Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries back on Egypt's cultural map

Ati Metwaly, Tuesday 10 Jun 2014

The historical Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries finally returns despite endless challenges, including the Alexandria Governorate's complete lack of support

Alexandria Biennale press conference
Press conference announcing opening of the 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries (10June-6July). Cecile Hotel conference hall, Alexandria, 9 June 2014. Left: Mustafa Abdel Wahab, biennale's General Commissioner; centre: Salah El Meligui, head of Fine Arts Sector and head of this year's biennale; right: head of the jury (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Following years of forced delay, the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries returns with its 26th edition under the theme “The Will of Change” opening today, 10 June, and running until 6 July.

This year's event is headed by Salah El-Meligui, head of the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Arts Sector, while renowned painter Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab is the biennale's general commissioner.

Featuring a modest line-up of 17 artists from 13 countries, this edition of the biennale is dedicated to renowned Egyptian artist Hamed Owais (1919-2011), celebrated for his works representing social realism and still remembered through his participation in the 2009 biennale, as well as numerous other important artistic events and exhibitions in Egypt and abroad.

Egypt participates in this year’s biennale with video projects by Huda Lutfi and Hadeel Nazmi, along with works by sculptor Kamal El Feky and painter Mai Refky. The biennale encompasses various other media including photography, installations and digital print. 

The seminars and meetings between the artists are to take place during the event’s first four days, to be joined by five international and 18 Egyptian artists.

"This is the second oldest visual arts biennale in the world and the oldest on the African continent," El-Meligui stated during the press conference held on 9 June to announce the launch of the event. 

The Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries was initiated in 1955 by then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, placing Egypt's coastal city on the international cultural map over the following decades.

As the 25th edition of the biennale took place in 2009, the 26th was meant to be held in 2011. Due to the political circumstances that challenged Egypt in the year of the January 2011 revolution, however, the event was cancelled.

The following 2013 biennale was also cancelled. Planned to take place around June 2013, the biennale found new obstacles, as the cultural scene was marked by myriad discontents addressed towards then minister of culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz, ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his empowered Muslim Brotherhood. 

The numerous turbulences afflicting the 2013 cultural scene -- particularly the months of May and June -- only paralleled the problems rocking the country as a whole. On 30 June, the largest march undertaken by artists in Egypt's history joined the nationwide marches and protests demanding the removal of now deposed president Morsi and his cabinet.

"It was impossible for anyone to hold any large cultural event in those circumstances," El Meligui explained during the conference. "However, we didn’t want to wait two years -- until 2015 -- and decided to hold the 26th edition of this important biennale this year."

El Meligui went on to highlight the countless challenges faced by the biennale's organisation this year and to recount how his team was determined to hold the event against all odds, mentioning the generally unstable security situation as one reason behind the limited number of participating artists.

"We experienced a lot of financial constraints," he added. "While past biennales saw an active participation by the Alexandria Governorate, this year the governor decided to step back completely."

El-Meligui clarified that though there must have been valid reasons behind the lack of interest in supporting the biennale, the fact still leaves a bitter sentiment on the organisers who had to finance the entire event without any involvement from Alexandria, the hosting city. The only contribution received from Alexandria came from the Alexandria Businessmen’s Association in the form of an LE5000 cheque offered the day before the press conference, which El-Meligui refused to accept.

"The organisation and finance [for this edition] come from the bodies operating under the Ministry of Culture in Cairo. Among the main funding parties is the Cultural Development Fund," El-Meligui clarified.

Disappointed with Alexandria's stance in this historical event, conference attendees – which included many international artists – expressed their hope that upcoming editions of the biennale will find stronger support.

They also pointed to a need for a more pronounced visual presence of the biennale in Alexandria, which can be achieved through a variety of many advertising tools.

The 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries opens on 10 June and runs until 6 July in the Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria

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