2023 Yearender: The dark end

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

The suffering of Palestinians dominated the art scene, writes Rania Khallaf

The dark end
The dark end

The war on Gaza has cast a long shadow over the art scene in Cairo since the start of the year’s last quarter. Art galleries have avoided festive moods. Some dedicated one-day exhibitions to raise funds for humanitarian assistance in Gaza. A one-day exhibition titled For Palestine took place on 5 December at Arkan Mall in Shiekh Zayed: a collaboration of many associations and galleries including Passion Art Gallery and the Egyptian Syndicate of Plastic Arts. Almost all paintings were sold.
Nora Baraka, a mid-career visual artist whose painting was sold, commented, “I believe now more than ever that art can be a tool to make the world a better place.” The painting depicts a huge human figure, with smaller figures coming out of his solid body. The tiny figures, who might represent the undying Palestinian resistance, all stand against a wall.
Cleg Art Gallery has also called for a virtual exhibition to raise funds for the injured and those in need of food. Around 40 artists were expected to participate to show their solidarity. Earlier in November, the Access Art Gallery hosted an exhibition by Kuwaiti artist Ghada Al- Kandari, who dedicated all the proceeds to the people of Palestine. One of outstanding painting is a portrait of a woman with a defiant expression wearing kaffiyeh.
Missile is the title of a group exhibition held on 21 November at Medrar Art Space featuring a range of expressive works that, using different media, reflect anger with daily bombing and destruction of buildings, and the killing of children and innocent civilians, using pictures, dolls and cement-moulds. A collage by Rania Ezzat that shows the outline of a missile using newspaper cutouts is inspired by Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.
On social media, Sally Samir, a prominent children’s book illustrator, has started publishing a series of illustrations depicting statements made by injured or orphaned children and parents who lost their children in Gaza. In one, a little girl whose Rafah home was bombed asks the doctor whether she is dreaming. Samir says, “this series is my only way to make a statement against the unjustified war and the killing of children and civilians and awful destruction in Gaza. This is the least I can do.”
Likewise, Doaa Al-Adl, an accomplished cartoonist, has published cartoons both on Al-Manasa, a virtual platform for independent journalists, and on social media. Her cartoons condemn and criticise the forced displacement and transfer of Palestinians and the fragile character of the Israeli fighters, as well as the West’s double standards.
Efforts exerted by the Plastic Arts Sector (PAS) in developing their services seemed to evolve remarkably this year, with a series of themed group exhibitions, such as Sketch in September at Ofok Gallery, which represented sketches by artists from different generations. The relative development of the catalogue’s quality, available for free for the visitors on the opening days, is one good sign. In addition, the PAS has allocated special exhibitions to late pioneering artists such as artist Saied Al-Adawy, a leading Egyptian graphic artist who lived in Alexandria between 1938 and 1973, and is considered one of the icons in drawing and engraving, and one of the founders of experimentalists group in Alexandria.
The exhibition was held last October at the prestigious Aisha Fahmy Palace in Zamalek. Along with the rare paintings and drawings, some pages of his handwritten biography were on show. It was a popular event, which drew in the entire visual art crowd. But exhibits were displayed without tags providing basic information or any form of catalogue.
A seminar was held the previous day at the Cairo Library in Zamalek to celebrate the artist’s 50th anniversary. During the seminar, Hossam Rashwan, a researcher of the modern art movement in Egypt and Amal Nasr, a professor of painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria, reviewed the huge two-volume catalogue on Al-Adawy, due to be completed by the end of next year. The catalogue, sponsored by ARAC foundation for art and culture, is supposed to be the first and most significant study of the late artist’s work. The audience enjoyed an interesting analytical study by Nasr, accompanied by a display of a rare collection of drawings.
Later, on 4 December, Ofok Gallery, attached to Mahmoud Khalil Museum hosted a magnificent exhibition dedicated to the late pioneering artist Gamil Shafeek (1938-2016), whose fantastic black and white drawings adorned Al-Ahram Weekly’s opinion and culture pages through the 1990s. Curated by artist Yasser Gad, the gallery’s manager, Shafeek’s China ink and ecoline on paper works, along with his fantastic driftwood sculptures, made up a fantastic scene. The popular artist’s great legacy, influenced by Egyptian folk mythology and an undying passion for marine life, is now available for the younger generation of artists to learn from. In addition to paintings and sculptures, a video of a famous song by a popular band in Ismailia was screened along with sketches the artist made of the band members.
The 16th round of Luxor International Symposium for Painting was held from 1 to 13 November. The annual event hosted 17 artists from Egypt, Japan, Tatarstan, Armenia, Nepal, Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Unlike every year, when the event takes place at the end of December, the event was held in November and accordingly was affected by unusual hot weather during this time of year in Upper Egypt. Most artists resorted to air-conditioned indoor areas, which spoiled the aim of the symposium and minimised interaction and communication among artists.
The closing ceremony was brief and avoided the usual festive mood. The exhibition of 34 accomplished paintings was inaugurated by Niveen Al-Kilani, the minister of culture and Walid Kanoush, chairman of both PAS and the Culture Fund. The two-day exhibition, held in the Hotel Steigenberger’s garden, reflected a good vibe and attracted some visitors as well as students of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Luxor, who played a role in assisting professional artists during the two-week symposium. Yet the absence of effective promotion remains a persistent problem.
Two by one meters, complementary oil paintings by established Russian artist Alexander Zhernokluev are a portrait of an unidentified male character standing against the background of a beautiful, greenish garden. Influenced by the natural sunny environment and beautiful landscape of Luxor, it might be an invitation for each of us to find his own resort.
Promotion and marketing remains a problem for mid-career and younger artists, despite the fact that new private galleries are opening. During the summer, the Azad Art Gallery in Zamalek celebrated the opening of a new branch in Sheikh Zayed. Small private businesses are also opening online galleries, with the aim of solving the historical problem. However, there is no sign of a speedy recovery.
On 8 December the annual Art Fair hosted by TAM Gallery was inaugurated in its new branch in District 5, Tagammu. The prestigious two-floor gallery hosted works by 130 artists representing different generations and reflecting a wide range of styles and techniques. Two creative collections of mixed media paintings by Lina Moafi and Heba Amin depict different techniques of floral painting, both of which result in cheerful imagery.
A few steps away, a surrealist 145x145 cm mixed media on canvas painting by Ahmed Hassanein brings us back to the present, messy reality. It depicts two ships, one of which is about to sink in the middle of turbulent waves. In the foreground, a few people are blindly making their way through the water heading towards the ships with their back to viewers. The painting reflects uncertainty, testifying to the anxiety that dominates our lives.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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