In the midst of a dazzling amount of activity — with viewers often having to miss an opening in order to attend a seminar or some other event — over 2019 the Egyptian art scene featured an unprecedented rise in what might be termed new Egyptian pop art.
In “Please enter my space”, for example, the Mashrabiya Gallery exhibited the work of pop artist Ahmed Leithi, who has no academic background or former experience as an artist. He makes paintings in acrylic on canvas of photos he himself takes. “The place is not the place where I live, but it is the soul of the people I meet, as if it were a real reservoir of thoughts, emotions, and intuition, and I interacted with them to leave a mark or to let them affect me,” his statement reads.
“How do we perceive entertainment in visual arts” was another exhibition held at Cairo Jazz, a deserted building next to the Townhouse Gallery, where a group of young and mid-career pop artists presented their own perceptions of the aesthetics of fun. Curated by artist Katie MacDougall, the exhibition featured, among other objects, huge styrofoam tomatoes and Hani Rashed’s large-size gypsum cars reflecting on Cairo traffic.
Rashed also showed the same work in a solo exhibition, “Museum of Gypsum”, at the Mashrabiya, where he presents a powerful interpretation of the idea of waiting. In the framework of the Art D’Egypte Art Fair, on the other hand, on Al-Muizz Street, Rashed presented a brand-new exhibition entitled “My Father’s Museum” which featured watches, mini-carpets, pens and other personal belongings in museum-like glass displays — a project launched on Facebook years before.
At the Zamalek Art Gallery, artist Hana Al-Segini gave her second solo exhibition, “42 Bahgat Ali”, a kind of recreation of the family house in which she grew up in cardboard. “It is in-between these walls where I impulsively had the urge to escape as a teenager, yet where I find refuge as a woman,” reads the artist’s statement. It marks a shift in the gallery’s orientation, with only traditional work by established artists previously exhibited.
According to Rashed, pop art is on the rise despite mainstream traditionalism: “It takes time for the huge number of art schools graduates to go against the classic academic curriculum they were taught.” But the market too is changing, with more Egyptian buyers generally less interested than European collectors in experimentation.
Photography too has seen a surge this year, with the Zamalek Art Gallery showing work by such photographers as Ayman Lotfi, Faris Zaitoun and Nelly Al-Sharkawi.
New galleries have opened despite the economic crunch: the Azade Gallery in Zamalek, and Zagpic and the Samah Galleries in Sheikh Zayed, among others. Zagpic director Mohamed Yassin says the mission of the new gallery, which is a branch of Zamalek Art Gallery, is to encourage distinguished new and mid-career artists to exhibit: “The customers, in Sheikh Zayed, are different, mostly upper-middle class people who have a relatively shallow perception of visual art. We are here to make a change.”
Big business is investing in art, however, with the huge company Arkan hosting a week of installation and photography on Cairo at its newly opened new Arkan mall, “Connection Cairo”, curated by the newly established platform Gyptian.
The Ministry of Culture is doing less and less, on the other hand, with the only achievement — the reopening of the Cairo International Biennale for Visual Arts, held earlier this year at the Opera House — falling short of expectations. Two exhibitions — photography by Bassam Al-Zoghby, and paintings by the Syrian artist Bahram Hajou — are among a handful of exceptions to that rule.
Also remarkable was the three-day Cairo Comix Festival in its fifth round, which took place at the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum, though the museum administration simply offered the space. Curated by comic artist Magdi Al-Shafei, the cheerful international event — including workshops, book signings and a fair — was perfectly organised.
Also worth mentioning is “Caricature” at the Ubuntu Art Gallery, a huge retrospective of the political cartoon going back to the 1930s. Curated by cartoonist Samir Abdel-Ghani, the exhibition featured 75 artists from Rakha to Sarokhan, Salah Jahin, Hassan Hakim, and the contemporary cartoonist Doaa Al-Adl. With a live performance by cartoonist Mohamed Effat, it also included artists like Samir Fouad, Wagih Yassa and Galal Gomaa reflecting on the art form. The latter, for example, uses stone and wire to make portraits of such figures as artist Mohamed Abla.
Ubuntu owner Ahmed Al-Dabaa is determined to break the barrier separating fine art from everyday people, and he recently organised a carpet exhibition with work from Iran and Central Asia as well as Assiut. As a scholar of Islamic art, he also gave a presentation on carpets from the 15th century to the present.
Tribute exhibitions — another new trend — included a selection of work by Tahiya Halim (1919-2003), curated by Nagwa Ibrahim at the Picasso Art Gallery. A pioneer of expressionism, Halim is a central figure in Arab art but many of the 1950s sketches and paintings here — nudes, Nubian landscapes — are rarely seen. The exhibition also featured the artist’s favourite wooden chain, her brushes, her apron, and a recording of her voice telling her life story. On show until 19 December, the exhibition celebrates the centennial of Halim’s birth.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.