The opening of the annual Youth Salon on 14 November witnessed an overflow of artwork, as hundreds of art fans flocked to the Opera House for a showcase of youth art. Art openings in private galleries across the city typically house fewer than 100 guests at best, who stroll around the collection on display, and maybe exchange a word or two with the artist. But on this chilly November night, the atmosphere was very different.
The Palace of the Arts on the Opera House grounds was absolutely packed with a bumper-to-bumper crowd of art enthusiasts. Cairo traffic was rivaled by the insides of this meandering building, but instead of rage and frustration, the gridlock was made up of people smiling with pride, impressed with the sheer amount of artwork sprawled across the walls.
The Youth Salon is an annual competition in which a number of young artists submit their work and a committee selects the best art to be showcased in the Salon, giving awards to outstanding pieces. The process is stressful, it’s exhilarating and it’s highly competitive, and that’s why the artists love it. This year, of the 559 young artists who applied to the Salon, 264 were accepted. Awards range from a grand prize of LE20,000 to LE1,000, intended to encourage and support a bulging generation of artists. As the first Youth Salon held after January 25 Revolution, a number of artworks reflect the nation’s changing reality.
Chady El-Noshokaty, a video artist and professor at the American University in Cairo, was overcome with edge-of-seat excitement before walking into the gallery. “An entire generation of artists is inside,” El-Noshokaty said. “Ten years of artwork is through these doors.”
And past the doors were more than a couple hundred artists animatedly discussing their artwork with curious bystanders. Bouquets of flowers buzzed past as friends and family members greeted young divas, each bathing in their own spotlight amid the bustling crowd.
Upon entry to the Palace of Arts, we meet two huge canvases showing a game of snakes and ladders, infused with January 25 Revolution iconography. Ahmed Qassem, one of the Salon’s prizewinners, invites us into a visual game depicting revolutionary symbols such as KFC, Egyptian coins, Twitter and Facebook logos, and mean looking chairs. The entire exhibition is swarming with revolution related icons.
Two large ink drawings portraying a man in shock are stretched across one of the walls. Ahmed Bedeir’s award winning artwork steals our attention for a moment, as one mutes the bulging crowd and tries to decipher the man’s befuddled expression. But soon enough, one moves on to another painting. Marwa Adel, the young superstar, showcases bird’s eye photos of revolution.
Wafaa Yehia and Hasna Hanafy orchestrate a less traditional work of art that everyone was calling “Live painting”. A flesh-and-blood man and a woman, painted from head to toe, stood perfectly still against a wall that was painted as if it were a canvas, as onlookers stared in awe. The couple switched positions every few minutes, and for a moment art and reality intertwined. One of the artists explains that they were playing around with the concept of “still life”. Members of the crowd posed for photos with the new still life, becoming part of the art too.
Another creative project is Nahla Ahmed’s bold “butterfly” art. The legs of three women are blazoned across the walls, draped in lace, with a butterfly placed between their legs, as deep red ink bursts out on a screen below the girls. The artwork is sensual and expressive, tackling the issue of virginity creatively.
There is no silver star next to Nahla’s name though, something that upsets art collector Sherwet Shafei, director of the private Safarkhan Gallery in Zamalek. She moves closer to the art piece, questioning how it wasn’t awarded a prize. “This is so modern, so true,” Shafei says as she stares at the wall in awe. “I am very impressed, because this piece goes out of the ordinary.”
Mohamed Abla, renowned Egyptian painter, who was a member of the first Youth Salon 22 years ago, was impressed by this season’s show. He thought the salon showed a good range, and that it bodes well for the future of Egyptian art. Still, there was a hint of reluctance in the artist’s voice: “I wanted to see something more original,” he says. Abla thought much of the artwork was “safe”, not radically experimental or creative.
Abla was on the committee for the first ever Salon, when it emerged as an initiative supporting youth art. A group of young artists approached former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, pitching a platform for young talent to be recognised. He complied, and for more than two decades the Salon evolved and has “presented new faces and talents each year,” says Abla.
While in the pre-Salon era established artists dominated Egyptian art, youth art pervades now the scene. For generations, the Youth Salon has been the place where many artists kickstart their careers. Many of today’s most established artists started in the Salon, including up and coming sculptor Ahmed Askalany and contemporary Egyptian artist Hany Rashed.
But this year, the Salon suffered a period of conflict and uncertainty. Originally planned to open on 9 October, the Salon was delayed due to conflicts that occured between the Salon's committee, artists and the Ministry of Culture.
Hamdy Reda, an artist who was on the original committee for the 22nd Youth Salon, explains the chaotic sequence of events.
“Reda Abdel Rahman, the former curator of the Salon, asked the committee not to be strict with regards to entrance guidelines, and to accept as much artwork as possible into the Salon, in keeping with the onset of freedom the country had recently experienced,” explains Reda. “But there was tension within the original committee, as member Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen argued they should either accept all the work, or apply proper guidelines.” The committee then put the matter to a vote, and the majority of members thought it would be best to abolish entrance criteria altogether, and accept the entire body of work submitted by artists. “It would be an exceptional year for the Salon, in celebration of the revolution,” Reda continues.
This decision angered many young artists, including Hany Rashed, who was scheduled to give mono-print and collage workshops to participating artists. He threatened to pull out from the Salon, alongside a number of others who wanted to uphold the competitive standards of the Salon. A large number of artists echoed Rashed's sentiments, that “if everyone will exhibit, there won’t be proper standards, so it would be meaningless.” Many participating artists also wanted it to be a competition, and cherished selectivity as part of the experience.
Rashed and a few other artists wrote a document refuting the decision to open the Salon to everyone submitting their artwork and handed it to Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi. “The minister agreed that there should be selection,” Rashed says.
Abu Ghazi subsequently overturned the decision by the 22nd Youth Salon Committee to accept all submitted artwork. The ministry then formed a new committee to take charge of Salon affairs, appointing artist Khaled Hafez as curator, as suggested by Rashed and his coalition of artists.
The minister’s official statement underlines the value of competition in the 22nd Youth Salon, which would be “an expanded vision that breaks barriers in technique and content to reflect competitive perspectives that strive to reach creativity and originality.”
But Hamdy Reda condemns the minister’s decision to depose the original committee and form another one. Even though he says he voted against accepting all the works, he thought it would have been a good chance for art to be free of censorship, and to boost morale among young artists. “The Egyptian youth are still not creatively mature enough,” he says. Reda said that it might have been interesting to face the people with the reality of Egyptian art, and shed light on its glories and also its fiascos.
Rashed says that the reason behind his strong opposition to the original committee’s decision to accept all the submitted works into the Salon rests in his belief in young artists. “I believe in youth, and I think there should be competition,” he says.
“The Youth Salon is ours, and we are concerned for it,” he said. The 36-year-old artist said that he wants the Salon to be a youthful enterprise, from committee to participating artists.
Hafez says he did not hesitate when asked to become the Salon’s curator. He says he worked hard for 12 days with the participating artists and the new committee to put together an unprecedented show, working for 20 hours a day sometimes to produce the first Youth Salon after the January revolution. “I learned a lot by working with the young artists,” Hafez said.
Initially scheduled to open on 9 October, the Youth Salon’s fate was in a haze for a month, and frustration started to bubble among young artists. At times it was feared that it would not be held at all. But the opening brought together a group of hopeful, talented artists that seemed at home in the spotlight. The future appears bright with much promising talent.
Salah El-Meligy, who heads the Salon, explains how art is a tool that mirrors and expresses reality through space and time. “And in the historical moment Egypt passes through, “change” has imposed itself on our reality, so we chose it as the 22nd Youth Salon motto.”