The second annual exhibition jointly organized by the Ministry of Culture’s Plastic Arts Department and the University of Helwan’s Faculty of Art Education took place in March, showcasing the works of faculty members and graduates at the Gezira Art Center in Zamalek.
By coincidence, the exhibition exemplified the content of my research papers Egypt’s Faculties of Art: Vision and Mission and Producing the Visionary Artist, in which I explored the reasons for the gap between teaching methods in art education institutions and the contemporary art scene in Egypt.
In the galleries of Gezira Art Center, many questions came to mind. The first was when I saw the explanatory paper labels beside the artworks, which read “artist so-and-so.” Why write “artist” before each artist’s name? Did the exhibition involve people from other professions? Before looking at the artworks, I quickly examined all the labels next to them to decide if this was a mistake, or if there was a purpose behind the use of the word “artist.”
I found that it had been written on all labels except for two, those bearing the names of Shady Elnoshokaty (b. 1971) and Ahmed Basiouny (1978-2011). The other information was displayed in the usual way: name of artist, title, genre and year of production. Elnoshokaty’s approach to these two labels did not require much working out: There was simply no need to let the audience know that he and Basiouny were artists.
Another observation that bothered me concerned an artwork by Sabry Abdel Ghany (b. 1923). His painting — oil on canvas inside a wooden frame — was hung in a rectangular hall of three walls containing nothing but the painting and a fire extinguisher at the entrance. Lighting came from two sources. The first, inside the hall, fell directly on the painting, creating a semi-circular shape larger than the painting itself. The second came from outside the hall, creating a distinct, oblique line of light and shadow on the floor of the hall. This intervention seemed to suggest that the work was an installation piece rather than a painting, but the presence of that shadow on the floor and the highlighted fire extinguisher was not intentional — it was the result of negligence.
This made it clear to me that the exhibition organizers consider an artwork to be anything with a material presence in a traditionally confined form, such as a painting or statue. A shadow or fire extinguisher next to it is not considered part of it. A fire extinguisher remains a fire extinguisher.
This points at the gap between an educational system holding onto its speciality and keeping itself locked inside it, and a modern contemporary art scene that’s constantly changing according to shifts in global geographical, economical and political systems.
The inherited trait characterizing artworks in this exhibition relies on a visual reference originating in the very distinctive idea of art that the Faculty of Art Education has taught in books and curricula throughout its history. I want to think here about the concept of the environment surrounding artworks, how it was handled by the works in this exhibition and how realistic the works were; and if they were not realistic, did the absence of realism allow for the imaginary? If they reflected imagination, to what extent was this imagination capable of stealing at least a few seconds of viewers’ attention?
The exhibition extended over all the halls of the Gezira Art Center, which are named after canonical Egyptian artists Ragheb Ayad, Ahmed Sabry, Kamal Khalifa and Al-Hussein Fawzi. At the exhibition, I felt there were several laws the artists implicitly applied to their artworks as a quality standard, without explicitly agreeing on them. Among such laws was the presence of an external frame for two-dimensional artworks hung on walls.
The belief that the frame must exist prompted artists to deal with it as if it were aesthetically part of the artwork. This was the case with the work of Samah Nabil (b. 1968): A circular wooden frame, inside of which were loops of handwoven strings from which tendrils of the same strings hung down. The work reflects the extent to which the artist understands the relationship between art and decoration, such as macramé – a form of ancient Arab folk art. She seems oblivious to the vast difference between tracing popular culture to represent it according to itself, and reproducing or representing this culture in an authentic way but manipulating the exhibition process to create debate about the behaviors and histories involved.
An example of this latter approach is the exhibition Mere Real Things, showing currently at Townhouse West, in which Ayman Ramadan borrows everyday tools that are part of Egyptian rural culture and presents them as museum items. When you enter this “museum,” you feel like you recognize what you’re looking at, but the presentation and context make the project exciting.
Overall, craftsmanship dominated intellectual quality in the exhibition. The emphasis was on how craftsmanship can serve technical ideas and execution methods, which was obvious in the work of artist Hatem al-Shafei (b. 1965), who seemed obsessed with working with raw material. His artwork was therefore only relevant to application methods. It was half a cylinder that looked like it was made of hard plastic with colored ribbons glued to it, creating forms trying to resemble fingerprints. The material’s properties imposed themselves, resulting in abstract shapes.
Since its foundation in 1937, the Faculty of Art Education has been renowned for its multitude of departments, and its students can only graduate after studying all the disciplines it offers, including painting, photography, design, sculpture and pottery, as well as crafts like carpentry, metalwork, textile and manual printing.
In this exhibition, the pottery works of artists Mohamed Abu Hadia, Mohamed Mahmoud, Mohamed al-Bidhra and Ashraf Kamal Eddine (about whom no information was available in the catalogue nor on the Fine Arts Sector website) made me wonder about the purpose of learning all these disciplines. Is it in order to preserve the traditional character of these arts, and an attempt to develop it? Or an attempt to discover the secrets of materials through experimentation, creating byproducts called artworks? These artists produced pottery items with forms derived from abstract vase shapes, resembling exhibits at Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art and Museum of Islamic Pottery.
I could not grasp the aim of their works, and wondered if they were attempts to preserve the regressive rhetoric that seeks to protect heritage, or to experiment by following the rules of craft. They resembled objects resulting from testing a newly invented machine, such as a desktop laser printer. The same appeared to be true for other artists who used manual textile techniques in the exhibition. The artist’s role does not differ much from that of the machine when his or her energy is spent thinking about experimenting with a large number of known techniques.
Another question arose: Is there a clear difference between folk and popular art, and what’s the relationship between these two ideas and the theory of reproduction, as employed in this exhibition?
In general, the process of communicating the faculty’s curricula has involved reproducing inherited culture (folk) in artworks produced by students and professors. The college has a very particular, fundamentalist atmosphere: first-year students study a discipline called “popular art,” which is divided into two projects. The first project involves reproducing traditional engravings (such as ancient Egyptian, Coptic or Islamic) using synthetic leather. The second project is the same, but uses tent fabric. In my opinion, this practice is a reformulation of heritage, rather than folk or popular art.
Popular art is very broad. It varies due to environment and time, and change is one of its main features. It also constantly appears in unexpected forms; it is produced by farmers, fishermen and craftspeople. It is the art of millions of people, practiced by the people for the people. It evolves with them as a living part of them, an extension of personalities and a reflection of psyches. What a microbus driver does to decorate his vehicle is popular art. What young men obsessed with car racing do to decorate their vehicles is popular art. So are the ever-evolving drawings and graphics that circulate on social media, and music played in street festivals (mahraganat).
But the fact that popular art is rarely recorded or studied has given it a different definition at the Faculty of Art Education and art schools in Egypt. It has become synonymous with the work of Syrian artist Abu Subhi al-Tinawi (1883-1973) and Egyptian artist Mohamed al-Tilawy (b. 1956), who both worked on recording through their drawings the story of Bani Hilal, an Arabic folk epic that consists of about a million verses on the migration of the sons of Hilal to Tunisia. They also produced folk items related to religious beliefs and social customs, such as the palm that protects against evil eye, the blue bead, the horseshoe, the mashallah amulet, the rooster, the marionette, the howdah and everything used to decorate a camel a long time ago.
“The children of the Faculty of Art Education have had a significant and pioneering role in dealing with new media (interactive arts and video), thus adding a new active dimension to the plastic arts movement, making it follow the direction of world art, especially postmodern arts,” reads the exhibition brochure, quoting from Ahmed Abdel Ghany (b. 1962), head of the plastic arts department at the time of the show and an assistant professor in the faculty’s painting and photography department.
Three videos were exhibited: Elnoshokaty’s Stammer Class (15 minutes, 2010), Basiouny’s The Eye that Lost My Face (7 minutes, 2009) and Ahmed al-Shaer’s Under Examination (3 minutes, 2009). The way they were installed reaffirmed the college’s traditional production methods. There was no difference in presentation between paintings and television screens, and each video had a painting to its right and another to its left.
This brings us back to the concept of confined entities adopted by the faculty, and the image the faculty wants to project in the local art scene. Video is a medium that is alien to its curricula. The exhibition organizers clearly had a superficial approach to video, thinking its presence would give the show a global scope and make it seem as if it was keeping up with new trends. They neglected the videos’ content, which arguably required particular display methods instead of using screens of identical type and size (indeed, their creators had already exhibited them in different ways).
We cannot generalize about all the artworks in this exhibition based on the thoughts above. Some works seemed alien to the exhibition, but this does not mean they were better than the other items. Yet the intellectual content of these works and the way they were produced allowed them to be different. Different from what? From outdated ideas of folk, heritage and literary identity, and the concept of authenticity as adapted from the news media.
Ahmed Badry observes and reproduces evolving Egyptian popular culture in his reproductions of images showing quick solutions to daily practical problems. The broken plate Badry remade out of cardboard (pictures at top) is thus a reproduction and representation of a contemporary human behavior in an abstract context, and here lies the value of its difference in the exhibition.
This project was carried out in the framework of MHWLN, a research and writing group dedicated to the history of contemporary art in Egypt.