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Clash of generations in Egypt's art: Technology versus roots

Ahram Online discusses the new generation of Egyptian artists with older art players, revealing gaps between old and young

Soha Elsirgany, Thursday 25 Jun 2015
fine arts faculty
Helwan Faculty of Fine Arts (photo: El-Beit)
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“There is something peculiarly interesting about young people who studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in the early 2000s,” Nagy Shaker, artist, well known to many as the puppet designer of the iconic El-Leila El-Kebeira musical, tells Ahram Online.

"They were hard working, active, ambitious and worked well together. They have a different energy in comparison to students from the previous decades," Shaker says, looking back at over 50 years of teaching generations of Egypt's artists at the faculty.

"I realised that this generation was born on computers; they have acquired an immense visual storage that feeds and enriches their visual language, and that comes out in their work, whether intentionally or not,” Shaker continues.

New technology offers inspiration and fears

The artist noticed new, and well known to many, dynamics that with regards to technicalities shifted the art world, especially in the past decade.

Egypt's young artists do not lag behind in the international phenomenon. Yet, as much as technology opens doors to new tools and infuses young minds with many valuable ideas, it does not escape from introducing some downsides, especially when — as some artists see — it leads to the total rejection of "older schools" altogether. The latter problem is noticed on both the technical and thematic levels of art.

"The young artists find images with just a click, yet this wide and open access could reach the point of disruption, and could overwhelm,” Salah El-Meligy, visual artist and former head of the Fine Arts Sector, comments.

He believes that artists should present their personal experience and be with the times, but also look to their roots, and what is made with honesty and genuineness is what stands the test of time.

Prolific artist Helmy El-Touni is on the same line as El-Meligy, saying: “Of course, this connection to the wide world is eye opening and enriching, yet there is a tendency to being overly impressed, which affects creative production and can lead to copying."

Mahmoud Atef, a young poet and "calligraffiti" artist sees that being well aware of the old school is an important part of creativity.

“All the great artists that changed the scene started with a classical schooling and then challenged the rules. What will you revolt against if you don't know it first?“ he says.

Atef applies this in his work as well, as he modernises traditional Arabic calligraphy, while trying to both preserve and challenge the notion of identity at the same time.

As much as the introduction of technology in technique may inspire and enrich some artists’ work, it finds difficulty being accepted by some older generation art practitioners in Egypt.

Atef recounts that while attending Shamal Wa Ganoub last February, a symposium of 100 artists touring Egypt and creating works in each city, through conversations with other artists he discovered how “they joke and say it’s almost rude to learn new technologies and programmes for graphics at the Faculty of Fine Arts.”

Shaker, though an experimental artist himself, acknowledges that the classic techniques remain essential.

“Those who work with their hands are more sensitive,” he says.

El-Meligy similarly reiterates, “There are still international exhibits devoted solely to classic techniques. And focus on mastering artistic technicality is something that keeps rising up again throughout history.”

Perhaps the thoughts of these iconic artists are still rooted in how they themselves were schooled, holding on to certain standards of art and a rooted sense of identity, while trying to acknowledge that the times have changed.

Much younger Atef understands their approach and explains that, “With technology there became a lack of handiwork in arts, and also a lack of tangible works, unlike the past where all artwork was object based. This might be the point of conflict between the dogmatic and the new age art forms.”

But away from the technical side, El-Touni also points to a challenge that dependence on technology creates on the thematic level: disconnecting artists from their identity and roots.

Today, in their work, many Egyptian artists are still in search for their identity by trying to understand their place in time, and they do that somehow separate from history. We see personal and expressive works about emotions, thoughts and critiques, all about issues they are dealing with today. The contemporary is only contemporary, detached from history or collective culture.

El-Meligy concludes that all those explorations — whether backed by heritage or completely disconnected from the artist's history — prompt an important question: "Should an artist to be a good craftsman or a good thinker? Anyone can learn technique, but it’s important that the artist presents something new."

Should art seek forward or dig backwards; can it be both?

Some artists are walking the line; their contemporary work evokes history or draws from folkloric motifs of the country, or involves deeper aspects of the complex collective Egyptian identity beyond "the now."

A few examples that come to mind include Haytham Nawar, with his recent project titled The Seven Days, The Heavens and The Earth, evoking mythological, historical and religious sources, Huda Lutfi, her multi-media works drawing constantly from her background as a historian, and Khaled Hafez, whose work involves ancient Egyptian iconography, merged with contemporary images.

Mahmoud Atef, also points to the art of Ammar Abu Bakr, lecturer at the Luxor Fine Arts University, best known for his graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. There, he drew portraits of the uprising’s martyrs with wings inspired by Coptic art.

“He uses a progressive medium, graffiti, to create contemporary work, yet his work has this rooted search for identity that involves research,” Atef says.

Atef gives another example of Mohy-El-Deen El-Labbad, dubbed the "Book Maker," as someone who has managed to stay true to classical artistic standards, yet create artwork that is modern, innovative and with the times, brimming with the artist's character.

“El-Labbad bridged old and new with regards to both content and technique. His stories for children incorporate history with contemporary issues. On the other hand, he designed and printed the books manually, until computers were introduced and he began to make use of them,” says Atef.

New triggers versus realities of Egypt's Fine Arts faculty

With the art world taking new forms, Egypt's leading Fine Arts faculty might be finding it difficult to position itself in the changing world.

The discussion about what is new and old, and where the artists should search for inspiration and which techniques to choose, what topics to tackle, become obsolete once we realise the regulations that dominate the arts school, many of which are counterintuitive to the definition of artistic aptitude and creativity.

One crucial example is to look at the parameters for enrolling students into Cairo’s Faculty of Fine Arts, where several key regulations have not changed over the past few decades.

Back in 1952, the application test for entering the University of Fine Arts in Zamalek was seven hours long and lasted for three days. This challenge acted as a sort of filter to those who would apply, as only those with promising skill or talent would pass and earn acceptance into the university.

“A great deal of artists that graduated from that period really left a mark in the art world. To name a few, this was the time of Bahgoury, Helmi El-Touni, Ehab Shaker and many more iconic names,” Shaker says.

Then came what he calls the "big disaster": “They decided Helwan University would unite several universities together, including the Faculty of Fine Arts, which sadly accepted that,” he says.

Under Helwan University’s umbrella, the general universities law now applies to the Faculty of Fine Arts. “Fine Arts can’t go into that law,” Shaker says. “Acceptance of students became based not on talent and ability, but on their school grades.”

Though not the sole fissure in Egypt’s art scene, this highlights one of the major gaps in Egypt’s arts education system. When the main art school falls short of enforcing a certain standard of aptitude for student enrollment to begin with, and is also reluctant to encourage progressive techniques, let alone critical thinking, the environment set up for new generations of artists is less than fertile.

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