Wrapped in canvas
Exclusively female art exhibits, while not a new concept, are increasingly prevalent, with the number of female art graduates on the rise. Many fail to develop originally, but others -- those who preside over woman-oriented exhibitions, at least -- are establishing not only names but audience bases. The recent all-women show organised by the Mashrabiya Gallery at Al-Azhar Park was representative of the trend, especially since first-hand experience of it demonstrated that gender can be evident at a deep level. On the occasion, the five participants spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly of their life and work, as both women and artists.
A mere year into my film set course at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, I was shocked to realise that what we were studying was nothing but theory -- nothing to do with real life. We didn't even get to visit a single shooting location or stage. On graduating [in 2000], I had the even greater shock of realising that, to have a career in this field, you really have to have good relations with cinema people, particularly producers. I had come up against strong resistance from my mother, who thought studying art would be useless. Even now, when I've developed a name, she nags me about getting a stable job and getting married. The truth is I tried other careers, but I couldn't keep working in any other field. My neighbours in Qolaly [a popular district] have no interest in my work; rather they express empathy with my human condition. All of which is besides the point: I have a passion about teaching children to express themselves in drawing. That's why I've worked as an art teacher -- for the Child Labour Centre in Omraneya, an underprivileged area in Giza, where I taught children who were in employment Arabic and maths. But we found the time to do drawing together, an enriching experience. Those mostly illiterate children have this raw energy about them; they can draw whatever they want; I learned a lot from them about the world and the small rewards it can offer. After earning a postgraduate diploma I worked as an art teacher at a private school for LE180 a month; it was an out-of-date curriculum and the management didn't care for art. Then I painted huge scenes at this studio backdrop factory -- in uniform, on a ladder, spray paint can in hand. That I didn't mind, it was profitable. But in the end it was a waste of energy, potentially very unhealthy too. It was hard to carve a niche as a professional painter given the number of people who are in the business, as it were. With very few exceptions -- Omar Gihan in my case -- older artists were not cooperative; they only offered to help if they wanted something. My first exhibition at the Atelier du Caire, together with my twin sister -- why shouldn't she too be a painter? -- that was my step. Everyone takes a step in the direction they are to move in; that was mine. I determined to make the next exhibition different and very special. The present collages bring together elements of my life: neighbours, relations, street children and café boys; all merged into the architecture. And it made me really happy that four have been sold, though I sell at LE500-1,100. My dream remains to participate in exhibitions outside the country; the next step...
There was a simple idea behind this piece [a shop-like space where her own personal gifts, apparently on offer for sale, have, instead of price tags, memorable messages from the persons who gave them]. I wanted to show how organically spirituality and materialism are integrated in our society. I started out with the question: if you were to sell your own gifts, would you forget the words that came with them? I graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 2004; and though my works can't be sold, connections with fellow artists have been extremely rewarding. It's always a great opportunity to get to know a woman in the same field; it helps a lot in career development. I'm particularly concerned with perceptions of the female artist. Most people do not value art -- something that applies equally to agents, who favour a particular kind of work over others. One of my works, a photography of people, including children, living in a graveyard, was rejected by one agent because of a particular, dirty- looking figure of a girl. This in his opinion devalued the whole work. I said no, because for me art does not have to beautify real life. I am now working as a secretary at a real estate company; that's how I support myself. But it's completely at odds with my creative work and character. It feels strange going to work every morning; it's like being two people at the same time. My hope for the future is to be able to complete my postgraduate work, just so I'll manage to have a job that suits my character.
I was born in France in 1975, so I had no experience of the Faculty of Fine Arts until 1993, after I settled in Egypt. It was only a year, but it was a very bad experience. I found the conventions shocking. My colleagues would ask strange questions: whether I was Muslim or Christian, whether I had a boyfriend; general manners seemed different from what I was used to, even when you consider that these are art students. So I chose a different route altogether and got my diploma from Versaille. That was in 1998. Already, in 1995 and 1996, I had participated in two exhibitions in Paris. Later, in 2001, I got a scholarship from the Havana Faculty of Fine Arts. But I still have this strange relationship with my home country, though my life is divided between France and Egypt, which couldn't be more dissimilar. When I settled here after eight years in France, I went through a prolonged clash with my family in order to live on my own. I am less interested in marriage than travelling and developing my career as an artist, though I am not against the idea. I just dislike traditional, materialistic conventions -- that hypothetical path every girl is expected to tread. This piece, Horizons, is made of drawings I did in Beirut and Sinai. I've been to Lebanon over seven times, following the postwar development of the city, which I have found inspiring. In this way travelling feeds into my work. So do male-female relationships, however: one installation had this huge structure with figures of men on one side and women on the other, in red and blue, respectively, and banners saying "Tell me I'm pretty" and "Oh, I'm so smart". Thankfully travelling goes on: next week I'm off to Hamburg to attend a workshop entitled Piece of Art-Peace of Art, with artists from Germany, Palestine and Israel. It's politics through art, but the significance of it is that woman artists have gained more space on the international scene; only conservative society hampers their freedom. What bothers me is the shallow standards of art shows and establishments here in Egypt, with neither criticism nor sufficient awareness of the media. And selling work is no easy task in this country. People think many, many times before they buy. That's why I decided to work as an art teacher, at a private French school, for a year; I was able to save enough money to establish my studio and darkroom. In the end I think teaching art is different from practising it, so I don't think I will be doing that again. But I'm not phased by a difficult financial future.
This piece [three tiers of photography and plastic representing the problems we have to overcome in life] reflects how, when we fail to solve a problem, we begin to live with it, and then after a while pretend that we've forgotten about it or that it is not there. It is filed away in our memory and we remain reluctant to confront it. I started in 1995, when I won the Priors Prize in Alexandria, though I didn't graduate from Alexandria University's Faculty of Art until 2004, when I participated in a collective exhibition of women's work at the Gezira Arts Centre. This exhibition is somewhat more interesting, though, because it gave us the opportunity to interact with and learn from each other, and because of its unique location. At least Al-Azhar Park brought over all kinds of people, dispelling the idea that the art scene is sealed off and endorsing the idea that art can be vital in everyone's life. The MA I'm currently working on has to do with the impact of photography on the media. I also work at the Information Technology Department of Alexandria Library, which gnaws away at my soul and reduces the energy I have to be creative with. I wish I could afford to spend all my time on art. Some galleries do support artists, but it's not something you can depend on. That said, the greater number of galleries now available have improved the chances of women. As a veiled woman, I exert extra effort to convince people that being religious doesn't stop you from being creative.
I graduated from the Faculty of Tourism in 1986; I really enjoyed studying history, not so much studying art. I participated in a Noun Gallery exhibition in 1991, but it was with Gatherings and Dimensions at the Cairo Atelier, in 1997 and 1998, respectively, that I started to garner recognition. For me art is about joy. I'm a disorganised person and I hate abiding by rules and regulations, which is why I only studied art on and off at cultural centres; not only art but music and illustration as well. I enjoy painting, of that I'm sure. But I have no plans. This piece on travel tickets is quite representative in this sense. As inhabitants of Cairo we spend a lot of time on the road, trying to arrive somewhere. That's how I became preoccupied with Metro and bus tickets. I've always though of Cairo as a huge collage, many-layered and full of history, with many dissimilar elements in close proximity. All of which is besides the point about the future, because it's next to impossible to build a career in art, especially when you are a woman and need a stable income -- if only for the materials with which you work. I live mainly on my father's pensions, and I sell at reasonable prices. What scares me is not a passing negative reaction. What scares me is the isolation imposed on artists in Egypt. It's true I have my own, very supportive social group, but it's as if the rest of society keeps its distance from us.