Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Art at the end of the tunnel

Rania Khallaf was there for the inauguration of Al-Ahram Art Centre

Salah Anan
Salah Anan
Al-Ahram Weekly

In a festive mood, Al-Ahram this week celebrated the inauguration of the Al-Ahram Art Centre (AAC), the first artistic and cultural centre of its kind. The inauguration was scheduled on Sunday 9 December, coinciding with soaring political conflict between supporters and opponents of President Morsi’s chaotic policies. Bearing evidence of the general distress, on my way to the newspaper, the traffic was a perfect jam, and the news coming from the radio was even more suffocating. On the 15 May Bridge, which connects Mohandsine with downtown Cairo, light posts were adorned with small colourful posters promoting the AAC with the slogan “A Century of Art”. Each poster featured a different painting by a pioneer Egyptian artist. The sight of the posters was a relief; it allowed a sense of optimism to creep into me: Al-Ahram, one of the most influential newspapers in Middle East, had slightly lost its esteem as a cultural leader in the region because of its dependence on the government. Now, finally, it seems to be making a bid to regain its place as an independent foundation and a source of illumination for the whole region.

The inauguration ceremony started at 8 pm, just on time. The Naguib Mahfouz Conference Hall, which hosted the ceremony, was buzzing with guests from all over the country. A sense of joy floated over the place as journalists, artists, diplomats mingled in small groups, chatting. The humming crescendoed into silence when Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the prominent political analyst and the former editor in chief, arrived. Almost everyone hastened to take a picture or talk with him. Silence. Sylvia El-Nakkady, secretary general and founder of the AAC, and the editor in chief of Al-Bait magazine, appeared on the stage in a fancy dress. With a broad smile on her face, El-Nakkady said she is excited and proud about the inauguration of the centre after four years of continuous work. “It’s a dream come true,” she continued. “It all started some 30 years ago when I first came to work in the newspaper; I was overwhelmed by Al-Ahram’s artistic acquisitions.”

Al-Ahram’s art acquisition department started in the 1960s when Heikal was editor in chief and chairman of the board. As El-Nakkady said, it was Heikal who started this department; he was keen on commissioning and bringing brilliant artists to Al-Ahram Foundation at the time. In his short speech, Heikal himself admitted that he waged small wars with Socialist Union officials who were against his cultural policy.

“However, what I saw today is far more than I managed to purchase, and I congratulate all of you for this great achievement,” Heikal commented after a short tour of the exhibition. With the slogan “Art for Freedom”, Al-Ahram Art Centre’s collection of paintings, sculpture and gravure is inferior to the the Museum of Modern Art’s. This amazing treasure was not kept in closets; however, some pieces were exhibited in the entrance halls, and throughout the extensive corridors of Al-Ahram’s office buildings. According to the press release, the value of the works has dramatically soared over time, adding to the assets of the foundation. The aim behind the acquisition department, which started its job in the mid 1960s, was to appreciate and experience art, and to give a boost to artists, especially after the hard days that followed 1967 war. The late Kamal El Malakh, one of Al-Ahram’s prominent writers, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of art and archeology, was another powerful engine who helped scouting young talent and commissioning them to do pieces for Al-Ahram.

A short documentary film screened at the end of the ceremony revealed that by the early 1990s, with a collection of over 400 pieces, the need for professional cataloguing became evident. Painter and photographer Waheed El-Kelsh, now the head of Al Ahram’s Art Acquisition, was recommended to do the job.  The most valuable art piece, according to El Kelsh, is Mahmoud Said’s painting The Girl with Hazel Eyes, followed by other paintings, sculptures, and murals by prominent artists dating back to 1940s, such as works by Salah Taher (1911-2007), Fouad Kamel (1919-1973), Seif Wanly (1906-1979) and Tahya Halim (1919-2003). The story began four years ago, when El-Nakkadi thought of establishing this center with the aim of exhibiting this collection to the public. “Acting on the proposal, Abdel-Moniem Said, who was then Al-Ahram’s chairman of the board, offered great support for the idea and hastened to form a committee to curate the exhibition,” El Nakkadi said. Along with the inauguration ceremony, a book by artist Mustafa Al-Razaz was launched by the AAC. The book, entitled A Century of Art, published by Al Ahram, is a guide to the country’s art movement and its prominent symbols.

In his eloquent speech, Said expressed his joy in the inauguration of the centre: “There were sad times when Al-Ahram stopped seeking and purchasing art works. I am thrilled that this step comes at a time when enlightenment has become a sin, and human joy is viewed as a disobedience to God,” he said in a clear reference to Islamist political influence. His speech was hailed by the audience. “The center,” he added, “is an essential component of Al-Ahram’s vision of its role in the region in the 21st century.” For his part Mamdouh El-Waliy, Al-Ahram’s chairman of the board (who, ironically, happens to be a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser), said,  “The AAC role in enlightenment and culture will extend to other governorates and villages in Egypt, so that Al Ahram regains its pioneering role in the country.” He announced the issue of new editions in Alexandria and Upper Egypt soon.

The AAC is located on the ground floor of Al-Ahram’s new building, Al-Galaa Street. The 100 exhibits reflect different artistic schools and trends throughout the last century. The exhibition will run for three months at the AAC and will then move to Singapore for its first tour outside Egypt. This exhibition is the first on the agenda of the AAC, which will include many activities such as lectures, seminars, workshops and book fairs. The annual agenda will be drawn up subsequently to make sure the AAC plays its due role in the cultural movement both nationally and internationally, El Nakkady said. Besides high-end equipment and techniques to guarantee the safety of the exhibits, the well curated exhibition is a real journey to the past on which art lovers, students and professionals will enjoy the echoes of an older age, its atmosphere and customs, as well as the history and tradition of Egyptians throughout the last century. No canned music is required, I realised, as the voice of history encircles you during your short excursion. Light is indeed is at the end of the tunnel.

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