On Tuesday, 29 April, contemporary artist Mahmoud Khaled spoke about his show, 'Painter On A Study Trip,' with prominent painter Adel El-Siwi at Gypsum Gallery in Zamalek.
Founded by independent curator Aleya Hamza, Cairo’s Gypsum, a contemporary art gallery, first opened to the public in October 2013. The latest in a series of three solo exhibitions at Gypsum, 'Mahmoud Khaled: Painter On A Study Trip,' closes Tuesday, 6 May.
In this show, Alexandria-based contemporary artist Mahmoud Khaled showcases a selection of works in various mediums, including photography, sculpture, painting, text, video and installation. This multidisciplinary body of work was ignited by an encounter between the artist and an oil painting dating back to the 19th century, which the artist stumbled upon at the Museum of Fine Arts in his hometown, Alexandria. Reflecting on the artwork, Khaled pondered the links between his classical training as a painter, on the one hand, and the language and values of contemporary art, on the other. The resulting show demonstrates the artist’s great versatility, working across numerous media.
Surrounded by Khaled’s artwork, Mahmoud Khaled and Adel El-Siwi sat cozily with a bulging crowd sprawled across the gallery space Tuesday night. The conversation was unscripted, at times meandering into the question of failure, the relationship between art and society, and magic. The audience was interactive at times, submissive and attentive at others.
Adel El-Siwi, started the conversation with an observation about the lack of dialogue about art in Egypt. “We have a significant problem with regards to talking about art, and that is an issue that has pervaded the fine arts movement for years,” he said.
Having long observed the art scene, the painter said that while there has been noteworthy and ongoing development of creativity and art production, there has been a dearth in the evolution of theoretical, intellectual or cultural discourse in parallel, that would serve to nurture and intersect with the work of artists.
El-Siwi acknowledges that such a discursive environment has in fact developed in Cairo over the past 10 years. The emergence of independent art spaces and initiatives towards the end of the 20th century, most prominently the Townhouse Gallery in 1998 and the Nitaq Festival in 2000, co-organised by three galleries (Mashrabia, Karim Francis and Townhouse), extended the margin for contemporary art discourse in the capital. Today, a broad and diverse palette of art platforms exists, with intermittent discursive elements delving into the behind-the-scenes nuances of art production in the city.
Still, El-Siwi reveled in the opportunity to speak to Khaled about his artwork. In his introduction, he highlighted the difference between his medium-specific practice as a painter, and the scope of Khaled’s work as a contemporary artist, which is built on a fundamental rejection of being confined to the “painter” identity.
In his reading of his work, the veteran painter deduced that Khaled continually raises doubts and questions in his pieces and projects. Khaled confirmed that his work revolves around “questioning … the mediums, the language, education, and questioning art itself, the extent of its effectiveness, it’s role in balancing out power struggles at certain times and certain places.”
Mahmoud Khaled said his exhibition is built on this idea of “questioning art and its role, and the artist’s role, in changing the world.”
Khaled explained that his chance encounter with Italian thinker Franco “Bifo” Berardi in 2012, while he was enrolled in a one-year study programme at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Programme in Beirut, compelled the artist to answer these questions in a way that nurtured his artistic production rather than hindering it. It is this conversation with Bifo, which we hear as audio in 'Memorial to Failure' (2013), a video, accompanied by a sculpture, playing against a meditative, dizzying montage of footage shot in Lebanon and Brazil, which served as the seed for the exhibition.
"Failure" is a key underlying theme across the show. A landmark Alexandrian garden, Antoniades Gardens, which Khaled says suffers from multiple forms of failure, was the soil from which the exhibition eventually sprung. This landscape emerges in 'Detail — six framed C-prints capturing the architectural aspects therein.
But the key to the collection for Khaled was the painting he stumbled upon at the Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria, in which the artist turns his focus on the world and ventures out into nature in search of subjects to paint. In this piece, Khaled finds answers to, or perhaps more questions about, the relationship of the artist with his art, and his personal relationship with painting.
This is when Khaled hunted through art history books for six terms that capture the layered process of artistic practice, unearthing the following: process, material, detail, source, exercise, and composition. These terms would then form the basis for the six works now displayed at Gypsum.
A member of the audience asked Khaled what he believes the value of “art like this” is, referring to conceptual art such as that in 'Painter On A Study Trip.' Not fixated on finding answers, the artist does not respond. The gentleman says, I have an answer. The importance is to shock or surprise the audience.
Certainly one of the most puzzling pieces in the show is 'Composition,' a site-specific installation in which Khaled renovates one of the rooms of the gallery into a vacant ceramic-tile pool. A red velvet curtain hangs on the wall at the farther end of the pool, blocking out the room’s original windows. Reminiscent of the frail, disintegrating pools and fountains built within the Antoniades Gardens, this sculptural installation circumvents the traditional idea of sculpture through producing a structure that favours negative instead of positive space.
Both the conversation and the exhibition’s content revealed plenty about the state of art education and discourse in modern-day Egypt. This talk, in which two artists set out to converse about the conceptualisation and execution of artwork, was a rather unusual, though not necessarily unprecedented occurrence for Cairo. Its rarity testifies to the limited, albeit not entirely absent, scope of discourse over art playing out in the city. Similarly, this pensive exhibition, in which Khaled journeys into the dynamics of traditional art education versus contemporary art practice, attests to the frailties of Egypt’s public education system.
Nevertheless, the emergence of Mahmoud Khaled's show, and the gallery’s organising of this conversation between the exhibiting artist and Adel El-Siwi, signifies that despite the challenges that the existing framework of art education and discourse poses for emerging and contemporary artists, there is a vivacious and revolutionary force brimming with promise, with the potential to heighten Cairo’s appreciation of, and engagement with, contemporary art at a global standard.