite having a variety of cultural backgrounds most of the people who attend these mosques are Dutch as well. They are born and raised here. I wanted to point out that Islam is universal and diverse. And today it is Dutch. Some people in Europe claim that Islam is foreign and that it does not belong here or that it is not compatible with Western values. I wanted the title of the series to point out that Islam is now part of the local culture.
The Netherlands is home to more than 400 mosques, how many did you photograph and do you plan on adding to the series in the future?
Between 2018 and 2019, I photographed 30 Dutch mosques for the New Dutch Views book and exhibition at Fotomuseum The Hague. And this summer, I began producing two new series New Dutch Views 2 and New Swiss Views. In order to depict the diversity of each national landscape and of the Islamic interiors I would like each of the series to include at least 50 mosques. However, I hope to continue making this work in other countries as well so that could mean hundreds of more photographs of mosques. InshaAllah.
Image: New Dutch View #10, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch