The doors of Cairo’s Museum of Modern Egyptian Art are open, but flanked by a coterie of staff members who politely turn away would-be visitors. Inside, docent types wander the halls, the lights blaze and the administrative wing buzzes. But for the absence of a public, normality seemingly reigns in Egypt’s most important modern art institution. In the galleries, a rare overview of the works of Ramses Younan – a writer, artist and core member of Egypt’s influential, politically engaged Art and Freedom Group during the 1940s – falls in the forest. Were it open to the public, the show would be a landmark exhibition for anyone interested in the history of abstraction in the region. And were he still alive, Younan, a surrealist who devoted much of his career to contemplating the ‘void’, may have been amused to learn that his work was being displayed in one of Egypt’s ‘invisible’ exhibitions of art.
Typically defended as a means of safeguarding collections against the very real threats of theft, vandalism and deteriorating infrastructure, the closure of art museums to the public in Egypt began even before the events of January 2011. Yet, the staging of unseen exhibitions in these institutions seems to have come into its own in the tumultuous subsequent years, alongside the looting or destruction of major collections, monuments and archaeological sites. Despite this, two important museums inaugurated this winter offer new possibilities for viewing collections previously considered inaccessible or lost to the vagaries of ministerial politics and neglect. The Adam Henein Museum is a private initiative dedicated to the work of the celebrated living sculptor, while the historic Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria is accessible again for the first time in many people’s living memory. Meanwhile, the so-called independent sector celebrated the 15th anniversary of Townhouse, a non-profit contemporary art gallery in Cairo, as well as the opening of Gypsum Gallery in Zamalek. The latter departs from the small-scale art dealership model that has prevailed locally for decades, investing in the long-term careers of their artists more than in the sale of individual works.
Such developments in the institutional sphere prompt questions about the significance that has been placed on art’s accessibility in light of the losses and violence accompanying the country’s present political and social unrest, as well as about the importance of the Egyptian art scene’s recent past: when does ‘the contemporary’ period begin, and what does this mean for the future? Concurrently, a number of new initiatives, exhibitions and art works have considered the local conditions of the ‘historical’ in the present.
In December 2013 and January 2014, the group exhibition ‘References*: Artists Activating the Archive’, at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, featured works by the artists Amado Alfadni, Mariam Elias and Marwa El Shazly, Aliaa Salah and Nada Shalaby. In each of the works on display, the present set the scene for an investigation into historical discourses, objects and lives. Drawing on a Nude Body (2013), a three-part work by Elias and El Shazly, considers past and present conditions for life models at Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Drawing on interviews with the cadre of models currently working at the school, as well as on archival research, the project engages with the art studio as a space of poignant occlusion. In December, the group show ‘Horreya or Kharya’ (a pun on the similarly spelled Arabic words for ‘freedom’ and ‘piece of shit’), at Cairo’s Hotel Viennoise, played with the forms and symbols of what, for better or worse, has come to be promoted by journalists – and even, at times, by scholars – as the dominant idiom of revolutionary artistic expression: the graffiti works that appeared around the city in the wake of the events of January 2011. In the exhibition, painter Hany Rashed’s miniature replicas of the graffiti offered a sort of ‘museum of the revolution’, effectively diminishing both the museum and the revolution to tragicomic effect.
During their month-long residency at Townhouse, artists Yazaan El-Zo’bi and Islam Shabana transformed the gallery’s first floor space into a ‘nymphaeum’ of potted office plants, which served as the setting for a series of temporary works about architectural nostalgia (‘The Nymphaeum: Cultural Heritage Observatory’, 2013–14). This third instalment of the project featured a live video stream, screened in the foyer, of the nymph-like vocalist and music producer Bosaina posing in an architectural still life. The Sakakini Palace – an eclectic folly built in Cairo in the late 19th century – served as the inspiration for the virtual architectural framework, while a soundtrack produced in collaboration with Ahmed El Ghazoly and based on samples of ‘organic’ noise (e.g. the sound of water) from the video game Tomb Raider contributed to the fin de siècle ambience. History’s place in the present is increasingly coming into focus within contemporary Egyptian art, it seems, just as the institutional framework for art in Egypt is – perhaps more than ever before – in a state of flux.
First published in Issue 162