Déjà Vu: A Critique of Two Attempts of Reclamation in the Egyptian Contemporary Art Sphere

by M. A.

I hesitated a great deal before sitting down and writing about a certain temperament I identified in the current Egyptian contemporary art sphere. It is a temperament that is young, proactive, and to some extent aggressive. I have in the past weeks been engaged in multiple conversation and debates about two particular attempts that took place in January 2012, the date is no coincidence. The first moment is the second edition of Cairo Documenta, the other is Shift Delete 30.

The conversations fueled the following reflection. At the risk of margenalising the multitude of artwork and artists involved in those two moments, I have decided not to critique the art. Perhaps out of shear pity for my own self as I have no clue where to begin unpacking that wealth of artistic production, a sentiment perhaps I may free myself of one day. For the moment I will try in the next page or so to establish a specific common feature I have identified between the two scenes. Both moments are, in my view, failed acts of reclamation, two frustrated visions of empowerment that bit more than they could chew, so they spat it back as it is.

Scene one: Cairo Documenta
I am smoking a cigarette inside the make-shift exhibition space of the 25 or so young Egyptian artists showing in the Viennoise building. One of the leading figures of that initiatives is explaining to me and to others the mechanism of participation and selection, and it goes like this: at the core there is a group of 6 artists (The Board) whose work is of course shown, each of the six nominates two other artists, each of whom in turn nominates two more in a branching scheme. There is no theme, there is no curatorial notion, there is no discussion, and there are no spatial restrictions. The only thing there is a group of six (did I mention they refer to themselves as The Board?) who ultimately decide who is in, and who is not.

Anyone who is familiar with the first Cairo Documenta is aware of the absurdity of this system when cross examined with their published manifesto no more than one year ago, which ‘proposed an alternative model for exhibition design, one that is free from the conditions and frameworks imposed by art institutions and practicing curators,’ as Mai Elwakil puts it in her brilliant review last year. The gesture then, and even now despite the deliberate apoliticisation and decontextualisation of the show and the works within, was supposedly anti-institutional, an attempt to imagine different dynamics, a new authority that is not curatorial. What started out as a fertile soil for a group of the most creative individuals in the country to try and develop what could have been the most novel system for decision making and individual empowerment completed its full orbit and came back to the conclusion that 25 or so people cannot decide for themselves, at least not in a practical and time effective way. A Board of six must make some decisions and the rest will have to comply.

The gesture here was an act of the individual reclaiming her agency from the institution, a most intriguing attempt that many of us held their breath in anticipation of some new revelations. The attempt fails, and nothing is reclaimed. An institution is created within the individuals, only this time it is an opaque one. Again the work was deliberately decontextualised, we are left with a lot of question marks hovering over our heads, we feel unsatisfied and somehow wondering what it is we feel is missing. I personally argue that it is the discursive space that is missing. Are we to believe that when artists are given absolute agency over deciding everything from the conditions of showing to the inherited spatial and aesthetic relationships between artworks, the artists would opt for not only the conventional but even the compromising? A friend so rightfully pointed out that it is most interesting that with the exception of one or two pieces all the artists installed their work roughly at the same height.

Scene two: Shift Delete 30
I am standing at Saad Zaghloul Cultural Center before a two channel video installation. The installation is switched off. Déjà vu anyone?

The ideology here is radically different than that of Cairo Documenta, there are two curators, a forceful curatorial theme, and the show is political and responsive, perhaps even reactionary if you wished to be cruel. The number of artists is smaller too, implying a more selective approach than the branching scheme. However there is reclamation here no less.

Here is two curators working within the official sphere, Saad Zaghloul Center is after all a governmental space. The curators’ courageous attempt is to bring curatorial practice within the official apparatus, to present the political and critical works of this young group of artists under the nose of the state, and with its resources, and to do it well. There is evidently far more superior attentiveness to the conditions of showing and installation here. However I would argue that this attempt at reclaiming the state’s venues is yet another failure.

The problem with the state’s interaction with art is multifaceted. Reclaiming resources is undoubtfully crucial, however what needs to be reclaimed even more is the attitude, the attentiveness to artistic discourses, or at least interacting with them. No reclamation is successful as long as the 20 so idle government workers are still having their falafel sandwiches in their crammed offices with open doors exposed to the exhibition space. We could surely question the “sacred value” of the exhibition space, but we can’t do that before we give owe to it, before we create a room for it in the public mindset. Similarly, the state has for a long time and for obvious reasons undermined the value of public discourse, I didn’t see any reclamation in putting together a potentially critical discursive programme and not only fail to publicise it, perhaps again unconsciously subscribing to an official disbelieve in its value, but even fail to organise it in a fashion that is respectful even to the speakers. There is no reclamation whatsoever in a show about cancelling 30 years of generation’s memory that doesn’t feature one single female artist, as if, even coincidently, bound by the inherited values of a patriarchal state. Affecting an official narrative, system of values, structure, power dynamics begins by challenging those very issues, not taking them on.

I have learned a while ago never to question an artist’s motives. By no means am I doing that here. What I am most curious about is failed acts of reclamation, frustrated attempts of empowerment, and above all the questions and debates adjacent to a those attempts and the shift of dynamics they evoke.

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