Thursday, January 01, 2004

Mai Abu ElDahab/ south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

Contextualization: The Dynamics of Cairo’s Contemporary Art Scene
Mai Abu ElDahab

The catch phrase in international art discussions today with regards geographically-delineated exhibitions is contextualization. How should art be presented in locations different from which they originated, namely non-Western art in Western contexts? (Let us maintain the redundancy in explaining why these are the two faces of the dichotomy.) This issue with regards representation is an old and unceasing debate, however, contextualization is today put forward as the cure-all for errors past (exoticism, orientalism, and so on.). What I would like to suggest, is that the contextualization necessary in this scheme of exhibition-making is discursive art theoretical analysis, rather than mere socio-political prescription, and I will focus my argument by discussing the current dynamics of Cairo’s contemporary art scene and the local impact on international interest in art from the Arab World.

The issues surrounding contextualization seem to revolve around a process or exhibition format by which viewers are provided with the necessary tools or information enabling them to decipher the codes of a visual sensibility presented as alien to themselves. Socio-political circumstances, historical facts and explanations are thus presented alongside the artworks in the form of explanatory texts, relevant books and such, thereby providing the Western viewer with, let’s say, justification for the visual language and forms with which they are confronted. In other cases where the art seems to utilize familiar codes and sensibility, it is articulated as art that has gone through a process of self-translation into global language, and is now detached from its place of origin. Both arguments seem to miss the point. Two non-exclusive factors are at play here (elaborated below): the cultural project and the art market.

In September 2002, I attended the opening of the exhibition “Contemporary Arab Representations: Beirut” curated by Catherine David and presented at Witte de With, Rotterdam. The exhibition’s aim in part, according to the curator’s text, was “to acquire more specific knowledge about what is currently going on in certain parts of the Arab world, to look at the complex dimensions of aesthetics in relation to social and political situations…” and was presented several months earlier at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. A critique of the exhibition in terms of its aims or the artworks presented is not what I am opening up for debate, but rather the format by which the so-called contextualization was produced. The first floor of the gallery space was set up with various televisions and one projection room airing satellite news channels from the Middle East, Arab magazines and newspapers were also available on the seating platforms for the audience to skim through. Being one of the Arabic-speakers present, I was privileged to understand what I was viewing, and also realize that the publications present were months old, perhaps simply shipped along with the artworks from the earlier exhibition in Barcelona. The viewers in this case were bombarded with inaccessible visual information that added little, or in fact, diminished their engagement with the artworks present through this form of linguistic alienation. This is one example of contextualization, which serves to problematize the notion of the cultural project.

At a recent lecture by Slovene theorist Marina Grisznic at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, she presented the notion of constructing a ‘genealogy’ of an artwork, citing the evolution of the Young British Art generation as a prime example, as the dynamic necessary for its consumability. (Where did this work come from? How do we know it is a pedigree when we don’t know the family tree? Hence, from the cultural institution, to the gallery, to the magazine, to the Biennale, to the art fair, and thus history is written). To make it to the museum or collector’s home, its genealogy must be established as a credible product within its new location by virtue of association. Thus it is displaced; this is not the authenticity debate, but simple marketability. This is the art market factor.

In the more established art scenes, where institutional, academic, curatorial and market structures are developed, artworks are contextualized through discursive debate. By that I mean, art historical or theoretical analysis aimed at broadly defining a genre, for lack of a better word, through investigations of the artworks’ form and content, and the multitude of connections it affords to other ongoing practices and bisul cultue theory. Within historical exhibitions, Picasso is presented alongside Braque (cubism) and today Pierre Huyghe alongside Rirkrit Tiravanija (relational aesthetics). This discursive process often begins locally, and finds its connections within the broader theoretical writings and debates focusing on art practices and sensibilities. This brings us to the Cairo art scene and let me begin by providing a brief background of contemporary art developments in Egypt and the ongoing issues.

Although the Egyptian visual arts community is Cairo-centric, many of the emerging contemporary artists originate from Alexandria and are the pioneering graduates of the Alexandria Atelier. The Atelier at the time was privileged to have a number of well-trained and informed professors who injected a new dynamism into the institution. In the early 90s these young graduates began experimenting with contemporary mediums such as video, performance and installation and as opposed to their modernist predecessors, their work was conceptually grounded and posed questions on the social, economic and political environment. These were the pioneers of what is today contemporary Egyptian art. (Of significant accomplishment amongst these artists are Wael Shawky, Rehab Elsadek, Amina Mansour and Mona Marzouk.) By virtue of their production quality and notwithstanding the novelty factor these new works gained a very positive response and gained much acclaim at the new government-sponsored “Youth Salon”, an annual event that was established in 1989 to provide artists under the age of 35 the opportunity to present their work. It is important to note, that the only available venues for the presentation of visual arts at the time were public institutions, whose selection processes were and remain either ad hoc or nepotistic.

Unfortunately, after this initial success, these new artists had nowhere else to present their work as the government’s infrastructure impeded presentation in other local venues. Moreover, the work itself was stagnating due to a lack of exposure and exchange opportunities, lack of theoretical debate, little resources for production, and most importantly lack of critical analysis. Along with the internationalization phenomena associated with technological developments and transfer as well as the proliferation of media tools, the local contemporary visual languages became globalized. This type of hybridity is now often accepted internationally as a mundane norm; the pluralistic authorship of which, if at once economically imposed, today has vast implications that are yet to be fully understood (globalization, representation, identity, etc.).

Later in 1996, a number of Cairo-based commercial galleries (Mashrabia Gallery, Espace Karim Francis, Cairo-Berlin Gallery and soon after the Townhouse Gallery) opened with a specific interest in presenting contemporary art. Contemporary languages began to be visible, and the artists began to attract the interest of local media and a wider audience. This new momentum reached its peak in 1999, when the galleries, co-organized Al-Nitaq Festival, Egypt’s first and only independent visual arts showcase. Although the festival did not manage to sustain itself as an annual event, it clearly marked the split between the art of the public and private institutions, and with it came much competition and mutual hostility. Unfortunately, these commercial galleries were destined to fall into the same trap as the government institutions by grappling on to the cultural project forum often as the only way of acquiring funds whilst lacking both the initiative and know-how to infiltrate the market.

Today, the institutions have not developed to accommodate the increasing number of promising artists or to actively participate in the international art scene that is beckoning them. On the local scale, art is presented solely within the framework of cultural development, as part of a larger holistic nationalist agenda, ignoring the discipline’s internal dynamics and development. Wherein, the aim comes to be about attaining resources for production and presentation dismissing the significance of qualitative judgement in cultural production and policy. Meanwhile, the artists are slowly becoming internationally visible, and their work is presented within contextualizing exhibitions, as their work easily transfers within the rhetoric of the cultural project; Hassan Khan within “Contemporary Arab representations: Cairo” at Witte de With (May 2002), Wael Shawky within “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes” at the Biennale di Venezia (2003), Sherif El-Azma within DisORIENTation at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (March 2003) and so on. Some works are successful yet the discourse remains cultural.

It is perhaps lack of local theoretical contextualization intertwined with absence within the international academic and discursive debates that leaves the art scene vulnerable to imposed contextualization and often mis-representation. Although the artworks themselves are inevitably subject to similar historic cross-border references, the academy today aims to re-create history with the view that cultural crossover is a new concoction. Hence, the circularity of confusion continues further emphasized by institutionalization of concepts of “otherness” reigning in various academic spheres and disciplines whose influences at present on cultural policies tend to have a stronger impact than that of some equal opportunity multiculturalism advocates. The contextualization project becomes the mere residue of the rampant culture of “otherness” whose outreach is infiltrating intellectual circles in an attempt to disentangle history.

Thus, to be an Arab artist within the international art arena today is to bear the Scarlet Letter, until another paradigm is to presents itself and local actors attempt participate in the dialogue.