Egyptian art: Between political charge, global exposure and experimentation
The Egyptian visual art scene continues to change in the aftermath of the 25 January 2011 revolution, which endeavoured to bring more social justice and freedom to the nation’s fabric. Using a more modern and increasingly conceptual visual discourse, Egyptian artists echo the transformations that continue to unfold in a transitioning Egypt.
Art and political charge
In the past two years, at times, art has been used as a form of activism, and a movement of activist-artists, or “artivists,” has materialized, most notably spray-painting murals across the city walls that reflect revolutionary demands and rebellious iconography. And at other times, Egyptian artists have chronicled the socio-political changes as they transpired. As a result, artwork produced since 2011 often has a strong sense of social commentary as an underlying concept.
One of the most clearly politically charged exhibitions of 2012 was Mohamed Abla’s “Road to Tahrir,” which he exhibited at Al-Bab Selim Gallery in April. The show featured paintings created over the past decade by the politically active artist. Blending snapshots of Cairo’s streets with policemen and scathingly rebellious newspaper headlines, Abla’s paintings could not find a home in Egyptian galleries before the revolution due to the very realistic prospect of being investigated by state security, but later here they were.
Yet, when we talk about political charge, nothing could match the large retrospective project developed to honor the life and work of Ahmed Basiony, a multi-disciplinary artist that was killed during protests on 28 January 2011. Held across three venues; Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre, the ASCII Foundation for Contemporary Art Education and AUC’S Sharjah Art Gallery, the retrospective presented Basiony’s sound art, performance and new media installation projects. Perhaps his work was not entirely political, yet the essence of the revolution was echoed throughout the work of an artist who lost his life to fight for it.
Renowned artists such as George Bahgoury and Gazbia Sirry exhibited works in the city’s high-end galleries, Al Masar and Zamalek Art Gallery respectively, that tackled the revolution. While Bahgoury’s show depicted protests and the camel battle explicitly, with his unique cubist-expressionist style, Gazbia Sirry’s collection was merely inspired by the rebirth of hope and freedom ensuing the revolution.
Conceptually avant-garde art
In the aftermath of 25 January, a movement that defied years of submission to repression and mobilized the masses, artists felt compelled to paint out side the frame. Many used the city walls as canvas, including Ganzeer, El-Teneen, Sad Panda, Keizer, among others, using graffiti to create artwork with a message. Others turned to installation art to present progressive concepts in a daring manner.
One of the most notable exhibitions of the year was undoubtedly Ganzeer’s “The Virus is Spreading,” held at the Safarkhan Gallery in September 2012. In this unusual show, Ganzeer recreated Cairo’s street dynamics within the cool and calm gallery space. Using revolutionary symbolism and a rebellious medium, the artist was able to steal away the attention of art enthusiasts across the city, and probe questions, regarding the geography and shape of art in modern day Egypt.
While 2011 artwork was inundated by 25 January revolution symbolism, this year’s artwork shows more conceptual refinement. Prominent artist Khaled Hafez’s “On Codes, Symbols and the Stockholm Syndrome” solo at the Safarkhan Gallery in January brilliantly captured the changes in Egyptian society in a non-blatant manner. He employed his multi-layered collage and paint technique to tackle the ideas from metamorphosis and fertility, to modernity, progressiveness in Egypt, and the interplay between the sacred and the ephemeral. The paint that trickles down the entire length of his paintings represented the millions of protestors that fought and chanted in Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square.
Also Among the most compelling projects of the year was “Cairo Documenta,” a collective show held at the downtown Viennoise Hotel, in which a large group of emerging artists showcased experimental works including installations and video art. “Cairo Documenta” in 2012 was a sequel to a similar group exhibition held in 2010, which featured martyred artist Ahmed Bassiony. The assembly of artists was determined to honor the memory of the much-loved Basiony with another quirky edition. This varied show captured the wittingly satirical and creative movement in today’s art scene. Artists such as Hany Rashed, Ahmed El Shaer, Ahmed Sabry contributed to this affair of free expression.
Galleries also hosted exhibitions that were controversial, including the explicit “Tank Girl” by artist Nadine Hammam, showcased at Gallery Misr in March, in which a series of nude paintings challenged traditional ideas of gender politics and sexuality.
Another conceptually futuristic exhibition was “Supermarket” held in June at the Gezira Arts Centre. The collective show featured a group of young artists who presented installations and videos that challenged contemporary consumerist culture. One artist, Ahmed Abdel Fattah participated with ‘Edible,’ an eccentric installation of body parts set out on a dinner table to contend the cannibalistic culture pervading contemporary society.
As previously demonstrated, the youth-born revolution of 2011 brought about a key change in the Egyptian art scene; it has become younger. Galleries in Cairo no longer fixate on showcasing artwork by previous generations of famed artists, instead, they have endeavoured to open their spaces to younger artists to exhibit their works and participate in the art scene.
A few solo exhibitions by up-and-coming female artists were particularly impressive this year, including Shayma Kamel’s “Roh” (Soul) at Tache Art Gallery in October, in which the visual artist exhibited a range of paintings from 2004-2012 carrying the essence of Egyptian people. In addition, Marwa Adel’s “The Journey” opened in December 2012 with a collection of graphically manipulated photographs that challenge the traditional marriage rituals and gender roles in Egyptian society.
Furthermore, at a scathing but impressive solo show at the Mashrabia Gallery, emerging artist Ahmed Sabry presented a series of canvases that capture the nation’s transformations through satirically recreating widely circulated Facebook posts and photos. Sabry revealed that he spent days and nights on Facebook, peering into the lives of strangers and surveying the ebb and flow of the city.
Art heads towards the digital world
The Internet has also provided an array of subject matter for artists, and it has also eliminated physical distances between artists and their audiences. Egyptian artwork today is slowly edging towards the online platform. The year kicked off with a Facebook exhibition by prominent artist Mohamed Abla entitled “Wolves.” The collection boldly criticized the violent attacks by army soldiers on peaceful protestors in December 2011 at a cabinet sit-in, which left 13 dead and hundreds injured. Abla found that Facebook was a more interactive arena to exhibit his controversial works, in which he re-worked photographs of the attacks to represent army soldiers as beastly wolves. The artist regards the online platform as the future of art.
Two online art platforms were developed in 2012, potentially setting the trend for Egyptian art trading on the web. ArtsMart, an online art market tailored to art enthusiasts on a budget, and the established art space Safarkhan’s e-gallery, which offers a range of modern and contemporary works, enable art fans to browse through and purchase artwork online.
Arab and Egyptian artists go international
The Arab Spring, as unruly as it has become, has opened up opportunities for Egyptian and Arab artists abroad. From a largely Orientalist view of the region’s artwork, the West has acquired a more genuine interest in Arab artwork.
As Mahmoud Said’s timeless paintings continue to make and break records in Christie and Sotheby’s auctions worldwide (Said’s ‘Around Cleopatra's Bath’ sold for $602,500 at Christie’s April auction of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art and Pêcheurs à Rosette was acquired for $818,500 in October), fresh faces exhibited their works in international art spaces this year.
Global venues hosted a wide range of Arab-born work, from Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s photography show, “Light From the Middle East,” to small scale exhibitions of young Arab and Egyptian artist including the October Hamburg show “Identity,”which presented works by three Egyptian artists: Shayma Kamel, Hany Rashed and Ali Abdel-Mohsen. Also, a show featuring artists Khaled Hafez, Ammar Abu Bakr, Marwa Adel, Ahmed El-Shaer, and Mahmoud Refaat entitled “Liberation” opened in November in Boden, Sweden, among others.
Even Britain’s Tate is looking to broaden its scope and feature art from across the globe, including work from the Middle East and Africa. Tokyo paid particular attention to Arab art, organizing “Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World” at its Mori Art Museum in July 2012. Featuring 34 artists from the region, with four Egyptian artists, including revolutionary martyr Ahmed Basiony the project brought contemporary Arab culture to a Japanese audience. And London’s “The Changing Room,” a collection of photo, video and installation projects from the Arab world on the desire for change, curated by the Egyptian-Italian Aida El Torie, featured three Egyptians: Nermine Hammam, Ibrahim Saad and Bassem Yousri.
Reflection of change
Looking back at a vibrant year of Egyptian artwork is perhaps a comfort, diluting the frustration with the revolution’s meandering and uncertain course. Artists are continuing to reflect the socio-political charge on the streets in their artwork; in effect recording history through art. Meanwhile, international interest in the region’s art is increasing, as global exposure is particularly cultivating the talents of younger Arab artists. Visual artists are moving away from safe mediums, such as painting, and more towards conceptually contemporary art and dabbling. Installation and video art is becoming the most exciting in today’s art scene, as it mirrors the revolutionary essence of Egyptian and Arab publics today.