Currently held at two Cairo venues, the Gezira Art Centre and the British Council Gallery, is a dynamic collective exhibition of digital art projects by Egyptian and international artists organised by the first festival dedicated to digital arts in Egypt.
Reflecting on the pervasive power of digital technologies and social media to alter contemporary life, from infiltrating our daily routine to influencing the country’s political discourse, event directors and curators Elham Khattab and Haytham Nawar were motivated to assemble a festival that spotlights how electronics have altered the art world.
“This form of art gained importance after the (January 25) revolution, which broke the barriers between people and technology and inspired them to use new technologies in new ways,” Nawar told Ahram Online.
Seeking to ignite interest in the emerging field of digital and new media art, Nawar and Khattab have spent many months organising a sizeable showcase of digital art.
The multi-disciplinary Di-Egy Festival 0.1 comprises an interdisciplinary three-day academic conference held at the German University in Cairo with participants from 19 countries spread across seven workshops, led by European professionals and artists, seeking to expose students and young artists to sound art, game design, creative coding, digital performance, and other topics.
The exhibition held between two venues in Cairo until 10 April features projects by 45 artists from Egypt and abroad, including artwork by established names like Khaled Hafez, prominent young artists such as Ahmed El-Shaer, and up and coming artists including Yasmin Elayat and Fares El-Siagy.
Approximately half of the Egyptian artists were handpicked and invited by the festival organisers, while the other half were filtered from a large number of submissions after an open call. Nawar and Khattab, who have been living abroad for years, chose most of the foreign artists through personal contacts.
Haytham Nawar says among the reasons he was keen on organising the festival was to introduce this type of art to Cairo, challenging local artists to experiment with a different forms of art practice, and to take steps towards demolishing the rigid definitions and labels of art types that still exist in Egypt, despite their virtual disappearance from the international art scene.
“The history of art has always moved with the history of technology, and now, since technology is advancing faster than ever before, art is changing faster than ever,” says Nawar.
Digital art is still a relatively novel concept in Egypt, and yet there were hundreds of visitors at the exhibition opening Saturday 1 April, buzzing with excitement over the dynamic assortment of projects scattered across the Gezira Art Centre.
The show at the Gezira Art Centre is dominated by politically tempered projects. A project by Eman Abdou entitled Playing Politics zooms in on the vast and long Egyptian flag carried by protestors in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising, capturing its wave-like movement that perhaps mimics the ups and downs of the contemporary political landscape.
But not all projects in the dimly lit, jam-packed gallery are political. Several challenge visitors interact with them. For example, a project by new media artist Yasmin Elayat dubbed The Face Orchestra requires visitors to put on headphones and change their facial expressions to make music. “The idea is to create music using your facial expressions and your body,” explains the artist.
Prototype of The Face Orchestra by Yasmin Elayat.
Not all were keen on experimenting with the equipment, however. “The Egyptian public is still not used to interacting with this kind of art. They will stand and watch, but won't touch or move,” Nawar explains.
The festival organisers were aware of this potential problem, and deployed their volunteers to demonstrate on opening night. Yet one is forced to question, what if someone wanders into a volunteer-less Gezira Art Centre? How would they figure out how the projects work?
Considering that the exhibition showcases works of a relatively new medium, there was a lack in annotations in the exhibition. In future editions of the festival, curators may consider adding in-depth annotations or instruction cards alongside the artwork, so that the visitors can make the most of their experience.
While the Gezira Art Centre houses politically charged and interactive projects, the British Council holds a less extensive collection that spotlights video art.
Among the most striking projects showcased there is Khaled Hafez's The A77A Project: On Presidents & Superheroes; a three-minute video tackles the notion of superheroes that has endured since Anubis in ancient Egypt to the modern-day Batman.
The A77A Project: On Presidents & Superheroes by Khaled Hafez.
Contemporary Egyptian artists have dabbled with alternative mediums, including sound art, video art, game art, performance art, and multi-media installations over the past decade, showcasing digital installations in group exhibitions across the city and abroad. Yet an event was lacking to bring them together. This initiative, which acted as a melting pot for digital artists in Cairo, and as a platform for engaging international new media artists, is a very positive and constructive step in keeping up with trends in the global art scene.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the festival founders was finding “sponsors for this kind of art, for this kind of audience, in this kind of time,” says Nawar.
But in the foreign artists who were still keen to attend, despite security risks and the country’s instability, and in the support displayed by the festival’s sponsors (the Ministry of Culture's Fine Arts Sector, the British Council, Prohelvetia, the German University in Cairo and the US Embassy), Nawar and Khattab found a silver lining, and a motivation to keep the festival going for at least a second year.
The Di-Egy Festival 0.1 exhibition runs until 10 April
Gezira Art Centre, 1 Al-Sheikh Al-Marsafi Street, Zamalek, Cairo
The British Council, 192 El-Nil Street, Agouza, Cairo