At the heart of mediaeval Cairo, people from all over the globe gathered in Al-Muizz Street to admire art exhibited at four monumental edifices: the Beit Al-Suhaymi, the Sultan Qalawun Complex, the Mohebeddin Hall and the Maqaad Mamai Al-Seify. In this dramatic setting the contemporary treasures on display are engaged in a profound dialogue with the glorious Islamic monuments, linking past to present. Here is an empty bed at Qalawun’s Bimaristan (hospital), with utopian midnight paintings at Mamai Al-Seify and a kinetic sculpture in Al-Suhaymi; a virtual reality installation of a hydride space is juxtaposed with a mawlana’s rosary at the entrance of Qalawun’s mosque. For its third annual edition, Art d’Égypte has invited 28 contemporary Egyptian artists to offer visual interpretations of the culture surrounding one of Historic Cairo’s most vibrant streets. “Reimagined Narratives” presents works that play with time and place, challenging existing narratives and offering alternative histories from an epistemological perspective.
“This year’s exhibition not only explores the theme of Reimagined Narratives, it also delves into the stories of people, places and things that have coexisted in one street for over a thousand years. The dialogue between our heritage and the artists is living proof that Egypt will remain a hub for inspiration and creativity,” said Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany at the opening, adding that it was amazing to showcase contemporary artworks in Al-Muizz Street where several layers of history, Fatimid, Ayoubid, Mameluke and Ottoman, right up to our present day, with people living in the street, operate at the same time. “It was an enjoyable evening where people could explore the architectural wealth of Historic Cairo while embracing contemporary treasures.” El-Enany went on to explain that the ministry’s support for Art d’Égypte over the last three years, came within the framework of its newly adopted policy to encourage partnership with the private sector to manage the facilities and operate services at archaeological sites, which in its turn helps us to obtain the best results for sustainable development.
Art d’Égypte took place in 2017 at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir (for the first time) and in 2018 at the Prince Mohamed Ali Manial Palace. “This is the first time in modern Egyptian history that the private sector is providing the facilities management for the Giza Plateau, the Grand Egyptian Museum and Hurghada Museum, scheduled to open in 2019,” El-Enawy told Al-Ahram Weekly, and promised that this type of agreements is going to be expanded to the reach other archaeological sites.
“Although they are not renowned artists, they created very distinguished art works which made the solid walls of the monuments talk and became vibrant,” the renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass said while touring the exhibition.
UNESCO Cairo Office Director Gaith Fariz feels that juxtaposing old and new art shows the depth of history, animating the present and lighting up the future.
“We brought art to the streets. We changed the people’s mentality. This is an art movement. It is a renaissance of culture,” Nadine Abdel-Ghaffar, the founder of Art D’Egypte, told the Weekly. She went on to explain that selecting Al-Muizz Street to be the venue this year reflects the conviction that Historic Cairo with its layers of history has much to say about the city’s curated mutations. Built over six centuries, she said, the area also reflects decisions made by the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art Arabe, formed in 1882, and successive committees since, each with its own ideas of what is worthy of conservation and what isn’t. The names of its streets contain symbolic meanings reflecting long-gone functions, allowing imposed toponymies to reign over the spaces and dictate their identity. Abdel-Ghaffar mentioned that when the renowned Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote The Cairo Trilogy, he chose Bayn Al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), the toponym of the area, as the title of his first novel. Today, Bayn Al-Qasrayn has come to be known as Al-Muizz. “Exploring the transformations of Historic Cairo raises many questions about what its old walls and spaces embody. The critical mapping of streets and monuments, whether inflicted or organically changing over time, provides a wide mosaic for artists, philosophers and writers to explore,” she pointed out.
Aakash Gupta argues, “These monuments serve as history that has transformed our selective memory in a specific format, entailing precise details about the historical events that they are representing.” Re-appropriating identities and spaces to represent the rifts and continuums of history and recasting them in various forms that go beyond commonly held perceptions offers many alternatives to imagined histories and allows us to project new ideas about the future. Thus, the mosaic can metamorphose in numerous ways, creating a different narrative every time, and enabling artists to delve into a space-time journey with infinite possibilities as cultural historians.
“The exhibition aims to promote Egypt’s central role in contemporary art; we are a cultural operator bridging the gap between sustainable development and artistic mobility with the overarching goal of making art accessible for all,” said Abdel-Ghaffar.
The three-week event, held under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, has brought together 28 acclaimed and award-winning Egyptian contemporary artists who display a unique collection of their works in what is an open art gallery along the historic street.
Contemporary artists showing this year are Ahmed Askalani, Ahmed Al-Shaer, Ahmed Farid, Ahmed Karali, Ahmed Keshta, Amir Youssef, Diaaeddin Dawoud, Farida Al-Gazzar, Fathi Hassan, Ghada Amer, Hani Rashed, Heba Amin, Hoda Lotfi, Ibrahim Ahmed, Ibrahim Al-Dessouki, Ibrahim Khatab, Islam Shabana, Karim Al-Hayawan, Marianne Fahmi, Marwan Al-Gamal, Medhat Shafik, Muizz Al-Damasi, Mohamed Shoukri, Mohamed Banawi, Sherine Girgis, Tarek Naga and Yasmine Al-Meligui.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.