Universes in Universe

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The Art Scene and Curators in Egypt

Interview with the independent curator Mai Abu ElDahab on current developments in Egypt.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Mar 2005

Haupt & Binder: How do you explain the new dynamic in Egypt's art scene since the 1990s? Is this renewal linked to generation-related changes? How does the local cultural bureaucracy deal with such changes? Or to invert the question, how do young artists get along with the cultural administration?

Mai Abu ElDahab: I would be careful about calling it a "new dynamic" and would rather refer to it as a shift in the means and modes of production, but only with regard to a very small group of artists whose practices, seen broadly, would fall under the heading of contemporary art.

Needless to say the Nineties was the decade of information flow and overflow, and, let us say, of the suspension of macro-narratives, relativist politics, etc. These socio-cultural changes had a global impact. (Excuse the oversimplification, but I think you know exactly what I am getting at). In Egypt these cultural changes – those inherent to and associated with technology, as well as the spread of religious extremism and severe changes in the social structure – have generated a vastly new visual culture. The visual codes and sensibilities of the Nineties’ generation of artists grew out of that vague area where traditionalism, politics, contemporary culture, and remnants of modernism meet. In general, one could view these new practices as being critical of and grounded in Egypt’s contemporary life, whose visual representation has a clear antagonism of the government’s propagandist version of official popular culture.

Simultaneously, a number of new commercial galleries (Townhouse, Espace Karim Francis, Cairo-Berlin, and Mashrabia) began to present these new artists and promote their works. (Worth noting here is the independent art festival, launched and organized by these galleries in 2000, known as al-Nitaq, which unfortunately ceased after only two editions.) Many of these artists, after losing the umbrella support of the government’s patronage, began to be labeled as independent artists. But these artists have no shared vision or position, and instead are only united by their reactionary relationship to public institutions. There is no form of subversiveness at work here.

This brings me to your question about the relationship between these young artists and the cultural administration. Egypt’s Ministry of Culture is the country’s second wealthiest ministry after that of Defense, and, as a result of the country’s socialist era, Egypt has quite a complex infrastructure for supporting cultural production and activities. This infrastructure, however, is only accessible through what have become institutionalized channels of cronyism and nepotism. (I don’t want to delve into the current political and economic crisis Egypt is facing. Such information is clearly relevant to any discussion on the state of art/culture production in Egypt, but I feel that this information is readily available to those interested in researching the matter in great depth.) As a result, there exists a huge rift between the two circles, shadowed by animosity but rarely with any serious clashes as the rift widens. These artists are increasingly becoming more involved with the international art circuit, and no longer have much to gain from associating with official institutions.

H&B: How do you see your role here as a young independent curator within this new development? Is there also a new generation of curators emerging in Egypt? Drawing from your experiences as an independent curator, cultural manager, researcher in Egypt, and your participation in international projects and residencies abroad, what would you call the greatest challenges for realizing independent projects in the region?

Abu ElDahab: To work as a curator in Egypt, especially independently, it is necessary to adopt a variety of roles, which to a large extent fall under the umbrella of the cultural administration. Unlike in the European context, for example, as a curator in Egypt you have no way of ever being invited to a project locally; neither the institutions nor framework for such an invitation exist. Concurrently, any project that you develop has to be organized yourself from A to Z (concept, location, funding, publicity, etc.) in a context where the public is unfamiliar with this type of activity. This makes it an extremely difficult process.

I don’t think that I can speak on behalf of the region, but I can speak on behalf of Egypt. (The most active, visual art scenes in the region are in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine; I am not an authority on the situation in Lebanon; I think, though, that the main problems in Palestine are rather obvious.) You have a lack of funding right across the board, whether in governmental, private or institutional sectors; you have censorship and a lack of art critical discourse. All of these are ailments faced on different levels in many art contexts. The greatest challenge in Egypt, however, lies in the fact that you have to continually find the motivation to work under increasingly harsh conditions. Yet, at the same time, since the circumstances are continuously unstable, the sense of accomplishment afterwards, when projects really do materialize, is deeply fulfilling.

H&B: Has the increased international interest in Egyptian contemporary art over the last years influenced the situation within the country in any way? Do you think this interest has grown – and will it last?

Abu ElDahab: When you say "the situation within the country," I’m assuming you mean this in terms of the contemporary art community. Then the answer would certainly be yes. Now artists have more practical know-how when dealing with the dynamics of the international market, and are well aware of the ‘fashionable moment’ they happen to be experiencing. On the positive side, the artists are better informed about international artistic practices and discourses, as well as about institutional frameworks and opportunities. The art community is far less isolated than it used to be; the regional connections have been developed, and you have a lot more access to production possibilities. On the downside, this surge in production, and the concomitant attention that it received from several private and institutional channels, will have little effect on developing the local art scene in the long run. A combined vision has to be achieved in order to guide this interest towards the development of an art infrastructure in terms of training, education and resource development – otherwise the benefits of this international interest will invariably be of a fleeting nature.

Certainly the interest (and disinterest) in the Arab World on a whole has grown immensely, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. There’s nothing to argue about there. However, the general interest has been focussed on importing and showcasing Egyptian or Arab artists in Western contexts in exhibitions whose themes are structured geographically, and which take place, for the most part, in official cultural institutions. Looking back at instances when these types of exhibitions occurred, such as "Contemporary Arab Representations," and "Dis-Orientation" (House of World Cultures) and others, it becomes clear that the issues surrounding representation and its models are far from resolved. Arab artists are being boxed in, whether by rising internal nationalist trends or international representations, guided by manipulative political (or often naïve, cultural) polemics. Dealing with such issues is becoming increasingly complex in the Arab world.

H&B: What is your own personal approach for dealing with this situation? What would you recommend? What projects are you planning in Egypt in the near future?

Abu ElDahab: I find it very hard to situate oneself in a matter this complex. Personally, though, I try to distance myself from the representation debate. I think that once you get caught up in the ‘us and them’ rhetoric, you inevitably validate the issue regardless of your own position. I can’t really recommend a specific approach. Yet I do find it essential to remain politically conscious and always alert to the dynamics of this so-called east-west interplay. It is, after all, dangerous, and the results can be particularly affective when issues are addressed using very generic terms – that, too, tends to make me weary of the assumed, left wing politics of many cultural practitioners.

Regarding my future projects, I have some rather time-consuming (but also exciting) commitments in Europe at the moment, and these might limit my chance to focus on doing projects in Egypt. However, I am currently developing the idea for an international residency program in Cairo, meant to function as both a platform for connecting interesting international institutions and a production site. This is something that I hope to set up by next winter.


  1. Wasla Workshop for Contemporary Art
  2. Going Places - A Project for Public Buses in Cairo

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Mai Abu ElDahab

Independent curator based in Cairo.

She has been involved in the production of visual art projects, curating of exhibitions, and writing about contemporary art for institutions such as Ford Foundation (Cairo), Townhouse Gallery (Cairo), the Young Arab Theatre Fund (Brussels), Visiting Arts (London), Officinal para Proyectos de Arte - OPA (Guadalajara), The Museum of Contemporary Art - MACRO (Rome), Platform Garanti (Istanbul), Centro de Arte Santa Monica (Barcelona), and e-flux (New York).

2005, she was curator-in-residence at the ISCP, New York. For 2006, Mai Abu ElDahab has been appointed co-curator of Manifesta 6, taking place in Nicosia, Cyprus.

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