'Long Live Free Art': Art as a weapon of resistance across generations

Sara Elkamel, Thursday 20 Dec 2012

Critic Samir Gharib opens the month-long ArtTalks contemporary exhibition by comparing the works exploring art as catalyst for political change to 1930s revolutionary art movement 'Egyptian Art and Freedom Group'

Long Live Free Art opening night. Photo: Sara Elkamel

Focused on the theme of art as resistance, ArtTalks' Long Live Free Art showcases graffiti, paint and sculptural works by prominent contemporary artists including Huda Lutfi, Mohamed Abla and Nermine Hammam, as well as promising up and coming artists Ahmed Sabry and Keizer.

The title of the exhibition, which was launched on 18 December, is evocative of a chant for a reason.

The works are inspired by the 1939 art movement Egyptian Art and Freedom Group created by five revolutionary artists and intellectuals George Henein, Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel, Anwar Kamel and Kamel El-Telmessani who saw art as a force to liberate the mind and nation.

Fast forwarding to 21st century Egypt, where artists are still battling for freedom within a politically repressive environment, Long Live Free Art aims to generate debate over the meaning of freedom in contemporary Egypt.

On the opening night, ArtsTalk director Fatenn Mostafa, speaking to a room filled with contemporary artists and art enthusiasts, launched the exhibition by saying "Art is a weapon of resistance."

Referring to the political turmoil dividing Egypt today, she maintained that art is a force of change and has been since the 1930s. She explains that the purpose of this exhibition is to learn from the art of resistance in Egypt’s history.

Samir Gharib, who has written extensively on the Egyptian Art and Freedom Group and on the history of modern Egyptian art, started his art talk by saying how important it is to shed light on art and freedom in this particular moment in Egypt’s history.

Egyptian Art and Freedom Group was established in December of 1939, with the goal of "preserving the freedom of thought," explains Gharib.

Through the years and even after the revolution of 1952, which was instigated by the spread of "poverty, ignorance and disease", art was a weapon for the development of society.

Gharib explains that what made the surrealist art movement particularly effective as a revolutionary tool in the first half of the 20th century was that its founding principle was liberating the mind.

"Surrealism is all about expressions of one’s dreams and subconscious," explains Gharib. "It is only imagination that can challenge reality and it can eventually change reality."

Samir Gharib emphasised the young ages of the founders of the Egyptian Art and Freedom Group: George Henein was only 25 when he established the movement. He urged young Egyptian artists to unite and challenge political and social realities through art.

"I hope that young artists now can be inspired by the faith of an artist in the freedom of art."

Fighting for freedom of expression was the manifesto of the 20th century art movement and this exhibition highlights the timeless struggle for freedom within Egypt’s art arena, through giving the audience a glimpse into contemporary works by today’s most active artists. 

Long Live Free Art takes refuge at ArtTalks, one of the private galleries located in the cultural hub of Zamalek, a district that plays host to Egyptian artwork from across generations.

From the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, located at the Cairo Opera House grounds to revolutionary graffiti by the likes of Ganzeer and Sad Panda, Zamalek is the go-to place for experiencing the diverse scope of artwork in the city.

As you walk into the gallery miniature security police stand in your way. Slightly larger than bowling pins, the identical group of plastic officers beg to be trampled on.

This is Moataz Nasr’s "Enter Through the Penguins" installation, which challenges guests to kick their way through the soldiers.

Works by prominent modern painter and activist Mohamed Abla are instantly recognisable on the walls, opposite graffiti-on-canvas works by one of Egypt’s most impressive street artists: Keizer.

Oum Kolthoum is spray-painted in purple on one of the canvases, the text reads "Art is not a sin".

Two powerful nude portraits by Yasser Nabiel are juxtaposed with Ahmed Sabry’s clever and slightly blasphemous calligraphy on canvas, in which he paints defiant phrases within dainty motifs, an explicit and refreshing style.

Another installation by Huda Lutfi presents an orange neon sign reading "No one is a winner." Lutfi’s body of work ranges from installation to painting to collage but it always hosts subtle social commentary and manifest creativity.

Artists such as Huda Lutfi and Mohamed Abla were active participants of the January 25 Revolution and on the opening night wanted to join protests held on the same evening.

Surrealism may have been the weapon of Egyptian artists 73 years ago but today’s artists play with different styles. Expressionism, satirical art and graffiti are spotlighted in this exhibition: they are representative of the dynamic art scene in modern-day Egypt.

Despite the generation gap, Egyptian artists of the 1930s and of today possess a vibrant voice and a determination for freedom of expression. 

Founded in 2010 by Fatenn Mostafa, ArtTalks is an educational, advisory and exhibition space in Cairo.

Long Live Free Art runs through January 15, 2013 at ArtTalks.
8 El Kamel Mohamed Street
Zamalek - Cairo, Egypt

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