Visual arts in Egypt in 2015: Beyond the political and into the social, the personal, and out of downtown

Soha Elsirgany, Monday 28 Dec 2015

After the past couple of years witnessed a surge in politically charged artworks, Egypt's art scene today takes a turn into more social and personal subjects

Cairo Art Fair
Cairo Art Fair at Arts Mart (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

In 2015, visual artists in Egypt delved into less political subjects, with social issues and quests for identities taking the centre stage, as artists attempted to understand their place in an ever-shifting world.

The 2011 revolution saw artists expressing their thoughts and emotional responses, looking out to the political changes around them, reflecting on and documenting them. Since the revolutionary fervour has waned, much of the artwork today is more inclined to tackle social issues, but in a tone just as serious as the political. And it is in those more personal accounts that artists become less reactionary and more critical, less demanding and more inquisitive.

The political shifts off centre

While some works still deal with political subjects, their focus has shifted towards inspecting the world that exists in the shadow of wars, violations and struggles, with the political settling in the background.

In light of an increase in the depiction of violence circulated through different types of imagery and mediums, Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) held a series of discussions titled Concerning Violence and the Image in April this year. The group discussions explored the meaning of violence and its visual form, opening up a discourse and reflection on the images we produce and consume, regardless of the violent events that caused them.

We saw this focal shift also echoed in the works of artist Soad Mardam Bey and historian artist Huda Lutfi. In January at Zamalek Art Gallery, with her painting exhibit Playing Without Toys, Syrian Mardam Bey, who has lived in Cairo for 10 years, depicted children affected by war as injured toys.

Her doll-like subjects are placed within the socio-political context of the struggles in the Arab region that has led to the displacement of families, leaving the young ones traumatised, though depicting them with huge hopeful eyes that haunt the viewer. Lutfi’s Magnetic Bodies, faithful to her approach, was critical and subjective in its political focus, placing the human figure as a main subject, used as a symbol or as a shape, through which she critiqued social and political undercurrents.

As Magnetic Bodies questions the individual’s relationship with its surroundings, we saw other artists this year on a similar track. In many quests to understand the individual’s place, there was a lot of artwork that sought to reconcile dual or multifaceted identities.

Soad Mardam Bey
Souad Mardam Bey, oil and mixed media on canvas (125x85cm), 2014 (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

Reconciling identities and histories

Through the minimal sculptural pieces of award winning artist Hazem El-Mistikawy, Islamic and ancient Egyptian influences are used to explore themes of identity, gender, the contemporary and the historical and even the political in his March exhibit Juxtaposition at Art Talks.

Where El-Mistikawy looked to the past, Ahmed Sabry’s The 5th District ventured into new territories by reflecting on life in New Cairo’s residential compounds by his surreal merge of classical landscapes with television scenes at Mashrabia Gallery earlier in February.

Cairo’s galleries also welcomed a few artists curious about their roots and their past, ones who were probing its social fabric to make their own sense of it, but merged with stories that resonate with a wider audience.

In May, Gypsum Gallery saw Athens-based Egyptian artist Farida El-Gazzar extensively revisiting personal archives and oral family history to re-connect with her Egyptian ties, “bringing the stories of the past into [her] experience of the present” in Dream City.

El-Gazzar’s delicate work shared her personal exploration of Egypt and her subjective mapping of it. On a similar personal quest were cousins Noha Mokhtar, a Swiss Egyptian artist and anthropologist, and video artist Sahar Suleiman, who peered into Egyptian family dynamics and social constructs, in their collaborative text based project When Will You Make us Happy? hosted by Townhouse Gallery. Having never lived in Egypt, the project for the artists was a way to question these roots and understand how context may affect rules, values and ultimately identity.

Cinemania at Darb 1718 (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Histories were revisited differently in Mebaksel Keda Leih? (Why so Pixelated?) at Sharjah Gallery located within the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) walls, where a number of graphic design student’s chose to brand (or re-brand) a number of Egypt’s museums and culture sites, dressing them in a modern look that doesn’t eclipse, but rather highlights their historic essence. These projects reflected a growing interest among youth in connecting with their history and heritage, but upgrading their interaction with these sites to a creative and technologically fresh language.

Comparably, a re-appreciation for the craft of film posters was re-ignited in the nostalgic exhibition Cinemania at Darb 1718, as another group of 11 young artists created hand made reproductions of vintage film posters from the 1950s and the 1970s. The exhibit effectively situated the movies, and the long lost craft of manual poster making, within today’s contemporary context.

2015 also revealed some broken bridges, between state and independent art, and between the technically focused older artists and conceptually focused progressive artists mostly of a younger generation. But these fissures made for a richer art scene, with frictions fuelling creativity and widening the arts discourse, raising questions on what art is and what it is for.

Women in the spotlight

Art as soft power was a direction seen in a number of exhibits centring on women. Female artists have long proven their presence on the scene, but 2015 saw a number of works by women on women’s issues shedding light on a wide spectrum of their experiences, struggles and accomplishments.

Through the Eyes of Women: A Photographic Journey displayed works by 17 women photographers at the American University in Cairo (AUC), whereas a more abstract treatment was seen in young artist Nada Baraka’s show at Mashrabia in January titled Fractals.

In the same month Riham Al-Saadany’s Lust in Wonderland at Art Talks depicted a twisted fantasy world where women are freed from the fetishes of man’s gaze, her characters candidly indulging in “a world for women, by women,” in her own words.

Yet in February, visiting Palestinian artist Rima El-Mozayyen showed us how a woman’s world isn’t always a wonderland by assuming the role of artist and activist in an exhibition titled I’m not a Doll, displayed at the Art Lounge. El-Mozayyen’s symbolic figurative paintings directly referenced violations against women including rape, domestic violence, harassment, FGM and child marriages, and the oppressive beauty standards of modern society.

Rima El-Mozayyen
Rima El-Mozayyen's I'm not A Doll (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Many initiatives have also used art as a tool to understand and deal with these issues. In Sidewalk Stories, we saw a story telling workshop tackling harassment turn into the photography projects of 17 young women displayed at Tahrir Lounge later in the year in September. By relating their experiences in public spaces and sexist challenges, the workshop and resulting artworks helped strengthen their solidarity, and gave them a voice through self-expression.

The Woman and Memory Forum (WMF) commemorated pioneering activist and feminist Wedad Mettri with another September exhibition held at the premises of the Supreme Council for Culture, a body operating directly under the Ministry of Culture. The exhibition included Mettri’s handwritten notes, black and white photos and oral memories, all donated by the late activist to the forum. In line with the forum’s endeavour to re-read history from a feminist perspective, the exhibit served to underline the diverse and rich experiences of women free from stereotypes, by highlighting not just the life and inspiring journey of Mettri but the role that women historically played in society and politics.

Big things shaping up

In parallel to the shifts in tone and direction of visual artwork produced, 2015 was also a year sprinkled with important events and new players.

Some of this year’s biggest additions to the visual art scape came from Cairo Comix festival in September, the first festival dedicated to the comics medium. At the Greek Campus, the three-day event brought attention to the buzzing society of comic artists, previously marginalised, providing them with an opportunity to exhibit their creations and connect to establish a more firm community that can nourish the genre in Egypt.

The Cairo Art Fair at Arts Mart held in June marked the biggest commercial art show, bringing together over 700 works from 80 artists in a step aiming to connect contemporary art with interested collectors or buyers.

Shady El-Noshokaty
Shady El-Noshokaty's Colony-Latitude exhibition at Gypsum (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Some efforts have been made this year to expand the art community beyond its epicentre of downtown Cairo. The Townhouse, one of the oldest downtown galleries, opened a new branch, Townhouse West, in Sheikh Zayed’s Westtown Hub, located on the southern outskirts of the capital. Townhouse West began the struggle to ambitiously recreate its community downtown, and engage the society in the upscale compound with the contemporary art conversation.

Meanwhile, on the other edge of the city, the remote Sharjah Gallery at AUC sought to involve itself deeper with the active art community in Cairo through hosting a series of solo shows in 2014 and 2015 titled AUC_LAB. The series included four shows by established artists Rana El-Nemr, Malak Helmy, Hassan Khan, and Mohamed Abdelkarim’s Ahmed’s Revenge and Other Untold Stories that was held in March. The series served to bring the art community to the Sharjah Gallery, situating it as a serious and important cultural player.

Gypsum Gallery, in its turn, saw a different success of its own. Located in Cairo’s Garden City, the Gallery made history as the only gallery from Egypt and the youngest to make it to this year’s Art Dubai, the biggest art fair in the region. Gypsum also held important exhibits this year including A Season in Hell, which brought together eight established Egyptian artists including Hany Rashed, Doa Aly, Ranya Fouad and Basim Magdy, and Colony-Latitude, Shady El-Noshokaty’s avant garde project that commenced his ambitious 15-part project.

Looking back at a very active 2015, visual artists in Egypt are producing works that go beyond expressions and reactions, that delve deeper into questions and critiques of their surroundings. Art and culture players are expanding to become more inclusive, and overall the currents seem to be shaping a more mature art scene.

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