The 10th International Cairo Biennale

Review of the Biennale in the context of a further polarisation of the art scene in Egypt.
By Aleya Hamza | Jan 2007

The 10th edition of the Cairo International Biennale could have very well been the 8th or 9th. This year's exhibition once again highlights the division that exists in the local art circuit between the establishment, namely state-sponsored arts institutions including that of the Biennale, and the private or so-called independent art sector. Moreover, like it's predecessors, a clear lack of curatorial direction in the selection makes the range of works on exhibition seem disconnected from each other as well as from international contemporary art practices from which the Biennale organisers claim to be operating from within.

Entitled "Image and Its Time", the theme for this edition of the Cairo Biennale as stated by the Commissaire General, Ahmed Fouad Selim, investigates the power of the image to represent man and his history, and the need to relocate images within their historical context. [1] The exhibition is accompanied by "Collage as a Metaphor", a 3-day colloquium that attempts to deal with the notion of collage as "a way of perceiving, conceiving of and expressing a reality that goes beyond national and cultural boundaries". [2] The panels and presentations include topics such as Asian, African and Latin American influences in Western art, the effects of cinema on visual literacy, and the interplay of media and crafts with fine arts.

The main exhibition was inaugurated at the Palace of Arts on the Cairo Opera House grounds on the night of the 12th of December 2006. A multi-floored labyrinthine space, the Palace of Arts houses the majority of the works by 127 artists representing approximately 57 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. With the exception of the Italian guest of honour, Pablo Echaurren, whose series of cartoon-like paintings launched the new El Bab Gallery in the adjacent Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, the rest of artists had their work installed in 4 basement galleries in the nearby Gezira Art Center, a neo-Islamic former Palace of Prince Amru Ismail.

A large faux-cement wall covered with sporadic spray paint figures flanked the entrance to the Palace of Arts. This work by the Lebanese visual artist/choreographer Walid Aouni won him one of the 5 Hathour prizes of the Biennale. Aouni reconstructs the wall separating the West Bank from the Occupied Territories as "an impression of terror, and an expression of protest". [3] This work is representative of one trend in the Biennale of projects that make direct political statements pertaining to current and ongoing issues particularly in this region. Another example of this approach can seen in the work of the Sudanese artist Hassan Ali Ahmed Ali whose series of 6 mixed media works dealing with the situation in Darfur also won him a Hathour prize.

Less literal works pepper the exhibition. At the innermost gallery of the Gezira Art Center, the Serbian artist Miodrag Krkobabic projected an enlarged still image of an identity document, which at the outset appears to be the artist's very own. Upon closer inspection, one quickly notices that the passport photo on the left page of this fake ID is constantly, subtly morphing. Krkobabic's conceptual approach towards the exploration of the elusive nature of personal identity seemed almost anachronistic in comparison with much of the work on exhibition.

Perhaps one of the most interesting works this year is "The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster and Triumphal" by the US artist Daniel Joseph Martinez. The work consists of an isolated bright white cube space in which a horizontal life-size android keeps bursting into periodic fits of epilepsy. Clad in white and donning a belt with a buckle that spells NOBODY, the android is uncannily human-like and is modelled on the artist himself. The work is inspired by Ridley's Scott's 80's cult classic "Blade Runner" (a film that has arguably foreshadowed contemporary concerns from genetic engineering to corporate power) can be regarded as a dark albeit playful aphorism probing into dehumanization and its discontents. And surely enough, it was met with as much amusement as antagonism from the local public.

The Egyptian representation included, amongst other works, a series of large-scale figurative paintings by Ibrahim Dessouki that adhere to academic principles propagated in local fine art schools and an installation that uses earth as a metaphor for the cycles of life and death entitled "The Abandoned Cradle" by Abdel El Wahab Abdel Mohsen. The artist George Fikry Ibrahim received one of the 5 Biennale prizes for a video showing on a large plasma screen in the Palace of Arts. [4] Curiously enough, none of Egypt's younger generation of artists who have been navigating the international contemporary art circles during the last 5 years or so was invited to participate in the Biennale despite the strength of their art practice.

To capitalise on the host of travelling artists, curators and critics, an array of off-biennale projects, presentations and exhibitions engineered by local art practitioners and operators to coincide with the first week of the Biennale was open to the public. As audiences roamed in Downtown Cairo to catch the large scale collaborative research-based visual art project "The Maghreb Connection" curated by Ursula Biemann at the Townhouse Gallery complex, Amal Kenawy's video animation at Espace Karim Francis or the presentations born out of Lara Baladi's "Nomadic Artists" project at Rawabet Theatre and at the Contemporary Image Collective, the polarisation between the 'establishment' and the 'independent' art scene seemed sharper than ever.

<line>Notes:</line>

  1. According to the biennale&apos;s manifesto written by the Commissaire General Ahmed Fouad Selim.
  2. Quoted from the text by Mostafa Al Razzaz, the Chairman of the Colloquium.
  3. Artist&apos;s statement
  4. The plasma screen was broken during all of my visits to the Palace of Arts and so I did not manage to actually see this work.


Aleya Hamza

Currently, resident curator at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. Periodically lectures and writes about contemporary visual arts in Egypt.

10th International
Cairo Biennial

12 December 2006 - 15 February 2007

Palace of Arts, Gezira Arts Center

Works by 127 artists of approx. 57 countries

Curator:
Ahmed Fouad Selim

Nafas
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