The Cairo Biennale has resumed after an eight-year hiatus, bringing together international and Egyptian artists to take on identity in the Middle East.
After an eight-year hiatus, the Cairo Biennale, one of the major international art events in the Egyptian capital, returned June 10 with a high-profile show, “Eyes East Bound,” that puts the complex identity of the Middle East under a microscope.
The 13th edition of the biennial, which will continue until August 8, showcases the works of 80 artists from 50 countries with the aim of generating “an authentic dialogue” as an alternative to the clichés of today, remarked Ehab el-Laban, the exhibition’s artistic director. On the biennial’s website, Laban states that this year’s exhibition “extends its invitation to artists to set their compasses to the East, their eyes to an alternative Orient.”
The works displayed at three venues in central Cairo — the Gezira Art Center, Palace of Arts and the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art — exhibit great variety in media and style. Paintings by France’s Gerard Garouste, this year’s guest of honor, teem with animals, real and fantastical, in unsettling scenes inspired by the Bible and Greek mythology, while Ammar al-Attar’s larger-than-life photographs are strikingly modern, presenting men in white robes engaged in celebration and mourning rituals from the United Arab Emirates.
In the painting “Cycle of Illusion,” the Iraqi artist Serwan Baran depicts a standing Saddam Hussein look-alike, dressed in military dress and sinister black boots and holding a scary black dog. The Saudi artist Sarah Al-Abdali’s black-and-white ink and pencil drawings look at a first glance like traditional Islamic designs, but upon closer inspection are revealed to incorporate naked female figures.
Laban told Al-Monitor, “[This year’s Cairo Biennale is] focused on the ancient world in the East and the Middle East itself, which is the cradle of cultures and monotheistic religions as well as the home of tribal customs, culture and heritage.”
Laban said that in the past decade, “eyes from every corner of the globe” have been looking toward the East, drawn by an infinite number of social, political and economic issues. “Over the past few years, the arts [in and about the region] have begun to take a clear political direction in light of unfolding events,” he said.
In a June 9 press conference, Culture Minister Inas Abdel Dayem said the Cairo Biennale, which debuted in 1984, aims to create a platform for dialogue by bringing together artwork from different continents. Some Egyptian artists feel, however, that the exhibition does not do a good job of integrating members of their community.
The award-winning artist Emad Ibrahim, who has exhibited at other international biennials, criticized this year’s selection of talent, telling Al-Monitor that he was surprised to see certain names on the list of participants. He has never participated in the Cairo Biennale, but considers himself an established Egyptian artist, working for more than 25 years.
“Any activity that is organized by the Fine Arts Department [of the Ministry of Culture] is limited to a closed circle of people,” Ibrahim said. “That is why I am not keen on participating in any artistic activity they organize.”
Abdel Raza Okasha, artist, art review editor and a member of Egypt’s Fine Artists Syndicate, also criticized the lineup of artists in a Facebook post: “Is there a committee that made the selection of well-established names? Did the artists submit their works and they were approved, or did they just offer to have their works exhibited? Did Egypt, which is home to more than 100,000 artists, need to bring Egyptian-American artists to participate in the event, such as Mr. Youssef Nabil? Are his works really creative, or was he merely invited for Egypt to please the West?”
To participate in the Cairo Biennale, artists, local and foreign, apply to the Ministry of Culture, which then selects a maximum of three artists per country. Hamdi Abu al-Maati, head of the Fine Artists Syndicate, brushed aside the criticism by some artists, stressing that the biennial is a step toward reestablishing Egypt as a patron of the arts in the region.
“This is an important step that will pave the way for the resumption of the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, the International Triennial of Graphic Art, and the Ceramics Biennale, among other events that were halted by the ministry,” Maati told Al-Monitor. “[These are the sort of events that ] had established their presence on the [regional] fine arts map,” It is unclear whether such programs fell by the wayside from a lack of funds, lack of interest or bureaucracy.
The 13th edition of the biennial features seven Egyptian artists: Reda Abdelrahman, Marwa Adel, Ahmed Badry, Essam Darwish, Ahmed Kassem, Hazem El-Mistikawy, and Youssef Nabil.