Moving Pieces

Art Caught between Curation and Decor

By Ati Metwaly
It is seven in the evening. A narrow street in the heart of Cairo is pitch-black; occasional bright sparks of light come from the lighters of a few men sitting at the pavement in front of the now-closed Rawabet Theatre. They light their cigarettes, one after the other, scrutinizing every passer-by who chose to enter the area from Al Nabrawi street, throwing themselves into the total darkness cloaking the area. Approaching the end of the path, the faint light peeking through the wooden blinds covering the windows on the left indicates signs of life on the first floor of the former-Townhouse Gallery, one of Cairo’s most important independent hubs for contemporary art practices.

This non-profit art space was founded in 1998, soon adopting the nearby Rawabet Theatre and the Factory Space under its wings. In time, it would become an important catalyst inspiring many young creators and a number of other cultural players to launch spaces that would also embrace contemporary art practitioners.

Corner of Al Nabrawi and Hussein Basha Al Meamri Streets near Access Art Space Photo by: Tarek Atia

The building stands at the corner of Hussein Basha Al Meamari St. and a narrow passage, with a gate hidden in between small auto-repair shops. Not long ago, the area was populated with young people smoking shisha, sipping tea, and playing backgammon, breaking the darkness with lively conversations while waiting for a performance at Rawabet or an interesting art talk at Townhouse. Even if the current restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic left the area almost empty, we are aware of the many changes that occurred over the past years, already altering the face and name of the Townhouse Gallery. The venue had been closed in December 2015 by the Censorship Authority and the Tax Authority when their inspection reportedly showed administrative irregularities. In 2016, partial collapse of the building additionally took away some of the Townhouse’s rooms. Though the space managed to regulate all paperwork and secure the building, its role as an enthusiastic and challenging voice of the Egyptian contemporary arts had already been dampened.

Salam Yousry’s exhibition at Access Art Gallery in October 2020. Photo by: Ahmed Montasser

The following few years were tough for Townhouse, with its dynamic founders William Wells and Yasser Gerab struggling to maintain the momentum it had built for itself, and the art scene in general, during the first decade of its existence. Wells eventually had to leave the country and Gerab passed away in early 2020. Two of its longtime staffers – Mina Noshy and Mohamed Ibrahim — have decided to keep at it, renaming the space Access Art Space but aiming to continue to “provide a space connecting people as they enter and move across the artistic practices,” as Noshy describes it.

Their first stab at reviving this role was with multi-disciplinary artist Salam Yousry, who inaugurated the newly named gallery in October with a solo exhibition titled Voyeur. Yousry’s riotously colorful works included motorized canvases rotating on the walls compelling some viewers to sneak a peek behind the curiously mobile paintings. For a few weeks, the dark alley became lively again. But had the momentum moved elsewhere? 

A motorized canvas at Salam Yousry’s exhibition at Access Gallery. Photo by: Ahmed Montasser

From downtown to the suburbs

On 16 October 2020, a group exhibition titled Out Loud gathered those and many other names in the arts scene. Launched by the Easel and Camera gallery at the Dreamland Golf Club inside Hilton Pyramids located at the outskirts of Cairo, the show claims “No More Boring Art” placing the works at the sides of the large green golf course inside the five-star hotel’s premises. As the October’s fresh breeze caressed the sculptures of Adam HeneinAbdel-Aziz SaabAl Sayed Abdu SleemReda Abdel-Salam and many others, the afternoon sun rays made their way through the trees to dance between the granite, copper, or limestone figures of people and animals, as well as more conceptual abstract shapes. In the evening, the well designed lighting added a new edge to the showcase, underscoring the opulence of the exhibition.

“Sculptures are finally released from the boundaries of the gallery’s limited halls to chill out in the open air location,” the exhibition’s press release reads. And are they not? Showcasing a total of 130 works – mostly sculpture and a few paintings – by 25 renowned Egyptian artists (and two distinguished Middle Eastern sculptors from Lebanon and Iraq), the exhibition has definitely benefited from a posh environment and the clientele flocking from the luxurious compounds surrounding the area to harmonize with the space.

“The whole scene is changing now; the market, the audiences and perception on art is going through many new meanders, with art galleries opening on the outskirts of Cairo, in areas such as the Fifth Settlement, 6th of October city or lavish art events taking place at the North Coast,” Yousry mentions. “The understanding of art is evolving, not to forget that the entry of social media has definitely reshaped the connection between the artists and art followers or buyers.” This change cannot be dissociated from new regulations shifting the market in a more commercial direction. Though this ecosystem mostly benefits artists who cater to high-end customers, artists like Yousry believe that more contemporary or conceptual works may even be starting to get their chance too.

Masked visitors photographing sculptures by artist Khaled Zaki at Easel and Camera’s exhibition Out Loud held in October 2020. Photo by: Ahmed Montasser.

According to Yousry, interest in contemporary art has increased over the past 15 years. “My clients would be friends and a circle of people who like this kind of art, other independent artists and so on,” he mentions, pointing to the community that buys art just because they appreciate the work. However, this social stratum does not represent consumers such as collectors or those to whom sculpture or paintings are a form of investment, those who acquire it for decorative reasons or just to underscore their economical status.

Easel and Camera’s exhibition Out Loud in October 2020. Photo by: Ahmed Montasser

“The market has a lot of collectors, however many of them tend to buy works done by modern artists with established names,” comments Weaam  El-Masry, curator and owner of Easel and Camera, and main dynamo behind Out Loud exhibition. “Some collectors keep works for themselves while others place chosen ones on international auctions. Those clients do not seek contemporary art for pleasure; they look at art as investment.” El-Masry adds that more patient collectors are eager to invest in contemporary art by artists in their 30s or 40s seeing in them potential on a longer run. “Of course there are a few collectors who acquire art because they love the work itself…Undeniably, such exhibitions are very profitable for the gallery,” he asserts. “Here we present a huge variety of the established names and art schools: figurative, abstract, expressionist etc. It is all about the quality as well as satisfying all tastes.” As follows, many of the works on display can be used for decorative reasons at large houses and villas surrounded by the walls of nearby compounds.

Art as decoration?

More often than not, the interior designer becomes the middle man between the artist and the collector. Visual artist Mohammed Fathy Hamza, head of Mohammed Fathy Design Studio, sees that demands usually come from the Fifth Settlement, Katameya Heights, Beverly Hills, 6th of October City, and other well-off areas. “The clients see art as an element of luxury lifestyle. A designer helps to choose a painting or a sculpture that compliments their space and then puts it in a specific place with specific lighting, which makes a huge difference for the decoration of the home,” Hamza says. 

It may be seen as a negative trend to relegate fine art to the role of house decor, but in fact it has positive sides according to Hamza. “The participation of an interior designer is beneficial for the artwork itself. If you have an expensive piece of art that is not presented well, its value doesn’t show. Of course, this observation assumes that the role of the decorator followed but did not dictate the choice of artwork.

So when it comes to collectors, daring contemporary and conceptual works, hardly décor material, don’t get a big share of the Egyptian market. Mohamed Abla argues however, that Egypt isn’t unique in this. “Contemporary art is not supposed to rely for survival on sales only. Conceptual and very contemporary art is there only to provoke discussions during events and exhibitions. You have to distinguish between art that is being talked about and art that is being consumed.” Be that as it may, but isn’t it necessary to talk, even ridicule, and to push boundaries?

Weaam Ahmed El-Masry sees that it is the curators’ role to educate the audience and the collectors. “Not many collectors know how to judge art properly, many lack knowledge or experience. As curators, and people involved in the market at large, we are able to direct the client, explain the value of the work, or the potentials that can come from the investment,” she says.

But how can the public keep track of what is happening in the art world, without open discussions and without a notable presence for visual arts in the media? Many professionals see that the little attention that the arts get from the press goes mainly to music and theatre. Visual arts get dry descriptive reports from events in the best case, without profound art criticism that helps shape trends, tastes and opinions. “The real problem is the lack of discussion. As a result, artists only talk to each other,” Abla says. 

The whole scene is changing now; the market, the audiences and perception on art is going through many new meanders, with art galleries opening on the outskirts of Cairo, in areas such as the Fifth Settlement, 6th of October city or lavish art events taking place at the North Coast

Artist Salam Yousry 

Thirst for discussion

Lack of public discussion inevitably suffocates conceptual art that relies strongly on the exchange of ideas, concepts and ultimately media exposure to gauge public opinion. Simply displaying a contemporary work does not do the trick, no matter how professionally it’s done. To play the game, a whole infrastructure should be built: “You need artists, curators, spaces, equipment, artisans with proper understanding and qualifications, critics, collectors, audience. In Egypt we don’t have this infrastructure,” says Moataz Nasr (Nasreldin), founder of Darb 1718 Art and Culture Center, an important and rare non-profit organization operating since 2008. 

Visitors looking at paintings by artist Nihal Wahby at Art d’Egypte’s Eternal Light exhibition, October 2020. Photo by: Tarek Atia.

Other enthusiasts and entities have joined the art field on a mission to give momentum and create an ambiance. The recent initiative by Art D’Égypte brought contemporary art to the historical Al Moez Street in 2019 with the support of UNESCO. The exhibition, called ‘Reimagined Narratives,’ presented works of 28 contemporary artists juxtaposed against the historical setting. Founder Nadine Abdel Ghaffar created this platform to promote Egyptian art while highlighting and preserving heritage sites. Previous years have seen Art D’Égypte taking contemporary artworks to Manial Palace (2018) and the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square (2017) “in order to link our past to our creative present,” as the site of the organization says. In 2020, in addition to downtown Cairo exhibitions, they set their eyes on the Giza Pyramids, Egypt’s most famous historical site.

Installation by Hana El-Sagini at Something Else- Off-Biennale, Darb 1718. Photo courtesy of Darb 1718.

Doing his part of the work as an independent cultural player, Moataz Nasr organized “Something Else — Off-Biennale” for contemporary art which aimed to complement the Cairo Biennale, an event coordinated by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. The independent Off-Biennale already took place twice, in  2015 and 2018, at Darb 1718 and other locations, showcasing artworks by over 100 Egyptian and international artists in addition to a rich program of events that included talks, workshops, performances and film screenings.

“Curation is one key element of the contemporary art process that is yet to be developed in Egypt. A curator is a person with knowledge and vision who bridges the gap between the art and the audience.” The curator creates the story. “This is the most important thing, it is the vision,” says Moataz Nasr adding that the curator chooses an artist not because of the name or country of origin, but because he or she sees something they want to bring out, to fit the concept, so in the end you have a story. “This does not exist in Egypt.”

Exposure to international curation gives artists opportunities to broaden horizons, adopt a new kind of thinking, exhibit, and study abroad. “One of the curators at Off-Biennale selected five Egyptian artists and took them to several biennales, in Italy, Morocco, Dakar,” shares Moataz Nasr. “This is how it works. We have to take artists out of their tight circle, make them mingle and share their experience with artists from around the world, open up their hearts and minds.”

Photo from Off-Biennale in 2018.

Developing the artists

The independent art scene has been largely self-reliant on developing itself to compensate for the stagnation of the fine arts faculties operating in public universities. “The curricula have been frozen since the 1970s”, an unnamed recent graduate quips. What currently exacerbates the problem is, as many artists claim, that the Ministry of Culture is not showing substantial interest in developing the current visual art field in Egypt, as opposed to other forms of artistic expression. 

Salah El-Meligy, professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University in Cairo, recalls that there have been periods in recent history when the state was more invested in the process, like during the early days of Tharwat Okasha, who founded the Ministry of Culture during the Nasser era, or Farouk Hosny, himself a visual artist, who held this position from 1987 till the revolution of 2011. According to El-Meligy, who was the head of the Fine Arts sector in the Ministry of Culture in 2011, “the visual sector is huge, but mainly neglected by the ministry today. There is no clear strategy and plan for its development.” One would expect the ministry that is in possession of numerous exhibition facilities to give young artists more opportunities to showcase their work.

On the other hand, according to Ashraf Reda, former Head of Fine Arts Sector, currently Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Helwan University, there is hope that things will become more dynamic in the near future. “There is a big interest in contemporary art in the new capital. Art is a soft power, we need to give it a platform, give space to artists and develop the general taste of the public,” Reda says. “We will have an Arts and Culture City in the new capital. It will have specialized museums, many halls and galleries, workshops for artists, art symposiums, opera, theatres, central library. Egypt is a pioneer in all arts in the region and it will be obvious there.” Reda also mentions the new art and culture complex, in the south of Cairo in Helwan, which is meant to be a “huge project with huge theatre, museum for contemporary art, galleries, conference rooms, a lot of facilities specialized to present work of young artists.” As promising as the built infrastructure sounds, the intellectual vision remains unclear.

Hopefully the changes coming will have a positive effect on the Egyptian arts scene and its presence on the international market. The coveted Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is one venue providing a rare opportunity for international exposure under government patronage. Egypt’s presence however has had its ups and its downs. The highest accolade came in 1995 when the Leone d’Oro was granted to the trio Hamdy Attia, Medhat Shafik & Akram El Magdoub, for overall Best Pavillion. In 2011, ‘30 Days of Running in Place’ by Ahmed Bassiony, a late artist and arts professor who lost his life during the 2011 Revolution, won positive reviews at the 54th International Art Exhibition organized within the framework of the Venice Biennale. Several years later, in 2017, Egyptian artist Hassan Khan won Silver Lion of Venice Biennale, for his multichannel music and text piece installation ‘Composition for a Public Park’.

Less fortunate was an installation of 2015, presented during the 56th International Venice Biennale titled ‘Can you See?,’ and presented by three artists — Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, Maher Dawoud and Gamal El-Kheshen — a three-dimensional structure of wooden boards, covered with artificial grass forming the letters of the word “peace”. Praised by some sites as a “must-see pavilion” it was described by others like as Artsy, as ‘cute’ and ‘cheesy,’ yet ‘surprisingly moving’.”

The 58th Venice Biennale participation (2019), titled “Khnum Across Times Witness” featuring sphinxes with satellite dishes for heads among other curiosities, may have been the least fortunate of them all. The tomb-like installation created by Islam Abdullah, Ahmed Chiha and Ahmed Abdel Karim was heavily critiqued in an article titled “Egyptian Artists Claim Government Interference in the Country’s Controversial Venice Pavilion” published on Observer. The article, trying to delve to the root of the problem, stated that the ministerial “management of the pavilions and slow decision-making process” and “a myriad of invisible problems” including outdated university curricula and cronyism all impact the country’s ability to launch strong pavilions.

Money talks

“But the largest issue artists’ face may stem from the lack of support Egypt provides,” Observer notes pointing to one of the main complaints of the independent artists. Indeed, funding opportunities have been greatly limited over the past years. With the new regulations imposed on NGOs in 2014, international collaboration has become more difficult. One of the promising young Egyptian artists, 31-year old Hakeem Aboukila, recalls getting a workspace with the help of Al Mawred Al Thakafy organization in 2013, which was quite beneficial: “I was just given a place at Janaklees in Alexandria to produce my art, no question asked”. Al Mawred Al Thakafy was one of the first institutions to stop operating in Egypt, then Gudran for Art and Development Association followed. 

Undeniably, one way to get support for an artist is participating in international projects funded from abroad, applying for grants, scholarships and residencies. However, the grant money may come along with certain ideologies, and the artist can fall into the trap of tailoring his or her art to meet the expectations of the grant givers. 

Local sponsorship exists, too. As an example, Aboukila mentions gratefully the support that he got from Ubuntu gallery in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood. Ubuntu prides itself in its approach that aims to merge financial concerns with an attitude of art patronage. “Anywhere in the world an art gallery is business,” admits Ahmed Dabaa, head of the Ubuntu gallery. “To survive, I have to make a living. Every art dealer has his own vision and capabilities,” he says.

Some work with the immediate market demand as the fastest way to get their investments back. Dabaa decided on a different route, looking for new artists that have not been exposed before and adopting them as projects to develop. “Supporting a young artist is not just about spending money on their canvas and casting their bronzes. It is putting effort into the personality.”

In time, this approach adds to the reputation of the place, making it different among others, “giving the audience the idea that you are promoting new art and they are investing in young artists, the winning horses of the gallery.” It is not a mere philanthropic activity, he underlines: “I am sure that in the coming years these guys will be fulfilling the artistic values that people will want to see in their homes and premises.”

He goes on to add that “The environment is quite tough for many artists in Egypt, but yet they are producing art. They have huge resources: from their nature, the environment they are living in, thousands of years of art heritage and their education. Some are making things that are finer than what is happening abroad. Our scene may need to be polished, but the art that we have in this country up till now is original.” Hakeem Aboukila confirms this with his attitude: “With all obstacles, I am not giving up on my work. I am still an artist; I create art and see where I can present it. I can make my living, and whatever happens around, I don’t care, I am not paralyzed by it.” The same goes for others, he insists. 

And as Salam Yousry exhibiting in Access (formerly Townhouse) notices, “the change is there and it is inevitable. I remain positive. The interest in different, more contemporary art is growing,” he comments. As things are now, it is very possible that slowly but surely, the art consumers’ circle will continue expanding and their interests will embrace the daring new voices of young creators, even if it comes from the growing number of commercial galleries opening on the Cairo’s outskirts and catering to the communities of the ever-multiplying luxurious compounds.