Egypt: Art From Tahrir

Myrna Ayad, Canvas Magazine, February 1, 2013

Egyptians return to the polls for a second time, the country’s Vice President resigns and clashes continue between the Islamists and the opposition. How is Egypt’s cultural sector faring in all this? Myrna Ayad reports.

Moataz Nasr, like many of his countrymen, took part in the Tahrir Square demonstrations from the onset of the Egyptian Revolution. Armed with a pack of Camel cigarettes, a camera, a mobile phone and a whole lot of Egyptian-ness, he chanted  slogans calling for Mubarak’s abdication and a democratic republic of Egypt. Nasr snapped hundreds of photographs in the  course of his participation, both as an Egyptian and as a cultural activist. Those images, in turn, formed the foundation of Elshaab (the people) – a 25-piece set of ceramic figurines, ironically made in China where his dealer, Continua, operates a branch in Beijing. “Just as one would visit Cairene souks and find figurines of Egyptian icons like Tutankhamen, Nasr felt that this moment in Egyptian history marked a turning point for its people and that they too became icons,” explains Asmaa Shabibi of Lawrie Shabibi, Nasr’s Dubai gallery. Aside from the unintentional significance of the number 25, which marks the date 25 January  2011, when the uprisings in Egypt began, the work itself is an ode to the people. Muslim and Christian clerics are featured, as is a reproduction of what has become known as ‘the blue bra girl’ scene, which saw Egyptian military police assault a female protestor in December 2011. Nasr is in there too, eighth from the left, allowing Elshaab the classification of a semi self-portrait. The work is also not quintessentially Egyptian – these figurines can be representatives of other countries in the Middle East. “Elshaab can definitely be extended to other parts of the region because the deeper one delves into his or her artistic practice, the more one realises that we are one,” explains Nasr. “I am you, you are me; we have the same issues.”


Inspiration vs Documentation

Just as Nasr’s inspiration is ignited by the streets of Cairo, so too is that of other artists, both within the country and abroad. The revolution has spurred an upsurge in artistic creativity; the question is: how good is it and how does it differ from the art produced by artists of the Egyptian Diaspora? The region may have witnessed a flux of ‘art inspired by the Arab Spring’, which has almost become a cliché term, but many advocate that art echoing these popular movements cannot be created on the spur of the moment. “The artworks produced in 2011 were still very fragile, but serious ones began appearing at the start of  2012,” adds Waleed Abdulkhalek of Cairo’s Al-Masar Art Gallery. “To produce a serious, solid artwork, the inspiration has to be ‘well-engraved’ in the mind of an artist and needs time to mature before manifesting itself as an artwork.”


“I think we all made the mistake of trying to represent the revolution visually,” adds Cairo-based artist Khaled Hafez. “Artworks representing or commemorating a revolution or an event are short-lived, and many times, are hopelessly ugly.” Hafez, who is slated for a show at Dubai’s Meem Gallery this March, is now focusing on the codification and symbolism of Egyptian identity. Meanwhile, recent works by fellow Cairo-based artist Huda Lutfi have incorporated more photography. “It was very difficult for me to be in my studio when all this was happening, so I thought that using the camera is the best tool for documenting these massive events,” she says.


Where Hafez, Nasr and Lutfi’s work seemingly takes on the feel of a firsthand observer, distance offered Egyptian-born and Los Angeles-based artist Sherin Guirguis a different viewpoint. Although she has lived in the USA for 20 years, the events in Egypt have influenced her work, particularly in her recent series Duwamah (rip current), which looks at Tahrir Square from an aerial vantage point – concentric circles of protestors, tents, tanks, the army and police. “I do feel that it is part of my responsibility as an artist not to document events, but to bring a discourse around them to the forefront,” explains Guirguis.


New Awakenings

The impact on Egypt’s cultural sector (financial implications aside), has an interesting upside, however. Fatenn Mostafa, founder of ArtTalks Egypt, an art advisory and educational organisation, has noted an increased diversity in media used by the younger generation of artists. “They are no longer imprisoned in traditional acrylic-on-canvas, but are experimenting with video, digital photography, street art, collage and installations,” she says. Mostafa likens the current cultural panorama to a renaissance, adding that for the first time in decades, artists have started “challenging strongly held beliefs – particularly those which are political, ideological and religious”. Hope, she says, “has replaced fear”. It is a sentiment echoed by Abdulkhalek: “The revolution was the source of even more freedom for artists,” says the dealer, who, in light of the tensions, has opted to put on a greater number of shows, particularly through the gallery’s new space, The Art Lounge, dedicated to emerging talent.


Yet the task of exporting this creativity falls on the shoulders of its protagonists, many of whom are unable to focus on their strategies under the shadow of political instability. “I can’t exactly say ‘hey, I have a fantastic exhibition’ when everyone is going to Tahrir, because I will be heading there too,” says Co-founder of Tache Art gallery, Taya Elzayadi. Three days before the revolution, Elzayadi and her partner Cherine Badrawi opened Tache Art, a gallery which initially sought to promote established and emerging Egyptian artists, but that has since focused on the latter. Like Al-Masar, it opts to mirror the times. Bad launch time, perhaps, but the duo have stuck to their guns – “if we shut down, they’d win,” asserts Elzayadi. While Tache Art is located in Designopolis, a long drive away from turbulent Cairo, Elzayadi believes that the far right powers-that- be will pay the gallery a visit soon. “I know it will happen,” she says adamantly; “art is not on their to-do list now but it will be. Egypt will be affected culturally and the best thing we can do for our artists now is to get them recognised on a global level.” While that may be a step in the right direction for many upcoming artists in the country, the cries emanating from Tahrir are too loud for any Egyptian cultural ambassador to ignore. As Elshaab exemplifies, Egyptians from all walks of life are at the Square.


From the January/February 2013 issue of Canvas Magazine.