Alexandria Biennale: A cultural statement charged with art and lessons

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 3 Jul 2014

Head of Egypt's Fine Arts Sector Salah El-Meligui explains to Ahram Online the achievements and challenges faced by the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, which runs until 7 July

26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, opening day 10 June 2014. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

"We could wait no longer. The 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries had to be launched and had to be launched now," Salah El-Meligui, head of the Fine Arts Sector at the Ministry of Culture affirmed as he proceeded to sign a mountain of documents piled up on his desk, a proud emblem of Egypt's traditional – and seemingly indispensible – bureaucracy.

Two weeks after the biennale's opening, El-Meligui sat in his large office overlooking the Nile, his mind evidently preoccupied with the end of the fiscal year reports. And yet, he still found the time to recapitulate on the achievements and challenges of the Alexandria event.

"The Alexandria Biennale was first launched in 1955 by then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Being the second oldest fine arts biennale in the world [after the Venice Biennale], and the oldest in the MENA region, it carries substantial historical and cultural importance," El-Meligui said with eyes still fixed on the multi-page documents, the rapidly uttered sentences testifying to the multitude of times they have been said over the past few weeks.

He continued to explain how the biennale's last edition was held in 2009; how the 2011 edition had to be cancelled due to the upheavals that followed the revolution; and how the year marked by the turbulent presidency of Mohamed Morsi made it impossible to organise any large-scale cultural event.

"Though we should have waited until 2015 to uphold the odd year continuation, the five-year hiatus was already too long. Any other country could have taken the initiative over had we waited any longer," El-Meligui continued, stressing the importance of the biennale's belonging to the cultural history of modern Egypt.

Artistic reflection on a theme

The 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries launched on 10 June at the Alexandria Fine Arts Museum in the Moharram Bek district. Running until 7 July under the theme "The Will of Change," the biennale displays works by 17 artists from 13 countries. Naturally, many artists from the Arab Spring countries looked at the theme through the socio-political prism, often engaging in a discourse on religion and faith.

From Tunisia, Ziad Zitoun exhibits stencils on canvas in which he tackles women's call for change. Syrian artist Kais Salman's monochromatic oils depict grotesque figures denoting an Islamist. In her turn, Canada-based Libyan artist and winner of the biennale's prize, Arwa Abouon, presents a photography diptych in which she raises religious and gender identity issues.

The grand prize winner, Huda Lutfi from Egypt, captured the jury's attention with her 2012 video installation Biyadaat. Olu Ougibe, the head of the jury, characterised Lutfi's work as "probably the most striking and equally attached to the biennale's theme. The military boots depicted in her video are resonant – not just of the period leading up to the uprising across the country and the region, but also of what has transpired afterwards."

Yet, away from the political aspects, the change is equally visualised as transition, development or progress, as well as dreams thereof. A biennale prize-winning work by Saso Sadlacek from Slovenia uses humour – if not sharp irony – to speak about change in a form of desire; it addresses the environment, still awaiting the changes in a commercially driven reality.

Reflecting on the theme, shortly after the biennale's opening, Ougibe expressed to Ahram Online that though some artists managed to respond to "The Will of Change," a large number of artwork failed to reflect the biennale's thematic expectations. "The biennale was completely dependent on the limited number of submissions and could not create a fully fledged event. I think all the entries went on the wall," Ougibe stated.

While hoping that the selection process sees some improvement in the biennale's upcoming editions, he also pointed to additional concerns -- such as the need for publicity, better resourcing and some technical issues. "My job, however, is not to judge matters peripheral to the artwork itself," he says while recognising the efforts exerted by the Egyptian Fine Arts Sector. "I do recognise that the organisers were determined to adhere to the commitment against all the odds, which, all things considered, is a plausible detail."

Ougibe's worries do not come as a surprise to El-Meligui who, obviously feeling a strong moral obligation toward cultural perseverance, found himself faced with numerous obstacles on the one hand, and an endless list of expectations on the other.

Against all odds

El-Meligui lifted his eyes from the documents on his desk. With an unexpected degree of transparency, he began to explain the many realities surrounding this year's event. Soon, it became clear that any assertive judgement of the 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries cannot be detached from the reality in which it is embedded.

He enumerated a number of obstacles and pressures applied from both internal and external players: "For one thing, instead of aiming for artistic values, several people we cooperated with aimed at pursuing their personal agendas. Furthermore, a number of international players refused to contribute for different reasons, mainly political."

Explaining how he kept finding himself trapped in endless challenges during the preparatory process, he added that "While mostly sailing against the wind, we collected a reasonable amount of works from which several submissions had to be rejected due to their unsatisfactory artistic level." El-Meligui's comments here seem to respond to Ougibe's, expressed two weeks earlier.

"From the final display, I find the Libyan, Syrian, Algerian, Moroccan and all four Egyptian contributions particularly interesting," he continued.

"Though, historically, some Alexandria Biennale editions saw only 10 countries participate, they were usually characterised by a larger number of artists," El-Meligui went on, adding that the two changes in curators additionally affected the number of artists this year. Mostafa Abdelwahab came as the biennale's third curator a few months prior to the opening, after Abdel Salam Eid and then Gehane Soliman apologised consecutively.

The financial element was among the more pronounced issues this year. According to El-Meligui, each edition of the biennale has been financed by the ministry's bodies, in addition to generous support extended by the Alexandria Governorate and the city's Business Association.

"Long before the biennale's opening, together with then culture minister Mohamed Saber Arab, and joined by the Alexandria governor, we paid a visit to the Alexandria Business Association. The governor promised that the association would contribute LE260,000 [USD 37,000]. Weeks later, we were informed that the amount would be reduced to LE100,000 [USD 15,000]. And then, only one day ahead of the opening, the association gave us the check -- worth LE5,000. I refused to accept it," El-Meligui recounted, explaining how, aside from the financial pressure created by this course of events, it also prevented the Fine Arts Sector from searching for other resources at earlier stages.

"This year's edition cost us LE800,000 [USD 112,000]. Ministerial bodies ended up covering everything: the artwork freight fees, the artists' flight tickets and accommodation, the prizes and all organisational aspects," he revealed.

Although proud of the biennale's achievement and reassured by its return back on track, El-Meligui pointed to the many lessons learnt. He also hopes to involve younger generations and youthful dynamic curators in upcoming editions. "I am happy to bring this important event back to Egypt's cultural map. At the same time, the experience opened our eyes to the issues of the post-revolutionary scene, many of which are completely new and unexpected. I am confident that the upcoming editions of the Alexandria Biennale will benefit from all these realisations."

As our conversation was concluding on this hopeful note, two visitors -- CIB bank representatives -- entered El-Meligui's office. "We will discuss possibilities of cooperation between the bank and the Fine Arts Sector," he explained, referencing preparations for the upcoming edition of the Cairo Biennale scheduled to take place in early 2015.

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