By Heba Elkayal
CAIRO: In the wake of the January 25 Revolution, the question of the future of fine arts in Egypt is the concern of an anxious minority involved in the art world, either as artists, buyers or gallerists.
Art in Egypt was heavily monitored, dictated and produced by the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Culture. From the ministry’s monopoly on state-allocated funds and state-led commissions, young rising talents would rarely shine in a spotlight taken up by a culture minister who some critics claimed rarely supported initiatives for new public art or the works of young artists.
“Art in Egypt is in grave danger, if the art establishment will be shaken, it won’t come back easily. Art is not a necessity for the average Egyptian, a matter that consumes them to view or collect. Any event in Egypt that can pull people away from art is a danger to art in Egypt. Those who are concerned about art here are a very limited few,” Mohsen Shaalan, the former deputy minister of fine arts, says.
The current problem is a complex one, a combination of an art scene dominated by the heavy marketing of private galleries for their select artists who promote expensive works accessible to a minority of patrons, and an educational art system that does not adequately teach art in the state-funded colleges or encourage the practice of contemporary trends in state institutions and galleries.
“There was an [absolute] standstill before the revolution,” says Sherwet Shafei, a highly respected collector and the owner of Safar Khan Gallery in Zamalek. “The market was generated and occupied by certain artists only and I believe now the younger generation will take over and lead with a new approach which will [create] new horizons for Egypt.”
Many of the young artists that Shafei exhibits have come out of these state art schools, but as Shaalan explains, the art school system in Egypt needs to be restructured for many reasons.
Art schools in Egypt fall under the auspices of the general state university system. Students applying for art school take the same standard Egyptian high school diploma examinations and are accepted according to their high school score.
The increasing religious conservatism of the student body is also a problem. Many students support the ban on nude models that is fundamental to a classic art education syllabus, says Shaalan.
“The problem with the school of fine arts is that the use of the nude model was banned in the early 70s. We were then heavily influenced by the Gulf. People who had traveled to the Gulf returned with certain cultural notions of art borrowed from them including conservative dress.
“Now art became a source of embarrassment; some people won’t hang a painting in their home. I’m expecting that the coming period will be worse.
The Muslim Brotherhood has quickly come on to the scene, applauded by many. I think that the current reality will not help nor encourage a change in the art schools nor in the cultural consideration of art in society,” says Shaalan.
He also explains that the challenges of government art schools lie in the teaching staff.
“What is offered is a classical art education that is lacking many principals of a classical art education. The educational art system currently in place does not encourage the individual talents of each student. The Fine Arts College has to get out of the structural order of the universities in Egypt if we are going to rely on it to produce real artists.”
Yet, accomplished graduates of that college emerge every year.
“Great artists from these schools are students who broke this barrier through their own pursuit of art by self education, and even daring to exhibit a series of nudes,” says Shaalan.
One such talent is Marwa Adel, a 26-year-old photographer and graphic artist who will have one of her works auctioned in Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art auction in Dubai in April. Adel has exhibited and has been supported by Safar Khan Gallery upon graduation from the Graphics Art department of Helwan University.
Recently a group photography show titled “To Egypt with Love” in Safar Khan exhibited images of the revolution captured by Alaa Taher, Bassem Samir and Hossam Hassan to much commercial success.
“The feedback from foreign visitors to the gallery has been positive,” says Shafei. “Just today I sold 20 pieces to one minister from the Gulf, in addition to a French and Swiss couple.”
So popular are contemporary works by young Egyptian talents, explains Shafei, that Christie’s has told her that they will make a point of including works by young talents in their annual auction.
Not all private galleries in Egypt have been as equally supportive as Safar Khan.
“Up until January 25, there was a huge emphasis on private art galleries opening up. What encouraged gallerists was a sudden rise of prices, and Christie’s Dubai started to sell pieces [by Egypt’s modern masters] but the majority of those that bought pieces are unfortunately now being investigated by the Prosecutor General,” says Shaalan.
People will now stop buying expensive works for fear of public repercussion or questioning the legitimacy of their, assets he says.
“I think these galleries won’t work in the same manner in which they previously operated. I think some will close and also artists who have pieces ready are choosing not to show them now because no one will pay any attention to them,” he elaborates.
For Shafei, her focus now is to resume the gallery’s calendar. “I will resume the regular activities but I’m not hopeful [from a commercial perspective] for the next six to seven months.”
As for what needs to happen next, Shaalan says, “I think Egyptian art across the board has to regain its place and status in the region; we no longer have art whether it’s cinematic, theater or fine arts.
He believes that the Ministry of Culture must be restructured “as if you are structuring a new country with no past.”
“We must find out what our practical needs are and equate them to what else is taking place in the world,” he says. “The government should still be involved in funding art works and institutions but we have to bring back those who have the knowledge and expertise to teach, to lead workshops.”
Shalaan emphasized the need to encourage the massive amounts of talent in Egypt, not celebrate the efforts of only one theater production or one particular artist, adding that the ministry must set a clear plan and direction which includes restructuring the art school syllabi.
“I don’t think the role of the government should be eliminated but they must be aware of the need to provide areas for art to be produced and encouraged where the people and artists want it to be, whether it’s Tahrir or elsewhere. People need to get together and decide for themselves what art they want and where to place it, not for these decisions to be dictated by a government.”