Purple Magazine

laila gohar


interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
portrait by ANA KRAŠ
all artwork by LAILA GOHAR

for the egyptian-born artist laila gohar, food is a social sculpture that engages all the senses through beautiful, playful, edible interactions.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Would you say love is the most important thing in life?
LAILA GOHAR — No. Beauty is. I really, truly believe that beauty can save the world. And for me, that’s the most important thing.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You grew up in Cairo, Egypt. Tell us about your childhood.
LAILA GOHAR — I grew up in the city center, but in a pretty, green neighborhood near the Nile. My family lived in a big red house surrounded by a garden. My parents are artistic. It’s hard to describe our life in one word. We had a life that felt like it was our own, if that makes sense.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How did Egypt affect your approach to cooking and socializing, the way you connect to people as an artist?
LAILA GOHAR — I feel more Mediterranean than anything, specifically Southern Mediterranean — that’s a cultural identity I feel more than Egyptian.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How would you describe it?
LAILA GOHAR — The Mediterranean identity is a way of experiencing life in simplicity and community. It makes me think of the sun, sea, olive oil, fish, and the color blue.

EMILIEN CRESPO — I read that your father did all the cooking. What did you learn from him, cooking-wise?
LAILA GOHAR — My dad is a very resourceful cook. He’s not strict when it comes to what he needs. He’d never run out to the store to buy what’s missing — it’s more about making do and reusing what you have so that one meal leads into the other. At one point, I was working somewhere, and the chef there used to say, “If you’re a good cook, show me your garbage.” I think that, more than anything, informs the way I cook.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Can we only cook well if we’re in love? Is cooking loving?
LAILA GOHAR — It’s really hard for me to define what love is, but if you think of love as care, then you can deduce that cooking is care. But is it love? I’m not sure, but cooking is taking care, looking after, nurturing… Are these things love? Maybe a part of love.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How did you get into cooking?
LAILA GOHAR — A lot of cooking is related to intuition. Inherently, humans have a lot of that intuition because food is something that you need to survive. Survival skills are intuitive, but I think that a lot of things can cloud that, like convenience. All of us have that instinct to some degree, but the way that we perform it is different. For example, I think it’s natural to be able to handle a knife. The handle is a certain size so that it fits in your palm, and the motions to use a knife are intuitive. But, of course, many people don’t know how to handle a knife. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten.

EMILIEN CRESPO — As a society, we privilege speed, comfort, and convenience: eating in five minutes versus actually knowing how to feed yourself and your loved ones.
LAILA GOHAR — I hate convenience. I understand it, but there’s a big difference between convenience and practicality. Convenience is prioritizing speed over the task itself. We have become a culture of convenience. We value time, and spend our lives trying to save time. But the thing that we’re making time for, it evaporates somehow. When the coronavirus pandemic happened, this notion of time drastically shifted. Suddenly everyone had time because the things they normally do were taken away. So, they had to reframe their day and figure out what to do. It was encouraging that a lot of people started to cook and do things they never made time for, like baking bread, which is labor-intensive.

EMILIEN CRESPO — One of your most popular recipes on Instagram during that time was hummus with garbanzo beans, which you have to painstakingly peel one by one…
LAILA GOHAR — Yes. I was posting recipes on Instagram that people asked for. I joked that, you don’t have five hours to make my hummus. Then I saw that people were taking the time. It was amazing to see people finding peace in such mundane tasks.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You went to university in Miami before working for various chefs. How do you define what you do now?
LAILA GOHAR — I have a really hard time when people ask for a job title because I don’t really consider myself a chef. I can cook a little bit. But a chef is a person who occupies a different space from mine. So, I try to avoid the question. The other day, someone said I made art out of the everyday. I don’t know if I really believe that, but I thought that was a nice thing to say. I was born with this need to express. That’s why, for me, food is just the excuse. It happens to be a very immediate medium to transmit emotion from one person to another. Food requires all your senses, whereas most media require less. I find that kind of transfer to be really interesting.

EMILIEN CRESPO — It’s so intimate to put things in your body. But what kinds of feelings do you try to provoke?
LAILA GOHAR — It’s more about me putting feelings in on my end. Whatever feelings people have are up to them. I very much enjoy creating beauty in the mundane. I love caviar and truffle as much as the next person, but for me a potato or a radish is really the way to my heart.

EMILIEN CRESPO — The beauty of simple ingredients…
LAILA GOHAR — I think it relates closely to the idea of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Making something out of very little. Treating something humble with the same care you would give to something precious. Think about a loaf of bread: the years it took for a baker to learn to make a really a good one; the materials, the hours they spent mixing dough, rising the dough. And then you end up paying so little for it. There’s a vast discrepancy between the effort and the value we pay. Because of that, to me it is a duty to enjoy the entire loaf, and if it’s stale to figure out ways to use it. People dedicate their life to bringing bread to you.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What about restaurants?
LAILA GOHAR — I appreciate all sorts of restaurants and would never turn my nose up at any. I’m willing to try everything, be it humble or three Michelin stars. But I have a bit of a hard time when food is fetishized, commodified, photographed. Food’s purpose is to nourish. When that’s been stripped away from it and it becomes about status or being cool, for me it’s been robbed of its essence.

EMILIEN CRESPO — So what’s the main problem with restaurants?
LAILA GOHAR — At least in big cities in America, the industry is set up in a way that’s completely unsustainable, with the rents and operating costs. And now that it’s crashed, we see that it’s a really flawed model. There has to be a better way.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What do you wish for food?
LAILA GOHAR — Food should always be generous, but generous doesn’t have to mean a large quantity. It’s more of a generosity of spirit. It should be respected, but not fetishized. Seasonality is very obvious. Cooking starts with sourcing. I believe there are ways to get the best ingredients you can. And that, again, doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive. I would rather have a boiled potato with really good butter than a mediocre but expensive piece of meat.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You don’t have a restaurant — you have a studio.
LAILA GOHAR — I don’t consider myself a chef and I don’t want to have a restaurant. I’m interested in creating experiences, in orchestrating moments that allow for interaction. In a restaurant you know what you’re getting into: a space that’s supposed to be friendly by design, customers are supposed to be comfortable and taken care of, and the service is supposed to be a certain way, with someone preparing food for you to consume. The spaces I work in are usually a little more loaded. A gallery, for instance, when you walk in, is more intimidating than a restaurant. You look around the room, and you’re not really sure what to expect. In those kind of spaces, the work I do allows for this ice-breaker moment that in some ways democratizes the situation. Everyone sees it and says, “Oh my god, what is that?” That acts like an equalizer. Ultimately the goal is that people become disarmed by my practice. I like it when things are taken out of context, when there’s this kind of bewilderment. Because in that moment you can relax a little bit, become more comfortable. That’s something I think about a lot. I really enjoy working in spaces that need a little bit of democratization.

EMILIEN CRESPO — To bring people together?
LAILA GOHAR — Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a kind of convivial element to it, and that, for me, is important. That’s one thing that made the coronavirus era difficult for me. In times of crisis, such as war, people come together. The pandemic, by definition, forced us to do the opposite: to distance. I still struggle with this. How I can continue to do this work, which is all about having people come together, while being apart. Online can be tough. I’m proud to say that I have never participated in a Zoom event. [Laughs] FaceTime is okay, but on Zoom, everybody is talking at the same time. The connection is convoluted, watered down. And I generally think that if there are more than three people in a call, please get me off that call. [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — I feel a tension in your work that’s pure but sophisticated, with style and integrity. How did you get there?
LAILA GOHAR — It’s me expressing the feelings that I have, and you registering them and their meaning to you, for whatever reason. They stem from emotions, and are created from experiences. There’s this duality for me. It’s just part of who I am.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Is love a source for art?
LAILA GOHAR — [Long silence] It’s hard to say where inspiration comes from. I get it from nature, but it’s still very hard to make that connection. Inspiration is not linear — it’s more an interwoven web of things that make up my feelings and channel through my being to become my work.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Chuck Close once said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
LAILA GOHAR — That really resonates with me. I have a hard time grappling with ideas of inspiration, creativity, talent. What do those words mean? How can we throw them around so much? For me, it’s just my work, and in my work is my duty.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Lastly, the most important question: which dish to fall in love to?
LAILA GOHAR — [Long pause] An omelet. Sorry, is that underwhelming? [Laughs] A very well-made omelet you make for someone in the morning. If you make it in the morning, there is the implication that there was a night that came before that morning. I think there’s something very romantic about breakfast when you’re with someone. If someone wakes up and makes you a really good omelet, I would nod my head in approval, like I am right now.



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