Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page
Paul Bowles

Hopes for rebirth

By Anna Bouguigian

The mythical city of Alexandria has been a source of inspiration to many artists. Known for its culture and its splendid architecture, a ghost of that city still remains.

The 20th Alexandria Biennale marks the close of a period as well as one thousand years of art. And like everywhere else in the world, it betrays a crisis in the visual arts. Where has art gone, where is it going? Somewhere along the line it appears to have lost both its magic and message.

Sixteen countries -- each with an opening on the Mediterranean -- have participated in this biennale. For the past two biennales, the commissioner general has been Mohamed Salem aided, this year, by an international jury comprising four Europeans, one South American and three Egyptians. Following their decision, 19 prizes were distributed. The criteria by which these prizes were distributed remains unclear, however. The Grand Biennale Prize (LE30 000) was awarded to Lia Lapithi from Cyprus for mechanical work that slightly resembles cosmopolitan advertisements. Nothing much can be attributed to her art. Panayotis Michail, also from Cyprus, has received the Jury Prize for his flags and Malvine Middleton, again from Cyprus, an honorary prize for her glasswork.

By looking at these prizes and the work of the selected artists, the process of selection becomes even more enigmatic and unclear. Why pieces that provoke such a sense of déjà vu should garner such attention remains anyone's guess.

The atmosphere of the biennale was on the whole uninteresting. No explanation on the works was provided, nor a procedure made to supply a general notion or synthesis of the works of each artist. One could not understand or form a general idea on and about the arts happening in each country. What idea one did receive was that of a simple exhibition, in the manner of a group show. The items sent by individual countries appear to have exited and entranced via the back door. Are visual arts vanishing?

The French Saint-Jean Charles Blanc, who won an honourary prize for his installation on the Valise of Marthe, makes a relation between the romantic image of Justine from The Alexandria Quartet with that of Marthe. He has created a simple construction with books of Marthe's room with three windows, drawings hanging on the walls, two armchairs and sand on the floor. But Marthe, of course, has disappeared. It seems as if the installation was completed very rapidly, without much imagination and elaboration. The reason, according to the artist, was lack of time and the coinciding of another exhibition entitled Le Jardin de Marthe at the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria.

The black fertile land of Spain and its earthy nature is represented in the photographs of Pablo Marquez. The exhibit did not receive any prizes although it could have merited one. The reason may have been that the work reminds one of other European artists, although the photographic collages were successful. The standards governing the jury's choice become even more opaque when we consider that Manuela Sola's sculptures, filling the middle of the room, won a Jury Prize despite their boring and clichéd nature and their resemblance to many sculptures one has seen in Europe.

Isabel Munoz's black and white photograph of a black person -- maybe a man -- gave the message of the contrast of black on black. The Best Pavilion Prize was earned by Spain, and indeed it was the best.

Italy, which had once seen a great splendour in the visual arts, especially in painting from the Renaissance to Art Povera, showed an electronic and video film by Matteo Basilie representing, supposedly, high technology, but which was in fact quite dull and lacking in any personality of its own. Basilie is a young Italian artist who, it is rumoured, is earning a place in modern Italian art. However, compared to Turkey, Greece or Tunisia, Italy is still doing very well.

Tunisian Abdel-Razeq Saheili received a Jury Prize for his jute painting with black dots representing black olives scattered on jute spread on the floor. Unfortunately, there were far too many olives. Fatma Charfi, also from Tunisia, has used black materials to make decorative pieces which resemble plastic chemical tubes but which say nothing much. This dull work, however, earned her a Jury Prize. Based on these few painters, it is difficult to perceive where Tunisia is going, and if one adds Morocco and Tunisia together one cannot distill an opinion as to the direction of Maghrebi art.

Like all other pavilions, Egypt has its share of well-known artists. Alya El-Guridi received a jury honourary prize for her installation entitled I Am Not A Gift, which comments on the many children born which are sometimes not a gift. The work looks fickle but fashionable. Tharwat El-Bahr, the director of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, displays several paintings on Alexandrian landscapes. He and Ahmed Fouad Selim, both of whom have received the biennale prize, are well-known figures in establishment Egyptian art. Participating Egyptian artists were selected, incidentally, by the National Council for Visual Arts.

I left the Alexandria Museum of Modern Art, the biennale venue, quite empty-minded, lacking any major satisfactions. With the end of the century, let us hope that as well as something dying, something else may also be reborn.

The biennale is open until 3 January, 2000.

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