“Towards the East” is the title of the 13th Cairo International Biennale for Visual Arts (10 June-10 August), inaugurated at the Cairo Opera House grounds.
With work by 80 artists from 50 countries, according to Commissar General Ihab Al-Labban’s official statement — printed on large banners at the event’s three main exhibition venues: the Arts Palace, the Museum of Modern Art on the Opera House grounds and the Aisha Fahmi Palace in Zamalek — the idea behind it is to have a dialogue between east and west that transcends both Orientalism and contemporary limitations.
Established in 1984, the biennale was a huge popular event that drew in famous artists and a large audience. Due to the lack of funding following the January Revolution, it was suspended in June 2011. The present, comeback round should have had a greater proportion of inspiring work. Perhaps inevitably, it has been criticised for its budget and the credentials of its commissar who, born in 1976 and is a 2000 graduate of the Faculty of Art Education, was thought to be too young.
Born in Monaco in 1984, French artist Emmanuel Tussore presents “Home”, a 2017 piece comprising 21 80cmx80cm photos of sculptures of Syrian civil war scenes made out of traditional Aleppo soap. This is a truly powerful contribution. Once a sign of cleanliness and civilisation, in Tussore’s work soap turns into demolished homes and devastated cityscapes. Shown through photography, it is also made to interrogate war images in the media and their real effect.
Born in Alexandria in 1953, a graduate of the industrial design department of the Faculty of Applied Arts, Egyptian sculptor Ahmed Badri places an enormous toy-like drill in front of a screen displaying sarcastic and far-fetched definitions of the word “drill”. The piece is affected and predictable, it has nothing to do with the event’s theme, though it actually received one of the prizes.
German artist Johannes Vogl’s “Weeper” — a kind of nihilist last supper that looks like a huge metal spider — is a two-minute motion installation comprising eight empty white plates placed on a simple wooden table with a lighting unit, and a network of mechanical forks moving repetitively over them.
Born in 1985, Oumar Ball from Mauritania presents a giant metal bird with a broken wing that seems to drop from nowhere, its feathers gathering on the ground. This inspiring installation, produced this year, is a moving spectacle that evokes questions about flight, freedom — immigration.
German artists Astrid Menze and Julia Neuenhausen’s “1000 + All Things” features discarded and lost items collected from the streets of Cairo and Berlin over a period of three months, chosen for their beauty and cultural significance. They are presented on a white half circle and the adjoining wall.
Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz’s award-winning installation of four pieces made out of neon-lit tubes and mirrors “United in Diversity” was rather disappointing. The idea, as Kowanz writes, is that light is not only the basis of life but also of post-analogue communication: “Traditionally, light is a source of cognition. Hence, the encounter initiates a reality check, a reference of a current status, somewhere between virtual and real, space and time.” It all makes sense, but doesn’t have much impact.
Sadik Alfraji, 59, is an Iraqi photographer, animator and installation artist whose video installation “The River that was in the South” — another award winner — is made up of two screens facing each other. One plays a short video of a boat moving slowly on a river, while on the other animated black and white images of human figures and birds move around in a rural environment.
The entire Aisha Fahmi Palace is reserved, inexplicably, for two artists: Gerard Garouste from France and Youssef Nabil from Egypt. In Garouste’s huge illustrations human and animal forms merge magically into surreal images, while — rather more in line with the theme — Nabil, a photographer who lived in France for years before moving to the United States, contributes images of Western icons such as Isabelle Huppert in eastern costumes.
The Museum of Modern Art, which was partly cleared for the purpose, features Serwan Baran’s “Cycle of Illusion”, a triptych of 250cmx200cm paintings showing men with dogs, the first two of someone in uniform with his bloodhound, the third of the dog attacking a man in orange overalls. Born in Baghdad in 1968, Baran left Iraq in 2005, eventually settling in Beirut. A soldier and war artist with the Iraqi army, his expressionist paintings deal with violence, power and war.
One of a handful of interesting works representing Egypt is a series of paintings by Reda Abdel-Rahman, who now lives in New York: “Cairo-New York” includes five paintings, each sized 360cmx215cm. The paintings depict a network of electric cables flying over people and skyscrapers in pale colours in a dream-like scene.
According to Abdel-Rahman’s statement, “After moving with my family to New York, I have become a part of this complex network of communication, literally caught between nostalgia and change, with all possible intellectual and psychological complexities.” A powerful idea, it is nonetheless somewhat excessively executed: the notion might be better expressed in one piece.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fear of 13
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