Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Signs and signals

Rania Khallaf sums up the latest on the art scene

Signs and signals
Signs and signals
Al-Ahram Weekly


f the many art events that took place this month, three stand out. The first is a joint exhibition by veteran artist Samir Fouad and the renowned Italian artist Franco Renzulli at the Made in Art Gallery in Venice. Founded last year by the young Egyptian artist Enas Elkorashy with fellow Venice-based Chilean curator Daniella Bacigalupo, the gallery’s brief is to bring the art of the Middle East to Europe. And judging by the success of the opening, Made in Art has lived up to the challenge. 

According to Elkorashy, the gallery was the brainchild of her participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale – where she curated an exhibition showcasing two generations of Egyptian artists: “It was great to receive nice comments from the audience. Many visitors told me that it was good to see something beautiful from Egypt as they used to see only the dark side because of the media. And this was great motivation to continue on this path. I believe Egyptian artists are good and unique and they deserve the chance to be presented at important events alongside the world’s finest artists.”

Amid political tension between Egypt and Italy, the exhibition was a significant contribution to sustaining cultural relations. For Elkorashy, “Between the Italian artist who paints sunlight and the Egyptian artist who paints the movement of the human figure, there is not much distance. They both depict the cycle of life and this is what unites them.” Still, their unity reflects different identities, techniques, colours and movements, representing the creative vision of two cultures and identities.  Bacigalupo, for her part, wrote of the exhibition as a dream come true, quoting Italian critic Ives Celli’s praise for Fouad’s work as the reflection of an inclusive and complex human vision.

Fouad himself says the Venice show was organised in conjunction with the Picasso Art Gallery, his main exhibition space, which provided eight oil paintings of musicians and other figures in motion. “I am really proud and happy to exhibit with Renzulli,” he declared, “one of Italy’s most famous artists. We come from opposite artistic worlds, his paintings revolve around the impact of sunlight on nature, but I believe we managed to offer a challenging exhibition that has made a strong influence.”


The second event of significance is the Zamalek-based Ubuntu Gallery’s participation in the New York Art Fair (3-8 May) as part of Context New York. Well-known for its progressive and adventurous work by now, Ubuntu is owned and directed by Ahmed Al-Dabaa, who explained that “Context New York focuses on progressive works by emerging and mid-career artists. And this is why we were chosen along with 60 other galleries from different countries.” He went on to say the gallery offered work by three sculptors, three painters and one ceramic artist, which to his amazement drew 70,000 visitors to the event.

“The feedback I got too was great. As the participating artworks were unique and competitive, most visitors commented on their originality rather than where they came from. The sales were not so good but that was the case for most galleries, maybe because of the timing with the elections ongoing, but for Ubuntu, the real gain is being in the limelight. We also got to discuss future projects with similar galleries, exchanging views with art critics.” 

Al-Dabaa went on to say he hoped to participate in the Miami Art Fair in November, this time with a more concrete artistic vision.


But the most talked about event has been the 38th General Exhibition, opened by Minister of Culture Helmy Al-Namnam last week, which prompted much censure from artists and critics alike. Roaming the three levels of the Arts Palace, where it is being held, it wasn’t hard to see why. Some 380 artists contribute to the event, but this is either previously seen work by established artists or work of no artistic value. For anyone familiar with the local art scene, there are no surprises and no new names worthy of remembering. Why, then, a General Exhibition at all? Especially in the absence of the International Cairo Biennale, which was discontinued in 2010, the General Exhibition should have a vision or a target.

According to the commissar, the prominent sculptor Essam Darwish, the event showcases the achievement of significant artists during a particular period: the last two years, to be reduced to the last year as of the next round. This is a major technical improvement, he says, on previous rounds, which specified no such condition. “This is why many of the artworks have been previously exhibited. But what counts is the value.” Darwish added that criticism arose among the many artists whose works were rejected: 75 out of 300 who submitted work; the rest of the 380 were invited to participate without a submission process. The age limit too has been lowered from 35 to 30. 

This year’s theme is Egyptian identity, though very few of the pieces on show actually deal with it. One exception is Mohamed Abla’s mixed media painting of a folk knight riding a steed, who on closer inspection turns out to be holding the severed head of his enemy – raising the question of whether the folk hero is a mere killer. With calligraphic motifs scattered throughout, the two by three metre oil on paper on board is part of a new series attempting “a re-reading of our Arab history”, as Abla himself puts it, “questioning the meaning of knighthood, and the authenticity of historical battles”.

Abla is not content with the standard of this round of the General Exhibition: “Unfortunately, uncalled-for compliments is the name of the game – the round’s password. There should be new conditions to guarantee a higher level of quality. There should be a condition prohibiting the participation of old or already exhibited artworks. This is a fundamental condition that will urge artists to create a competitive atmosphere.”

The media and photography sections were disappointing. Big names like Ramsis Marzouk and Ayman Lotfy reserve their seats, leaving no room for rising and promising talents in this field. One interesting computer graphic by a young artist, Shaymaa Alaa, I, myself, features a naked woman holding a giant red flower, which conceals her face, while a red cloth covers parts of her body and stretches into a spot of blood on the ground below. 

Apart from the poor design of the poster, by calligrapher Sameh Ismail, one innovative feature of the exhibition, organised by Darwish, is to bring four of the newest granite sculptures from the Aswan Symposium to the Opera House grounds to be exhibited outside the Arts Palace. But that hardly makes up for all the event’s failures.

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