Although the discussion surrounding the official jury selections of the 20th annual Salon El Shabab was expected to be tense, no one could have anticipated the heated nature of the debate surrounding the aesthetic choices of the committee. Replete with shouting matches, melodramatic walk-outs, and angry and crest-fallen artists, the discussion was indeed something to behold. As three of the members of the Salon jury committee (Bassam El Baroni, Hassan Khan, and Wael Shawky) sat alongside Mohammed Tala’at (the director of the Ministry of Culture’s Palace of Arts, Qasr el Funun), awaiting the arrival of the head of the jury committee (Ahmed Shiha) and the head of the Fine Arts Sector in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture (Mohsen Sha’alan) to introduce the panel, the audience grew increasingly apprehensive. Finally removing the remaining name placards, Tala’at introduced the wayward jury members to an audience eagerly awaiting an explanation of the narrow choice of slightly over 100 artists from a pool of over 1100, a first time occurrence in the history of the Salon. The stakes were clearly high — selection in the salon is coveted among young artists as an official point of entry for an artistic career, and representations of the question of youth in the mainstream media (with ubiquitous discussions of a "youth crisis") mark the way in which Egyptian society views its own place in the art world and questions of its postcolonial futurity.
The first question addressed to artist and jury member Hassan Khan was whether the extreme selectivity of the panel was related to the panels’ personal artistic opinions or was a reflection of the state of contemporary Egyptian art among youth. The panel, collectively and individually, struggled to explain the idea behind the current Salon as an exhibition. That is to say, that as a competition it should represent the highest possible standard, rather than a mere percentage of the works submitted. They pointed to the condescending idea that the Salon should provide an outlet and form of blind encouragement to youth. As Wael Shawky continuously reminded the audience the goal of the exhibit was to facilitate the creation of a contemporary artistic movement in Egypt.
By far, however, the most heated discussions arose around specific questions of aesthetics, illustrating the intensely political nature of aesthetic choices in the Egyptian setting. In particular, the panel addressed the question of medium and the false notion that the medium itself determines the "contemporary" nature of the artwork. Thus, they pointed to the fact that only three videos and a few installations were chosen, while figurative art was quite prominently represented (underscored by Marwa El-Shazly and Ahmed Fuad Saleh’s bold and evocative paintings surrounding the panel). The question of medium reached an almost hysterical pitch when an audience member pointedly asked about the placement of sculpture — placed serially and in tandem on ground level in an upper level gallery and in dialectical tension with a series of photographs. Mohamed Ahmed Mansour’s Godard-like photos placed him at a series of locales, such as a gas station or a supermarket with a speech bubble with statements like "it’s my favorite gas station," thus quite self consciously placing the role of the artist at the forefront of the work. The mere mention of the de-monumentalization of sculpture (implicitly in direct counterpoint to the monumentalization of the car in Mahmoud Hamdi’s installation at the outdoor entrance to the exhibit), led Mohsen Sha’alan to spontaneously interject that Egypt is the country of sculpture.
At a more theoretical level the jury members addressed the inappropriateness of brute symbolization or the conveyance of a message as the only artistic means of communication; as well as the concept of modernity, or rather as Bassam El Baroni pointed out, the problematic way in which a particular idea or image of modernity was put forth. Recalcitrant audience members who sought a linear listing of the necessary qualifications of "good art" were disappointed as they instead heard about the nearly ineffable expectation that art should touch on something (yilmas shi’), while creating a personal formal language. The difficulty of explaining the notion of derivative art, however, was not so much related to questions of theory as it was to questions of power. That is to say, very few senior artists engaged the panel in terms of the theoretical bases of their decisions, but rather, it became clear that what they had upset was power’s desire to see its own image reflected ad infinitum, through the reproduction of mentor’s artistic styles and modes. Indeed, at the mere mention of the word "derivative" four furious members of the art establishment stormed off.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the heated discussion was the way in which it detracted from the strength and novelty of the exhibition. The reduced total number of pieces enabled installations such as Lamia Moghazy’s massive painting of a television screen replete with animated and live icons and Ahmed Badry Aly’s life-size silver painted blocks (Suni’a al-sin) to be placed at the entry — their monumental size meant that they could best be viewed (and read) from the height of the exhibition site — ironically enough from the gallery with sculpture (de-monumentalized by its placement on ground level). Yet, it was the visceral and reverberating sonority of two of the strongest pieces in the exhibit that served as a reminder to the audience that in the end the Salon must be about artwork. In Sounds Cells: An Electro-Magnetic Orchestra, Magdi Mostafa re-created the stronger energy of the square sound technology of the 1950s and 1960s in a dark cellular structure, and in 80 Million, the proverbial population of Egypt, Eslam Zen Elabden and Mohamed Hossam produced a brilliant video installation in which the frenetic and infectious sounds of the tabla filled the gallery space as onlookers eventually noticed the duo drumming (in perfect musical synchronicity) without drums.
The art world will eagerly await the response of the establishment — what will the Ministry of Culture do? How will this exhibit affect future Salons? Will the trio be asked to sit on the jury panel again? Indeed, it was announced during the panel that the Fine Arts Sector had promised to publish a theoretical study of the works submitted to the salon, written by jury members Hassan Khan and Bassam El Baroni. Whether or not this transpires, the 20th Salon marked an aperture, an opening in the edifice of power, and the hope of a conversation to come.
Intellectual historian at the University of California, Davis. Currently writing on aesthetics and politics in contemporary Egypt.
Salon El Shabab
(Salon of Youth)
29 March -
29 April 2009
Qasr el Funun
Palace of Arts
President of the Jury:
Sahar El Amir
Moataz El Safty
Bassam El Baroni