In mid-November, Nile Sunset Annex founders Taha Belal and Jenifer Evans (who is also Mada’s culture editor) went to look at three exhibitions in Cairo. The first were large state-affiliated group shows: Al-Ahram’s first annual “Visual Art Lounge,” which opened on November 11 and runs until the end of November, and the 25th Anniversary Youth Salon exhibition, which opened on November 3 at the Palace of the Arts and will be followed by the 25th Youth Salon itself, opening November 30. The third was a solo show of the late sculptor Sobhy Guirguis at a pop-up space opened by veteran gallerist Karim Francis in Zamalek, which ran for only two weeks.
Taha Belal: Let’s start with the first show we went to.
Jenifer Evans: It was titled Harmony in English.
TB: In Arabic it was called Iqaa (Rhythm).
JE: It was in Al-Ahram Center for the Arts, in the Modern Al-Ahram Building on Galaa Street in downtown. Apparently the state-owned media institution Al-Ahram has been collecting works since the 1960s and this was just a very small portion of their collection.
TB: They have one of the biggest art collections in Egypt.
JE: Second only to the Modern Art Museum. Apparently the collected works are selected by artists and writers affiliated with Al-Ahram. And at the beginning that included figures such as Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Tawfik al-Hakim.
TB: The show was honoring Adam Henein and Mounir Canaan.
JE: Adam Henein seems to be doing quite well this year, because he also had a museum open in his name. Karim Francis was the mastermind behind it.
TB: The Al-Ahram show had over 40 artists and over 80 artworks. Overall, the works in the show were predominantly figurative, animals and human figures.
JE: A lot of quite large-scale stuff. There wasn’t anything very small.
TB: It had a wing that was more “contemporary.” It included Khaled Hafez (b. 1963), Hany Rashed (b. 1975) and Ahmed Askalany (b. 1978). The labels next to each work didn’t have titles or dates – they only had the name of the artist, whether it was painting or sculpture, and the size of the artwork.
JE: There was music playing.
TB: Meditative, ambient music. There were a lot of stone sculptures, a lot of traditional sculptural materials. I would say the only really interesting use of materials was in the works by Mounir Canaan (1919-1999).
JE: Do you want to mention why you thought the Canaan works were interesting?
TB: Yeah. I liked them visually, they were visually engaging. There were very few collage works in the show, and they used appropriated materials, magazines and other printed material.
JE: They stood out formally.
TB: They definitely stood out. They were also made quite well, put together carefully. They were layered, they had a very cohesive structure, a geometry to them.
JE: I also liked the way that they were geometrical and everything in them was very straight-edged, but at the same time things were a bit gloopy. There was an interesting tension between the painted sections that leaked a little bit, and the very clear-cut, cut-out bits.
TB: There were points where I wasn’t sure if he had painted some text, or if it was found text from a magazine or packaging. I thought that was interesting. And with the “X” one, you could kind of see that there was one image or one text that was broken up around the artwork.
JE: It seemed very controlled, pre-planned. The two artists that we liked – Henein and Canaan – are both famous artists, and they were the first thing you saw when you went in. It raised your expectations.
TB: I was disappointed that there were only three works by Canaan.
JE: With Henein we were much more drawn to the two-dimensional work, the drawings. They were figurative, all of the flat pieces. Two of them were ink drawings, two of them were printed, I’m not sure exactly how they were printed. But it seemed like with each one he was modestly experimenting with different ways of making marks, and he has quite a distinctive line when he draws. It’s quite tentative, I think – it feels a bit like he doesn’t really know where he’s going exactly, and I like that feeling, especially when he gets to the fingers, and you have these quite wobbly fingers at the ends of hands. I feel like he’s leaving himself open rather than deciding exactly how things should be in advance. It’s child-like, in a very deliberate way.
TB: It’s a nice mix between confidence and not being sure – doubt.
JE: That’s a good word.
TB: I also liked the fact that two of them also had text alongside the drawing, written in the same way the drawing was made. One had water damage, and I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not. The text said something about waking up, and the water damage went with it quite well.
JE: I thought those were maybe pages for a children’s book. Apart from those two artists, the works in the show kind of blurred into one in my mind. There was some extremely heavy, naïve painting. Things that look like they’re by a teenager who’s replicating art they’ve already seen and still hasn’t figured out what they want to do, you know? Like there were these two tall full-length portraits of women.
TB: They were poorly made. They were also partly collage, and the fabric stuck on there wasn’t stuck on very well. There were Klimt-like patterns. Lots of bright colors. Gold, I think. Hot pink.
JE: It’s difficult to describe why they’re so bad, and why the Adam Henien drawings are so good. There was nothing new about those woman paintings.
TB: I would say that with the whole show, it was a standard group show where nothing really stands out. Very random, crowded, one thing after the next.
JE: It also feels like they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. They do have better stuff in their collection, it’s clear from the catalogue.
TB: It seems like a hobby for a lot of those artists, though a hobby could result in something much better than we saw, but there’s an idea of painting, an idea of what art is, or should be –
JE: Without trying to think about what art could be, or trying to push at anything – no impatience or curiosity. It was a similar story with the next show, the 25th Youth Salon anniversary show in the state-owned Palace of the Arts. It also had about 100 works, apparently, a survey exhibition that actually felt smaller than the Youth Salons themselves. Apart from that famous 2009 edition, curated by Hassan Khan and Wael Shawky, which was much smaller than usual. This anniversary show was curated by Ehab al-Laban, who’s also artistic director of the publicly owned gallery in Giza called Horizon One. There were some crossovers with the Al-Ahram show. Khaled Hafez had two works in the 25th anniversary show – a video and a painting. Ahmed Askalany and Hany Rashed also had works in both shows.
TB: In the salon, Hany Rashed had a painting from 2014.
JE: It was unusual for him.
TB: The figure was central, and the primary subject of the painting.
JE: Like in many of the works in the salon and the Al-Ahram show. It was also much larger scale than most of the other Hany Rashed works I’ve seen, again like many works in the show – there were a lot of large-format paintings. Also quite a few Ancient Egypt references.
TB: The salon show and the Al-Ahram show seemed like very similar shows, in many ways.
JE: The Al-Ahram show had the highlight of those two artists we found interesting.
TB: That’s true – we had something to return to.
JE: There were some other fairly well-known names in the salon, including Hamdy Reda (b. 1972) who runs Artellewa, Mohamed Talaat (b. 1976) who runs Misr Gallery and used to run the Palace of the Arts, and Moataz Nasr who runs Darb1718. But I couldn’t really pick out anything – it all sort of stuck together. I think even if there had been a great work of art in there, I wouldn’t have noticed, because of the volume of mediocre work and because of the set up maybe, with all those little rooms that feel like it’s going on forever.
TB: It’s a bit like a maze. The architecture of the space is a bit confusing.
JE: The only thing I kind of liked was a head right at the beginning by Gamal Abdel Nasser (b. 1957).
TB: I think it’s also notable that artists like Hazem al-Mistikawy (b. 1965), a Vienna-based artist who’s shown at Karim Francis when it was downtown, was included, but other artists like Wael Shawky, who according to the catalogue won the gold prize for the Youth Salon in 1994, were absent.
JE: Yes, I feel like the selection of artworks was not the best, from the 25 years. That’s one point, but there are other, interesting artists who have participated and won prizes but who weren’t present. It’s difficult to fathom how the works were selected. Obviously you’ve got certain influential people, like some of the names we have mentioned, so maybe the curator was also thinking of their work outside of art-making, their curating.
TB: The show melts into my memory of other Youth Salons – it’s very crowded, by the end you’re saturated. It was interesting that the Moataz Nasr piece there was shown very recently at ArtTalks in Zamalek.
JE: People like him and Talaat and Reda are less known for their art practices than their other work. But Wael Shawky is much better known for his artwork than his other work. There’s probably also the question of who’s work is available to be shown.
TB: Wael Shawky is probably also more difficult to install.
JE: And maybe they don’t have it. It didn’t seem to say anything like this in the catalogue, but perhaps the institution keep a selection from each Youth Salon and this show was selected from that stock. But the catalogue’s a nice thing to have, because you have a little synopsis of each year’s salon since it started in 1989.
TB: Yeah. Next we went to a very different show – the Sobhy Guirguis (1929-2013) exhibition at Karim Francis, which was in an unusual location.
JE: It was temporarily located – for two weeks – in a flat in a building in Zamalek, opposite the main entrance to the Gezira Club.
TB: The apartment is for rent, and there was a price list for the works, it was a selling exhibition. Though again disappointingly the labels were lacking: just dimensions and material.
JE: Yes, in all three exhibitions, there was never a title mentioned, or a date. Which is frustrating if you want to try and follow and artist’s trajectory or place it in the history of art.
TB: I liked the Sobhy Guirguis show a lot.
JE: It was a solo show, and it was very carefully presented. There were a lot of works, but the space was much smaller, and they were placed in a way which gave you space to breathe.
TB: Previously we’ve also seen paintings by Sogby Guirguis, but this exhibition was just sculptures.
JE: Which was his primary medium. And which he was better at.
TB: Exactly. The sculptures varied in size. There were a lot of very small ones, maybe 10cm high, but also some quite tall, spindly ones that were maybe 2m high. In each room they had sculptures that shared certain forms. In one there were a lot of quite violent ones – with spikes, and blown-out centers.
JE: Yes, there’s a series like that – they look quite angry.
TB: And a room opposite had larger, chunkier pieces that seemed to be an exercise in abstracting the figure in some way. It had geometric, cylindrical forms, whereas the main room –
JE: Was full of smaller, more modeled pieces.
TB: Yes, they had a hand-made feel to them.
JE: But what connects them all, and one of the things that I really like about his work, is the expressions on the faces, and the gestures. They’re often quite silly, generally very expressive but often it seems deliberately silly – they’re holding their hands in a way that looks like they’re joking or play-acting or pretending to be someone else.
TB: There’s a figure whose two hands are coming out of the sculpture’s base, in front of it. Which also has an absurdity to it.
JE: They’re humorous. I like that a lot. And like Adam Henein, Sobhy Guirguis seems to have a firm grasp on the medium, and a very clear style that looks like it’s forged out of a daily practice. There’s something very satisfying about walking into a room and seeing someone who is that familiar with the work that they’re doing.
TB: And not familiar in a boring way.
JE: More like curious, and pushing at it. There’s an ambition about those three artists [Guirguis, Henien and Canaan] – a kind of open-endedness, like they’re experimenting with the medium. It’s true that a lot of those Sobhy Guirguises are quite similar –
TB: But they’re also quite different.
JE: It’s like theme and variation: He has his theme and the discipline of that theme allows him to modify small things and see what happens, and it ends up being very compelling because you can follow those little variations. I think that’s also true of those Adam Henein drawings.