Though a major official event, the 41st round of the General Exhibition, inaugurated two weeks ago by Plastic Arts Sector (PAS) Chairman Khaled Sorrour, turned out to be a disappointment in terms of planning and curation.
Headed by artist Ahmed Abdel Karim as general commissar and entitled “A call for romance”, the exhibition comprised 286 pieces by 228 artists that were free interpretations of the theme. A good half of the pieces on show were below par, however, and the setup of the show at the huge Palace of Arts was inadequate, combining different mediums in a haphazard and confusing way, with insufficient information on the pieces. A week after the opening, there was still no catalogue.
All these negative aspects leave the visitor bewildered, what is the General exhibition for? Is any artist entitled to participate? If so, one should at least expect proper representation of artists from the whole country, especially those representing the south. “I agree that we accepted a huge number of art works,” Abdel Karim responds. “I intend to submit a recommendation to the PAS suggesting we should make use of other galleries such as Al Hanger and Al Gezira to make the presentation more attractive.” But this would not solve the problems of the work itself. Ceramics, calligraphy, caricature and photography are very inadequately represented, for example. How might a typical piece of ceramic art by Khaled Sirag for example reflect romance?
Ayman Lotfy’s body art does fit with the theme, but his picture of a woman covering her forehead and eyes with a red scarf is one of very few photographs in this exhibition. In a huge picture featuring two women with candles in two different positions, reflecting helpless facial expressions, Alaa Negm seems influenced by Lotfy, while Sherine Ismail’s image of two Nubian boys feels hollow. The two calligraphers in the show, Sameh Ismail and Ashraf Reda, both opt for a symbolic modern approach.
“As a painter,” Abdel Karim, who as well as being commissar for a year was recently elected to the Visual Art committee of the Higher Council of Culture, goes on, “I agree that there is a high number of weak art works, but I don’t have the authority to reject the submitted artworks. The jury consists of seven art academy members, including myself, and the selection is made through voting. The theme was debatable considering the harsh realities in which we live, and some artists chose not to abide by it.”
Those who did responded in different ways and at various levels. Salah El Melegy’s acrylic landscape looks like straightforward romance at first – the surface of the Nile in blue and white – but a closer look reveals an inert mass like a tree or a corpse in a darker blue underwater. Mohamed El Fayoumy’s bronze sculpture of a heavy woman on a couch, with a cat at her feet and a small table with a teapot to her side reflects another idea of romance: nostalgia for simpler times. Hany Faisal’s sculpture of a woman holding a cat is a powerful piece despite being a literal interpretation. Many artists naively chose to include guitars in their works as a symbol or reference to romance, despite the fact that guitars have nothing to do with Arab musical culture.
One positive sign is that Abdel Karim managed to include work by internationally renowned artists like Khaled Hafez, Khaled Zaki and Hossam Sakr. Hafez’s huge painting depicts a chaotic world, with technology (cars and machines) surrounding creatures that are half-human, half-angelic. There is a conflict of meanings, elements and colors. The painting looks like a complicated text that needs time to digest. In typically dialectic mode, Hafez presents a collision of reality and romance. For his part Khaled Zaki perceives romanticism from an aesthetic point of view. His four women, in bronze, 90 cm high, are a provocative sight. Three of them, called Refugees, look down. “There is romance in the sight of cattle grazing, but the sight of women refugees has similar associations,” Zaki says.
Hossam Sakr’s two paintings in mixed media on cotton paper, each 70 cm by 120 cm, take romanticism to a philosophical level. In a semi abstract style, the first features two human figures. You can seldom tell if Sakr’s figures are male or female. Both figures are obviously illustrated in a moment of sentimental conflict; their faces look calm, but there is much going on beneath the surface. The stem of a flower is on one side, while the petals are on the other. They must have shared a happy experience, though both look miserable now. Two human faces vaguely intersect with the figures. They seem like censors. Perhaps they might represent the society that supervises and controls our behaviour and feelings.
The other painting is equally brilliant, questioning the need of romance and the fear of romantic integration. Will romance complete or tarnish our existence? It features a human figure deprived of its arms. It looks like an ancient statue. On the other side of the painting, the cut-off arms appear as discarded ribs, next to which the linear portrait of a smiling face is beautifully illustrated. The look of fear and confusion on the face of the incomplete figure, painted mainly in yellow with blue spots scattered on his skin, denotes the state of incompleteness.
Few of the works on show are experimental in any sense. Wael Darwish’s three wood blocks have three rectangular sheets each. They are constantly revolving, but when they stop they form a colourful abstract painting. Hany El Feky’s painting is a wood collage using different kinds and grains of woods and colors of wood to create portraits of men and women in conversation.
The installations are mostly of bad quality, but perhaps the worst is a piece by Amani Khalil featuring a bicycle leaning to a wooden door, with a colourful postbox and a naively written letter on the opposite wall. Entitled The Postman, the installation – which seems concerned with lack of communication in the age of social media – lacks any sense of artistic creativity.
“The exhibits reflect the state of art in Egypt,” says Abdel Karim. “It has the perfect, the good and the bad. One of the General Exhibition’s missions is to encourage artists aged 30 to 35, and to provide them with an incentive to continue their career. We posted announcements for artists throughout Egypt, inviting them to participate. Many chose not to participate for different reasons. For example, artists who exhibit their work in private galleries are usually not interested.”
The audience may have looked depressed as they roamed the space, but this year saw a bigger audience on the whole. Perhaps all is not lost – if future General Exhibitions manage to reject bad art.
The exhibition runs through 19 March.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly