Define your generation here. Generation What
The guy behind Contemporary Art
Courtesy: Contemporary Art

Type “contemporary art is” in a Google search, and the top three suggestions one gets are: “bullshit,” “a joke” and “stupid.” People seem to believe it is inaccessible or even irrelevant. The administrator of the Contemporary Art Facebook page, however, is proving many wrong.

An Egyptian visual artist who wants to remain anonymous, the admin has single-handedly developed a following of over 190,000 people in a year. And the followers are as diverse as it gets. My husband, who I often have to beg to accompany me to an art show, prides himself that he was one of the page’s first followers, and his timeline is animated by sarcastic motifs by Egyptian internet users and striking images of artwork from around the world, all shared from Contemporary Art.

So what is it that makes this page so appealing? Contemporary Art is smart, funny and persistent. It challenges the general perception of what contemporary art is and could be, opening it up to all forms of creative expression available on the web. “The page seeks to document what is being produced and published on social media,” says the admin. “It tries to encourage people to work and express their views creatively without limits.”

Contemporary Art also periodically publishes images of artwork inspired by political developments in Egypt, from a humorous photomontage series of “The Guy Behind Omar Suleiman” to images designed in response to the yellow Rabaa solidarity posters. As soon as the admin posted a couple of responses to the Rabaa posters in an album, dozens poured in. The album was shared 12,000 times.

It’s not a political page by any means, but the admin believes that much of the art produced is inevitably linked to the ongoing revolution. “It’s an important time [the past two years] to engage with and document. As an artist I wasn’t able to produce work at the time. The page was my refuge.”

Such images have drawn in thousands of followers from all roads of life as the page indiscriminately publishes works reflecting opposing political, social and cultural positions. Still, this has at times got the admin in trouble. Two similar pages he previously started where shut down by Facebook after users reported them. And as polarization in the country continues to widen, Contemporary Art has ironically been accused of being both a Muslim Brotherhood and a military sympathizer within a period of two months.

The most severe backlash started in September after the failed attempt on the life of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. Among the 30 images the admin had published the day before was a design showing six pawns aligned with their queen, her head surrounded by a crosshair. As the chess queen is known in Arabic as “The Minister,” some followers of the page interpreted the image as a hint at the assassination attempt. Conspiracy theories and rumors began spreading, with some local press outlets picking up on it.

“The chess design in fact dates more than a year back,” says the admin. “The time of publishing was coincidental. But it’s getting more difficult to communicate with people.” He temporarily put the page on hold, but with repeated encouraging comments left by the page’s followers, Contemporary Art is back.

For a year now, the admin had been challenging conventional perceptions of what contemporary art is, sifting through thousands of images posted to the internet by both Egyptian and foreign users to publish 40 everyday. There are quirky photos, experimental photos, cartoons, photomontages, glitch art, design works, older and contemporary artworks, film stills and clips, and more. Humor and aesthetic quality have been the main guiding principles for the selection. But many of the images are also being chosen by the page’s followers.

In October last year, Contemporary Art had its first “campaign” under the theme “The film I translated.” You’d find a photomontage by graphic designer Kareem Gouda of the Saving Private Ryan film poster with the face of Egyptian box-office star Nadia al-Guindy – famous for espionage films – having replaced that of Tom Hanks, or a still of Jack Nicholson fiercely walking upstairs in The Shining, with an Arabic subtitle reading “Farida, please calm down,” a line from the 2012 Ramadan thriller soap opera Premeditated.

“As soon as I posted the first few images, people got the idea and started sending me more they’ve either found or designed themselves,” says the admin. “It was a kind of breakthrough to see this level of engagement. I felt like I was leading an online art workshop of sorts.”

The idea is to share the daily selection and simultaneously create an accessible online library where works are categorized by theme. Collecting images in themed photo albums, mostly with proper credits, allows anyone to closely look through what’s been produced over the past two and a half years. It also shows the public’s interaction with them through Facebook comments and shares. Contemporary Art thus offers an informal history of the newborn online visual expression movement in Egypt, and its audience.

“I wanted to be one of the first people to document this. Otherwise the images are scattered or might even get lost,” says the admin. “Maybe in twenty years, people would look back to see how it all started.”

But even during its first year, artists and researchers have been putting the open archive to use. Artists send in their work with proper titles, names and production dates for inclusion in the library. And several graduate art students studying online visual expression have been referring to the library in their research. One Syrian researcher got in touch with the admin as she gathered information for a comparative study on visual expression on the internet in Syria and Egypt since the Arab Spring revolutions began. Another Berlin-based researcher says she has found a great resource for her work on online political image culture in the albums.

The admin also cites the experience of recently revisiting the Tamarod campaign album: “Early on in the campaign, most comments mocked the activist group, but over time more people started sharing the images and producing others in response.”

Many followers also engaged in discussions on developments in design and art forms. “I created an album titled ‘Chair’ for instance that included chairs designed in the shape of a military tank or a dog, wooden chairs and glass chairs. People wondered in the beginning how and why this is considered art, then the discussion moved to the nature of installation art,” says the admin. “It’s a starting point, an entry point that might entice people to do research and experiment on their own.”

Another topic discussed by followers was artistic freedom of expression. The admin posted creative works critiquing President Barack Obama to show that there is no ceiling to freedom of expression even when it comes to prominent state figures. Works later produced in relation to Morsi numbered in the thousands.

“If we can mediate these values, people can design images to express and discuss their opinions instead of throwing rocks. For example, there was this one image that I thought was brilliant. The artist photo-montaged an image of a man in a galabiyya who was throwing a rock in a protest to carry the torch of liberty instead,” explains the admin.

Although it’s the political commentary associated with much of the artwork that draws in followers, over time users are exposed to both political and apolitical work, and discussions gradually moved beyond a particular political position to focus on the creation of images as forms of expression, says the admin.

With thousands of images in the library and more to be added every day, the admin hopes in the long run to back up the images in another accessible form online. But the Facebook page will always be there: “That’s what keeps the interaction going.”

Mai Elwakil