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Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Egypt at the Venice Biennale: Fissures exposed within Egypt's art scene

The Egyptian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale stirred debate among Egypt's art practitioners, revealing a growing divide between the independent art scene and state-run projects

Soha Elsirgany, Saturday 23 May 2015
Can You See? installation
Installation of 'Can You See?' at Egypt Pavilion (Photo: Dorota Metwaly)
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Titled ‘Can you See?,’ three artists — Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, Maher Dawoud and Gamal El-Kheshen — present an installation in the Egyptian pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.

The audience is invited to explore a three-dimensional structure of wooden boards forming letters of the word "peace" and covered with artificial grass. From a visitor’s viewpoint, the structured letters resemble bridges.

A number of tablets are attached to the installation with two options, one negative and one positive. The audience is free to choose either.

The first unleashes butterflies and bunnies on the screen; the second, cockroaches and other displeasing creatures. The installation is accompanied by the sounds of wind, nature and soft music.

Reception

The project was received with mixed reviews, locally and internationally. An Asian website, Art Radar Journal, that is not well known within the arts world, placed the project as one of its 10 must-see pavilions at Venice.

Other commentators were not equally positive. In an article from Artsy circulating on social media, the project is coupled with words such as “cute” and “cheesy,” yet “surprisingly moving.”

Social media users — art followers and practitioners — eagerly shared the Artsy article, topping it with mostly negative comments about the project, questioning the ministerial choice of this project to represent Egypt at the 56th Biennale.

Faten Mostafa, founder and curator of Cairo's Art Talks gallery, thinks the project’s concept and statement were not up to par with representing Egypt at the prestigious art event, and that the country's art scene has better to offer.

“To be very frank, I have not been to this year’s Biennale, so I’m judging from photos of it, and the statement explaining the artistic concept. I think it’s extremely poor. It is like an undergraduate project, not the caliber of Venice Biennale,” Mostafa told Ahram Online, joining many others who expressed dissapointment.

Artist El-Kheshen classifies those unhappy with the project as "jealous haters," pointing to the fact that many negative comments surfaced even before the Biennale opened.

However, now that the project is on display, it did not manage to defend itself from negative criticism. The controversy not only centres on the artistic value of the work, but further points to the ministerial selection process in question.

“The artists are the least to blame. They proposed their project and won. The question is what experience does the selection committee have? Have any of them been to the Venice Biennale before? Did any of them curate a show before?” Mostafa asks.

Selection

The artwork was chosen by the Ministry of Culture through submissions juried by a selection committee headed by El-Sayed Qandil, dean of the Helwan University Faculty of Fine Arts, which operates under the Supreme Council of Plastic Arts.

The four other members of the committee were Hamdy Abu El-Maaty, ex-chairman of the Plastic Arts Syndicate, Ahmed Ragab Sakr, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Minya, visual artist Rifky El-Razzaz, and arts writer Venus Fouad.

According to information provided to Ahram Online by the ministry's Visual Arts Sector, 11 projects were submitted and the committee chose the three finalists through a grading process. The three final projects were then presented to the Supreme Council of Plastic Arts for voting on the winner.

Qandil explained to Ahram Online that the winning project was chosen based on several parameters: “The first is teamwork, as the artists have to work well together because they will be representing Egypt. Second is they should get along well with the commissioner, who should have artistic experience and speak languages, preferably Italian too.

"Then, we look at the concept of the work, which has to be in line with the theme of the Biennale. The project should be modern, and reflect the current direction of the country.”

Shady El-Noshokaty, contemporary artist, curator and professor at the American University in Cairo, critiqued the ministry’s approach to the Biennale. “The people on the committee are reputable, but in the traditional arts, not contemporary works,” El-Noshokaty explained to Ahram Online.

Having been to the Biennale repeatedly, including co-curating with Aida Eltorie Ahmed Bassiouny’s renowned project in 2011 at the Egyptian Pavilion, El-Noshokaty points to a language of contemporary art that the ministry is unfamiliar with.

“I’m not judging a work I haven’t seen. But the problem is there little understanding or experience of the language and type of works that should go to the Venice Biennale, and when you tell them (the ministry), they are arrogant about it, egotistical and defensive about their views.”

Qandil remains adamant that the criticism is baseless.

“There’s no problem to critique the artwork. But let it be grounded and specific. If it is judged as shallow, just note that the project is interactive art. There is a level of interacting with the audience that goes beyond the artwork. Besides, no artist should be judging other artists. That’s the critic's job,” he told Ahram Online.

Priorities and choices

El-Noshokaty, however, sees that the priorities of the government are what dictate the choice of work, and not artistic content.

“Their focus on national representation is sending a message from the ministry. This direction ruins the art, as the artists become merely a mouthpiece voicing the ministry’s priorities. As long as they insist on doing so, there will be a layer of artificiality to the projects that go to Venice,” El-Noshokaty says.

He also points to the ministry’s tendency to impose clichéd, molded labels unto artwork. In 2011 for instance, El-Noshokaty recalls how the Basiouny exhibit was branded “about the revolution,” a label he as curator found missed the point of the artwork, and hence was unwilling to plaster onto the work of Bassiouny.

On the other hand, given that the call for applications was open and made public, the committee could but choose from the projects submitted to them.

Qandil stated that the selection committee has the experience and the right by law to pick which artists to go to Venice. "We can base our choice on our knowledge of artists and their work. But we made it an open call. If anyone doesn’t like the committee then perhaps they shouldn’t submit,” he commented.

Mohamed Tawil, administration representative of the Fine Arts Sector, underscored that the competition was announced on all websites, including that of the Fine Arts Sector. "Usually the Biennale is something artists look forward to and seek out the application. We even extended the submissions window for two weeks, because they said it was too short.”

Independent versus state-run

With both sides presenting their arguments, the gap between them — independent and state art — appears clear.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We should look at what other countries are doing. At the Venice Biennale usually both the public sector and independent artists join forces,” Mostafa explains.

Qandil, however, doesn’t acknowledge that any such gap exists “This gap has nothing to do with contemporary art. The committee is not a group of low level employees. They are all artists with experience.”

Amidst teh discussion and critical reviews of Egypt's participation in Venice Biennale, it seems that effective communication between each side will not happen anytime soon, if ever.

What deepens the rift is a fact that, as El-Noshokaty points out, “Those who get refused once don’t really submit again. They think of other options, feeling their ideas are better presented through independent initiatives."

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