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Contemporary Egyptian Art in a Historic Setting

For the second year in a row, the Egyptian art consultancy firm Art d’Égypte has organized an art exhibition in a historic landmark setting in Cairo to show contemporary Egyptian art. This year, the exhibition is being held at Manial Palace, once the home of the presumptive heir to the throne, Prince Ali Tewfik, who died in 1955.

The exhibition makes a few missteps, but largely succeeds at blending contemporary art with the palace setting, which is off the beaten track, especially for foreign tourists.

The firm’s founder and exhibition organizer Nadine Abdel Ghaffar describes the effort as a way to show that contemporary Egyptian art can be on par with art seen in venues abroad.

For the first iteration of Art d’Égypt’s efforts in October 2017, selected works by about fifteen artists were shown for one evening at the Grand Egyptian Museum with art hung or displayed alongside sculptures and display cases holding artifacts. The event was open to a select guest list composed mostly of Egyptian government ministers, exhibited artists, and foreign guests culled from Abdel Ghaffar’s personal contact list. The art was then moved to a ballroom at the Nile Ritz Carlton hotel for public viewing. The intention of the annual event is to promote Egyptian contemporary art to audiences and media abroad, but the focus of last year’s event on audiences abroad was not popular with critics. They have been kinder to this year’s iteration of the event.

Manial Palace, which was built on an island in the Nile and completed in 1937, is a registered historic landmark. Visiting the palace can be a challenge. It has been intermittently open and closed and has been only partially restored. But the setting of the palace makes for a striking art venue, and the exhibition will be open until the end of November.

The palace consists of a number of buildings: a mosque, a throne hall, private living quarters and rooms for receiving and hosting guests. A mélange of Syrian woodwork, Moroccan tiles, Ottoman,  rococo and art nouveau design styles decorate the palace’s various buildings. Prince Tewfik transferred an entire room built in 1856 now known as the Golden Hall from his grandfather’s palace in Istanbul.

Art d’Égypt’s exhibition uses the opulently designed rooms and botanical gardens to situate art in a setting that establishes a visual contrast between contemporary Egyptian art and the historical Egyptian Ottoman style, a contrast that is developed by some of the artists in the exhibition. The paintings, sculptures and commissioned site-specific mixed media installations have been placed by Abdel Ghaffar throughout the palace grounds, requiring visitors to meander throughout the assorted buildings to see them.

A ceramics installation in Manial Palace by Diaa El Din Dawood.

The palace presents an abundance of visual delight, and the placement of particular works was largely so successful that some misplacements of art can be pardoned. Some art was placed too far from where viewers had to stand behind a velvet rope, for instance.

Marwan Elgamal’s video In a Timely Fashion (2018) reflects on the idea of time and the question of when beauty ends. Projected onto a wall in a room decorated with mother of pearl inlay, the video’s perpetually transforming colors and designs suggest death and rebirth, continuation and ending. The artwork’s poetic metaphor resonates in the the palace, with its air of nostalgia and sense of bygone beauty.

Ahmed Askalany’s large sculptures of figures bent in poses of Sufi prayer are more decorative than critical, but succeed in highlighting how contemporary art can have a dialogue with historical context. A piece by Ahmed Badry of a clothes hanger with two light bulbs attached, constructed to be absurdly large in scale, hangs from the ceiling of the prince’s private living quarters as a pseudo-chandelier. The piece, The Provisionary That Lasts (#7 from a series) points to a “fix-it-yourself attitude” in Egyptian culture, troubleshooting problems even if resolving them with absurd solutions.

Conceptually strong works were placed in the prince’s steam room complex. In the entrance, long muslin-like cloth hangs in rows to emulate the shape of an imagined city skyline; The Spirit of the City by Ahmed Karaly imagines a renegotiated city built on Islamic architectural ideas to great effect. Down the hall in the prince’s marble steam room is Isolation Cycles,  a sound and light installation by Magdi Mostafa which plays with sound and light that reverberate inside the unusual space. The experience is intentionally disturbing to visitors. The steam room had been hidden from the public, only to be rediscovered by Abdel Ghaffar and Mostafa when studying blueprints of the palace when they were preparing the exhibition.

A projection and sound installation at Manial Palace by Nadine H.

Abdel Ghaffar wouldn’t say what venue is planned for next year, but the concept of introducing visitors to contemporary art in the context of historic landmarks brings visitors to underused historic spaces in Egypt while at the same time exposing them to contemporary art. With increased attention to curatorial direction and better integration of the artworks in context, Art d’Égypte can serve as an example to government-run art museums in Egypt on how to produce better art exhibitions and visitor experiences.

The exhibition will run until the 27th of November, 2018, and visiting hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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