Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Art in the city of ghosts

Heritage, politics and the natural world came together at the Sixth Luxor International Painting Symposium, writes Nevine El-Aref

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Luxor, the world’s greatest open-air museum of ancient Egyptian monuments, has lost much of its lively atmosphere in recent years, and the city can now seem to be overshadowed by a despondency bordering on gloom. It is a city of ghosts in which silence reigns.  

The awe-inspiring Luxor and Karnak temples, extraordinary remains of Egypt’s ancient history, are now empty of visitors aside from a few cats roaming through their hypostyle halls. Birds fly over the temple pylons and sacred lake. The Nile Corniche at Luxor is also almost empty of pedestrians. Feluccas, the characteristic flat-bottomed boats used on the Nile in Upper Egypt, are also nowhere to be seen. All of them are now docked on the shores, their sails folded in the absence of visitors to hire them. Neighbouring Nile cruisers are empty even of their employees.

The hantours (carriages) no longer promenade along the Nile Corniche, breaking the silence of the streets with the tapping of their horses’ hooves. Only a dozen or so are now parked along the Corniche, all of them trying to win a client for a ride at the lowest price.

The city’s souq (market), which was once buzzing with people browsing through its shops buying spices, henna, and traditional clay and wicker pots and plates, is dim and empty. A few shops are still open, but most have closed their doors.

The scene is the same on Luxor’s west bank, where the ancient Egyptian royal tombs are located. The Valley of the Kings, where tourists used to queue to visit the tombs of our ancient Egyptian ancestors, is empty apart from archaeological teams and local workers.  

At the colossi of Memnon, which once decorated the entrance to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s funerary temple, a few peddlers try to sell papyrus or replicas of ancient Egyptian statuettes, but with little hope of achieving a sale. Ahmed Hassan, one of the salesmen, said that since the 25 January Revolution the situation had been getting worse and worse, and few of the peddlers could sell any goods. “If one of us manages to sell any of his products, he divides the proceeds with his colleagues,” Hassan said.

Luxor at this time of year used to be buzzing with visitors, but today it is deserted. “More than 80 per cent of Luxor’s hotels have now closed their doors, and the occupancy rate has descended to only five per cent at a time when occupancy used to be 100 per cent,” said Mahmoud Abbas, head of public relations at the Luxor governorate.

International bookings had been cancelled, he said, and the tourist high season was already over. “However, we hope that Luxor will regain its appeal, like Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh on the Red Sea, which have taken the first steps towards recovery,” Abbas said. It seems that the lack of security and political turmoil since the 2011 revolution are continuing to have negative impacts on tourism in Egypt, especially tourist cities in Upper Egypt like Luxor and Aswan.

“Luxor is sad,” Amm Al-Tayeb, a merchant in the city souq told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that many people were now not able to afford food and had the governorate not given the owners of the hantours money to feed their horses there would also have been dead horses along the Corniche. “May God forgive those behind such a calamity,” Amm Al-Tayeb said.



THE LUXOR PAINTING SYMPOSIUM: However, in contrast to the otherwise gloomy mood, artists from across the world recently gathered at the Winter Palace Hotel overlooking the Nile Corniche in Luxor to mark the sixth round of the Luxor International Painting Symposium.

Even here, sadness and anxiety could be seen in people’s eyes, but though there was a lot of talk about politics analysis tended to be upbeat. “This symposium is a message of hope, love and support to Luxor inhabitants in particular and Egypt in general at this difficult time,” Portuguese artist Paulina Evaristo told the Weekly.

“We are here not only to share in the symposium, but also to send the message that Egypt is a safe country to visit. This is a message telling the whole world to come and visit Egypt to enjoy its ancient civilisation and warm environment.”

Evaristo said that when she was invited to the symposium she had not hesitated for a moment. “I have travelled around several Arab countries. Two months ago, I was in Tunisia and Morocco and felt perfectly safe,” she said. To express her vision of the beauty and warm nature of Luxor, Evaristo had painted two complementary paintings of geometrical design in yellow, black and blue, symbolising the sand, the Nile and the sky.

Outside the Winter Palace Hotel, empty apart from the symposium participants, more than 100 paintings had been hung to encourage people to take part and share in the mood of creativity and joy. The paintings displayed the different visions of the artists participating in the symposium, while also reflecting the ambiance of Luxor, which combines the natural environment with the civilisation of ancient Egypt.

There were pictures of the colossi of Memnon, two lovers admiring the Nile, bamboo plates on a hibiscus backdrop, a man and a woman drawn in Arabic writing, a folk celebration of a new born, and carriages along the Nile. There were also large numbers of abstract paintings expressing the city’s nature, monuments, and community.

Among these were works by the Emirates artist Nagat Mekki, who had submitted three paintings of irregular lines expressing her own vision of Egypt’s beauty and the treasures buried in its sands. Egyptian artist Gamal Ezz had contributed works of collage, gluing handmade bamboo plates on a red backdrop made of hibiscus. “I am fond of Egypt’s folk art and dance, so I symbolised the shape of a mawlawi dancer’s skirt in the bamboo plate because this gives the impression of the skirt while turning round,” Ezz said, adding that the use of the hibiscus for the backdrop was appropriate not only for its colour but also because it was a plant associated with Egypt.  

Young Egyptian painter Ahmed Gamal Eid from the Faculty of Fine Arts had submitted a huge painting expressing the issues that occupy the minds of the younger generation. The painting showed the face of a young man with a scar on his face that symbolises the involvement of young people in the revolution. Around this were scenes expressing separate issues: women wearing veils, crowded streets, slum housing areas, and people living in deprivation and poverty.  

When asked why he had depicted some of the female figures as naked, while also wearing veils, Eid said that he had wanted to show the contradictions young women were now living in.  

Russian artist Julia Ursul, also at the symposium, had submitted images of ancient Egyptian monuments including the colossi of Memnon and the Karnak Temple. Tanja Djokic from Serbia had been influenced by the beautiful light of Luxor as well as the strong and vivid colours of the paintings decorating the royal tombs on the city’s west bank. “How skilful those ancient Egyptian artisans were,” Djokic said, adding that although thousands of years had passed, the paintings still had their strong colours.

To combine the old in the shape of the tomb paintings with the new in the form of the natural environment, Djokic had recorded her impressions in two paintings showing the sun, the tombs, and the ancient Egyptian deities in abstract forms using strong and warm colours such as dark red, yellow, orange, blue marine, brown and black.

Other paintings in this edition of the symposium also united figurative with abstract elements, among them pictures by the well-known Egyptian artist George Bahgory and San Marino artist Dorotea Tini. The latter had submitted painted faces and busts of men and women with Arabic calligraphy to the symposium, while Bahgory, visiting from Paris at his own expense, had submitted a collection featuring portraits of Egyptian women on different backgrounds.

“This is a message of love I am sending out from Luxor to all Egyptians as a result of the political storms that have been hitting the country,” Bahgory said, explaining that he had combined portraiture, a classic form, with contemporary references. “I am imitating my ancient Egyptian ancestors, who combined all styles and types of fine art,” he said.

Meanwhile, Egyptian artist Sayed Qamash had represented the environment and monuments of Egypt in an abstract portrait of a man wearing clothes consisting of the Pyramids, a wings of a bird, sand, the Sphinx, the sun, a column of a temple, the Nile, a mosque and a church.



NEW OBJECTIVES: Ibrahim Ghazal, the director of the Luxor International Atelier at the symposium, said that the event had been growing and had been attracting more and more artists. This year, it had initiated new developments for the future, he said, and Russia had been selected as guest of honour in order to build bridges between the two countries in the fields of art and culture.

Moreover, he said, the artists participating at the symposium had issued recommendations at the end of it for the first time, and these would be carefully considered by the Ministry of Culture in future rounds.

They had recommended organising an annual fine art biennale for African countries in Cairo, for example, Ghazal said, as well as the encouragement of the art market to sell works displayed at the symposium. Proceeds could then be used to support Luxor’s ateliers and the symposium artists. Establishing a permanent museum in Luxor for the paintings exhibited at the symposium had also been among the recommendations, Ghazal said, as had setting up an electronic database and assisting in artist representation at the World Expo 2020 in the Emirates.

“Organising the symposium this year in the current political environment was not an easy task,” said Mohamed Abu Seada, head of the Ministry of Culture’s Cultural Development Fund (CDF). The ministry had been suffering from a shortfall in funding, he said, and this had brought difficulties with it, in addition to the problems associated with the unrest. However, the fact that the symposium had gone ahead as usual had sent out a powerful message to the world that Egypt was a safe country.

“We thank all foreign and Arab artists who have supported Egypt and shared in the symposium’s sixth round,” Abu Seada said.

Regarding other planned developments, the Aisha Fahmy Palace on the Nile Corniche in Zamalek in Cairo was due to open soon after its restoration as a museum for fine art. In Luxor, Abu Seada continued, the Bahaa Taher Centre had been built to a design by the famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, as had the Al-Tarek Cultural Centre on Luxor’s west bank.

The CDF was working hard to provide the required funds to establish the Luxor International Atelier on a permanent basis, he said, this hosting artists throughout the year. The Luxor governorate had offered seven feddans of land for the building of the atelier, he said, but there was still a need to raise the required funds.

Abu Seada said that the CDF had made an appeal for donations of financial assistance or gifts of materials or technical help to assist in the construction of the atelier. In 2012, Egyptian artist Helmi Al-Touni and gallery owner Ahmed Al-Rashidi had donated money to support the project, but in 2013 no one had come forward owing to political and economic difficulties, Abu Seada said.

The atelier aims to provide an opportunity for creative artists from around the world to produce art in the historical atmosphere of Luxor, surrounded by the ancient Egyptian monuments and the magnificent landscape. It is hoped that this will encourage new artistic visions that would enrich art movements in Egypt and beyond.

The idea was to offer three-month grants for 25 artists at the atelier, Abu Seada said, in addition to three-month courses for a further 25 young artists to develop their skills. Courses in photography, graphics and sculpture would be provided.

Meanwhile, the CDF was creating new opportunities to increase its income, he added. A new hall at the Al-Hanager space at the Cairo Opera House would be transformed into a 130-seat cinema where documentaries and short films by young directors would be screened. The International Music Centre at the Umm Kolthoum Museum at the Al-Manesterly Palace in Cairo would also be organising music performances.

At the symposium’s closing ceremony, Abu Seada honoured three individuals from Jordan, Russia and Egypt for their efforts to promote the arts and culture on the local and international levels. These people were princess Wegdan Fawaz Al-Hashemi of Jordan, Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the renowned Egyptian artist Sami Rafei.

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