Issues
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Art

A Dead Belly Dancer Attends an Art Exhibition

By Yasmine El Dorghamy

Rebelling against the system, Yasmine El Dorghamy signs her name as belly dancer Bamba Kashar on her way into the Museum of Modern Art when it reopened after 10 years of closure in November 2020. In a country where art and culture are ingrained in people, the sector has struggled in Egypt over the past decade- and as Covid-19 lockdown began to take over the world, the cultural scene in Egypt came to halt in March 2020. Some artists used this time to revisit old ideas and projects- to slow down from a frenzied lifestyle. But soon, it became obvious that the lockdown would continue and sales from art galleries online surged as people turned to online shopping.

Pandemic or not, the art ecosystem in Egypt is not a healthy one. Artists are finding their work forcibly caught between commodification, to make it in the art market, and necessary self-censorship to avoid problems with the government’s tightly guarded institutions. To make a living, they must either pander to the bureaucratic machine or to socialites guided by their interior decorators. In both cases their art needs to be inoffensive, unprovocative, and safe.

“Where’s your ID?” demanded the guard sitting at the entrance flanked by two uniformed men, “You need to fill out your information here in this log-book.” As you may have guessed by now, I’m at the entrance of a government entity, but I’m not trying to stamp some paperwork or renew my driver’s license, I’m there to attend an art exhibition. I do as I am told and proceed to write my name, “Bamba Kashar” (a famous 19th-century belly-dancer, and also the name of the adorable puppy I just adopted). I randomly fill out the rest of the required information and give it back to him, waiting for him to notice; he doesn’t. Over the years, I’ve visited museums and attended exhibitions as Samia Gamal, Fardous Mohamed, Bahiga Hafez, and all sorts of actresses and belly dancers from Egypt’s Golden Age of Cinema. It’s my little act of rebellion against what I feel is always an intimidating start to what should be an inspiring and liberating experience (isn’t that what art should be all about?).

Security procedures notwithstanding, I was happy to be back at a real exhibition, looking at art “in the flesh”, rather than with tired eyes scrolling through tiny squares on my Instagram feed. Even though badmouthing 2020 has become almost cliché, I must say that this year has taken an undeniable toll on Egypt’s already battered cultural sector.

In many ways, though, this has actually been a good year for the visual arts in particular. First, it began with a note of optimism as the Cairo Biennale had just made a triumphant (although weakly publicized) return in 2019. Then, when the lockdown started in March, many artists were forced to let go of their fast-paced and draining everyday lives and slow down, knowing that the whole world was slowing down with them. They had a rare chance to revisit old ideas and abandoned projects or simply to have fun with their work. Commercial galleries who had shut their doors were themselves surprised by how things turned out. As people turned to online shopping to cure their boredom, galleries found their online sales soaring. Thankfully, this kept the art market afloat. The cherry on top came in November 2020 when the Museum of Modern Art reopened after 10 whole years of closure – albeit still with the unwelcoming security procedures.

The glass isn’t all that full, though. Despite these small victories, it has been a bad year for the arts in general. Right before the pandemic hit, the Arts Syndicate tightened their grip on the Egyptian art scene by forbidding any independent entity from organizing art-related activities without obtaining permits and paying fees to the syndicate. To make matters worse, they also released a statement recognizing only traditional forms of art—painting, sculpture, ceramics, etc.— as syndicate divisions while ignoring contemporary or conceptual forms. As if things weren’t bad enough, over the course of the lockdown, as venues were forced to cancel events and return tickets, some of the last remaining vestiges of small and non-profit cultural entities in Egypt found themselves with no choice but to shutter.

Pandemic or not, the art ecosystem in Egypt is not a healthy one. Artists are finding their work forcibly caught between commodification, to make it in the art market, and necessary self-censorship to avoid problems with the government’s tightly guarded institutions. To make a living, they must either pander to the bureaucratic machine or to socialites guided by their interior decorators. In both cases their art needs to be inoffensive, unprovocative, and safe. What fun.

Concerned individuals from both sides (governmental and commercial) are aware of these issues and have been calling for the balancing out of this uneven and distorted ecosystem. It’s becoming painfully clear that creating a more equitable and nurturing environment requires, above all else, the development of progressive art education curricula at state universities enabling independent curators, patronage systems, laws protecting contemporary artistic production, strong art writing, and of course, impartial critics. More than anything, though, there is a desperate need for the non-profit art entities that have all but vanished.

The non-profits of course come with their own set of problems like everything else. In the past, they have been criticized for tailoring their work to the agendas of (mostly Western) grant-givers who often come in with their own preconceived notions and a zealous mission to “save us” rather than just to provide support. To garner international attention, artists were often limited to issues such as political oppression, gender discrimination, or anything else from the garden variety controversial “Middle East” topics. Be that as it may, over the years, donor funding undoubtedly helped countless artists and allowed vital cultural institutions to thrive and address critical problems. Unburdened by the pressures of the commercial market (and when given enough freedom), non-profits are the ones best equipped to keep the art community’s integrity in check and allow it to develop intellectual depth— a key component for a healthy art ecosystem.

In any art scene, some players will be altruistic, others will be purely self-serving, but ultimately, they all matter. Without fair opportunities for all, and especially for the most vulnerable members of the art community, we will never see the equilibrium needed to allow the blossoming of new ideas and the creation of truly great art.

Yasmine El Dorghamy