Many visual artists were outraged last week when Egypt's newly-appointed Minister of Culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz dismissed Salah El-Meligy from his post as head of Fine Arts sector and Central Administration of Exhibitions and Museums.
Though the minister did not provide a reason for this sudden dismissal, the decision came right after El-Meligy opened the 35th annual General Art Exhibition at Cairo's Palace of Arts without complying to the ministerial request to remove a few artwork from it.
Born in 1957, Salah El-Meligy is one of the most renowned Egyptian artists. Professor at the Graphic Art Department at the Faculty of Arts – with a PhD in graphic arts obtained in 1993 – El-Meligy spent the past two years serving as head of Fine Arts Sector and Central Administration of Exhibitions and Museums.
Under his management and despite many budget cuts and operational challenges, El-Meligy managed to reinvigorate over a dozen of exhibition halls and long-forgotten museums, including the Fine Arts Museum in Alexandria that had been closed since 1932.
He is also working on an initiative to launch a fine arts hall in a popular area in South Cairo, aiming to reach out to the underprivileged social strata with valuable cultural works.
Ahram Online talks to El-Meligy about the two years he spent in the Fine Arts Sector office, his reflections on the events taking place in Egypt's arts scene today and the new minister's policies.
Ahram Online (AO): Was the main trigger behind your dismissal the fact that you opened the exhibition without removing the artwork suggested by the minister?
Salah El-Meligy (SM): Neither the minister nor I are authorised to remove any artwork from the exhibition. Those decisions belong to the curatorial committee. Even prior to the opening, I tried to explain this point to the minister, but he didn't seem to grasp the exhibition regulations.
AO: Hence, what are the reasons behind this dismissal?
SM: The dismissal is not directed at me personally. A series of actions taken by the minister indicate a much larger plan and point to the government's attempt to break the Egyptian culture and identity. I am not sure where Abdel-Aziz is getting the orders from, but there is definitely a bigger plan behind his actions.
Proof of that is the fact that, despite the outrage of the cultural community, the minister was neither suspended from his office, nor were his decisions questioned by the government.
An additional trigger of his actions is the fact that Abdel-Aziz's profile lacks professional accomplishments equal to those of many figures in the culture field. This must be difficult for him to deal with.
AO: Is the dismissal related then to challenging Egypt's culture in its larger meaning?
SM: Culture is under a serious attack. The government is trying to remove all values that we still have. It's not about me, but about everybody working in arts and culture, including Ines Abdel Dayem [dismissed head of the Cairo Opera House], Ahmed Megahed [dismissed head of the Egyptian Book Organisation], followed by an expected series of resignations of intellectuals displeased with the minister's policies.
AO: What about the minister's claims of purging the scene from the "corrupt heads?"
SM: Are all the Egyptian renowned artists corrupt? Impossible! However, the accomplished artists and intellectuals are hard to be controlled. This is the core of the problem.
AO: What are the challenges of the cultural scene today?
SM: We are dealing with difficult mindsets and decades-strong systems. In the Fine Arts sector, many employees started protesting right after the January 25 Revolution. Many of them reopen the battle every time a new minister is appointed, hoping to get additional gains. [Alaa Abdel-Aziz is the 6th minister since January 2011]. Those are the mind sets that now react to the decades of oppression they were experiencing. Yet, when facing those reappearing challenges and while dealing with the employees' long-forgotten rights, in parallel, we always have to take care of developing the cultural scene.
Those are the big challenges of today's management of the cultural scene, not the corruption.
AO: Do you mean that there is no corruption at all in the cultural field in Egypt now?
SM: It is there, due to the decades of systems that were incorporating and encouraging it. Now, it is on a much smaller scale and it differs in every cultural institution. Also, today every head of such institution supervises every single step. If I suspected manipulation among the employees executing certain projects, I cancelled it immediately and referred it to legal supervision.
Today hardly anyone wants to play with fire. If Abdel-Aziz finds any disregarded corruption, he should send files to the general prosecution. Until this moment, the minister didn’t direct any files of possible corruption of Abdel-Dayem or myself to the prosecution. What corruption is he talking about then?
AO: What are the visual artists planning to do now?
SM: Visual artists are not that united. I hope they realise that it is not about me. The issue is not personal, nor is it directed to one individual displeasing the minister. It is about the planned destruction of all sectors of the Egyptian culture.
Artists representing many fields and intellectuals need to unite in this fight against the destruction of our cultural identity.
AO: What do you think is the reason of this "attack on culture" as artists put it?
SM: The general situation in the country is unsatisfactory to everybody. It is not only about culture. Everything is tumbling down. Every Egyptian has something to complain about today: electricity cuts, fuel problems, rising prices, or even Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on the Nile. Culture is only one of the many elements that simply do not work under the current government.
AO: So will culture disappear?
SM: Egypt's culture is too strong to disappear. This country has an enormous cultural wealth and identity. It is in our big history and in the minds of every citizen. The intellectuals will not create a revolution, but they can infuse the minds of the nation with ideas. This is threatening to the government.
AO: What is the Egyptian artists' destiny then?
SM: I expect many artists and intellectuals to flee, look after bread and recognition outside Egypt. This is very sad. On the other hand, all those artists might find a better life in, let's say, Arab countries where culture is imported from the culturally rich countries, such as Egypt.
AO: What are you doing now and what are your plans?
SM: I returned to my work as Professor at the Graphic Art Department at the Faculty of Arts in Cairo. I also spend a lot of time in my workshop. I create art every day, something that I almost abandoned for the past two years. I will hopefully manage to launch an exhibition this year.
AO: Is your current artistic work reflecting on the realities?
SM: Of course. The project I'm working on now is related to the Ancient Egyptian goddess Nout. The question I pose is – Are we living in daytime or hours of darkness? I'm not trying to fool myself. I am not optimistic; I see a lot of darkness.
Note: This interview was conducted on Tuesday 4 June, before the open-ended sit-in organized by artists began at the Ministry of Culture (5 June)