Interview with Marina Sorbello, Berlin-based independent curator, January 2007

Interview with Marina Sorbello, Berlin-based independent curator, January 2007

MS: Are there in your opinion specificities of the Cairo/Egyptian art

KH: Art started in Egypt thousands of years ago; it just served a particular function then, either to document (painting) or as part of the religious institution (sculpture in temples and tombs); with the early years of the twentieth century, official governments, all under the British occupation tried to remove the cultural influence disseminated after 400 of Ottoman reign.

So Egypt saw the revival of the arts: music, writing, theater, painting and sculpture; being the first and for decades the ONLY_ country in the East with a Fine Arts School, we now have a century long art scene; perhaps the scene have nothing to do with what goes on at a particular moment with the rest of the world, yet there is a “specific” movement.

As for the specificity of the system, Egypt adopted a more or less European system of education in till the early fifties of the twentieth century; with the revolution/coup d’etat of 1952, the system of education changed to serve what was known then as the “national Project”, a project known in political economy as Pan-Arabism; this system adopted in theory the Nationalistic specificities of the extreme right, and a Soviet pattern of socialism. This “wild amalgam sustained till the military defeat of 1967, after which there was a long process of revisionism to the then contemporary history and adopted/applied systems.

Today the then art system is still run with the type of obsolete management that prevailed in the sixties, simply because waves of reforms in the past decades never approached culture since culture has never been a priority.

The hierarchy goes as follows: top of the hierarchy is the ministry of culture, then visual arts are run by what is known as the cultural sector, which supervises all public art spaces, dictating many times who exhibits and who does not.

For the past two decades an independent art movement with self-financed or privately funded projects, established itself as an omnipresent competitor to the “relatively wealthy” state run system.

MS: What kind of role, if any, does art and culture play in contemporary Egypt?

KH: Art, especially film, music and literature have been indispensable for Egyptians for a century today; of course those arts, and visual arts too, are not “indispensable” for aesthetic reasons; rather, representative and realistic styles have been more successful than simple aesthetic methods of expression. There were decades when certain arts boomed and others declined: in music it was the first four decades of the twentieth century, while in film it was the fifties and sixties. Visual arts, at that time only painting and sculpture were recognized, flourished extensively in the fifties and sixties, for the simple reason that the revolution required cultural representation; a genre of “social realism”
And ‘revolution arts” were inflicted on the public; artists _painters and sculptors_ became recognized at that time; a grant was created by the state to encourage artists to be full-timers. Only realistic and representational art was encouraged then.

Today, after the effects of cultural globalization, the Egyptian society is passing through a time of “priority selection”; in such times, with identity and economic constraints, art and culture are not a popular product to consume since it takes a priority that comes after fulfillment of basic needs.

Artists and cultural operators today are all experimenting in the Middle East, not just Egypt; eventually a more stable role for art and culture will be established in the near future, at the end of decades of experimentation.

MS: How do you see your role as artist and intellectual in the society?

KH: to speak and express; I do believe that I, among other artists and intellectuals in Egypt today, though involved in personal research, are obsessed by a quest to create a dialogue between “us and the other”, as well as finding another bridge between the present and the past; both quests are pillars of a new identity that best describes me, my generation and other generations “living” today in Egypt, the region and elsewhere in the world.

MS: Do you recognize recurrent issues or topic or aesthetics in your work?

KH: Definitely; each one of us has his/her own possessions; when I say “us” here I mean artists and cultural operators working today in Egypt; personally, all my work, whether video or painting, is about identity; I try to break the barriers between East and West, and those between past and present; that is why I use Eastern element from the past like the God Anubis and juxtaposes it with an element of the West from the present like Batman, and the Goddess Bastet versus the comic icon catwoman, etc; in my work there is probing of established sacred values as well as traits of the consumer goods culture and behavior.

MS: Are there aspects relating to the Cairo context, and how?

KH: Yes and no; or rather no and yes; no in terms of the totality of the project is about being Egyptian, not just Cairene; and yes if you look at those new pseudo-religious phenomena bombarding Cairo like the aggression of mosque microphones, the contaminated beliefs and culture of the current citizens of Cairo. I grew up in a different Cairo, different Egypt, where people looked different, spoke differently and were more focused in their objectives; there was one identity then in the late sixties and early seventies; today kids barely know the difference between a king, a president or a pharaoh?

MS: In the past few years the Egyptian contemporary art has been on the spotlight and has enjoyed quite some interest from western institution, galleries, and curators looking for artists “discoveries”. In your opinion, what do western curators look for in Cairo/Egypt, what do they see?

KH: I will quote myself in a previous interview with Maymanah Farahat that took place last December.
With the exception of the pioneer and near-avant-guard curatorial work of Marilu Knode (currently Curator at the Scottsdale Museum, Arizona) and Martina Corgnati (Italian Academic, art historian, critic and curator, currently finishing her book on Middle East contemporary art practices) who both showed interest in Middle East art practices as early as 1996, and who sensed a “premonition” somewhere in the virtual art spaces that a wave of Middle East art and artists will emerge, I personally believe this current interest only started with the grave incidents of 9/11.

With the rise of the neo-Republicans in the US and right wing trends in the rest of the West, and the near-establishment of a new generation of international terrorists most of whom have Arabo-islamic backgrounds, the need to discover (curiosity) and establish bridges between the inevitably clashing civilizations made (and still make) a wealthy and cheesy curatorial material to feed the already curatorial favorite themes of “gender”, “identity”, “sexuality”, “sexism”, “feminism”, the “sacred” and the “ephemeral”.

So I see now much curatorial work about “identity and gender under Islam”; much interest is given to second-generation Arab female artists (After Mona Hatoum, Ghada Amer and Sherin Neshaat making the first wave).

Many of the female artists from the Middle East though refuse any link or adherence to any feminist description, and insist to be approaches as “artists” rather than “female Arab” artist or “female Arab feminist” artist.

Visual artists Amal Kenawi and Sabah Naim (both based in Cairo) as well as writer May el Telmissany (based in Montreal, Canada) refuse categorically any link to Arab feminism.

To summarize, I think that the current interest in Middle Eastern and “Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American art institutions, markets and galleries shows three basic trends:

1. Curiosity: serious curatorial work really trying to trace actual changes happening in the Middle East and the subsequent changes, development and progress happening to art and artists.

2. Pursuing cliché: curatorial work looking for gender, identity, etc

3. Pursuing exotism: curatorial work looking for non-existent-anymore themes like oppression, persecution, etc..

MS: Internet made information available, and information circulation possible in the past decade. The coordinates of the art system seem to have started changing, with important centres and “players” also in the Arab world (emirates) or in Asia. Can we still talk of centre and periphery, or is it anything changing right now? How?

KH: We can still talk of center and periphery; Egypt has been the art center of the Arab-speaking world since its inception, I mean for hundreds of years; only in very small periods of time in history had the center been taken away from it: Baghdad, Damascus, Istanbul or Granada. For a century Egypt has maintained leadership, a leadership it is destined to lose soon, with the founding of the first Christie’s office in the Middle East, the reform of the Sharjah Biennial and the opening of the Guggenheim and Louvre, all taking place in the Emirates; I think Egypt and Beirut will remain for very long the main creative suppliers of artists and cultural operators, while the Emirates, particularly Dubai, will become the principal showcase.

MS: What kind of art market is there in Egypt and how is it evolving?

KH: if we judge a market by the dollar amount, Egypt has a remarkably poor market; though the majority of today’s newly recognized international Middle East/Arab artists come out of Egypt and Lebanon, still the money value of artworks in Egypt is remarkably low. Lebanon on the other hand shows more potential in terms of economics.

The local art market in Egypt has depended for decades on expatriates, though in the past ten years newer generations of Egyptian executives and corporate managers are buying some painting and photography. Established artists (above 55 years of age) sell much more than younger artists; many of the artists who got newly recognized, I included, sell more abroad with our European galleries.
Locally, the money value remains low and the market remains poor.

MS: What kinds of art schools are there in Egypt? What kind of education do artists receive?

KH: numerically, Egypt has three art schools in Cairo, one in Alexandria, one in Minia, and that’s it. The Cairo schools are: Fine Arts, then Art Education and then Applied Arts. The Alexandria and Minia Schools are Fine Art schools.

Education is principally theoretical with more or less some practice; only fine art schools have enough credit hours for technique. The art history courses are noticeably weak, and the resulting graduates need to continue “personal” education if they need to pursue a career of artist. This is now more accessible with computer literacy, internet, libraries and more graduates traveling abroad.
‘Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon.’ George Bernard Shaw