Interview with Marina Sorbello, Berlin-based independent curator, January
MS: Are there in your opinion specificities of the Cairo/Egyptian
KH: Art started in Egypt thousands of years ago; it just
served a particular function then, either to document (painting) or as
part of the religious institution (sculpture in temples and tombs); with
the early years of the twentieth century, official governments, all under
the British occupation tried to remove the cultural influence disseminated
after 400 of Ottoman reign.
So Egypt saw the revival of the arts: music, writing, theater, painting
and sculpture; being the first and for decades the ONLY_ country in the
East with a Fine Arts School, we now have a century long art scene; perhaps
the scene have nothing to do with what goes on at a particular moment
with the rest of the world, yet there is a “specific” movement.
As for the specificity of the system, Egypt adopted a more or less European
system of education in till the early fifties of the twentieth century;
with the revolution/coup d’etat of 1952, the system of education
changed to serve what was known then as the “national Project”,
a project known in political economy as Pan-Arabism; this system adopted
in theory the Nationalistic specificities of the extreme right, and a
Soviet pattern of socialism. This “wild amalgam sustained till the
military defeat of 1967, after which there was a long process of revisionism
to the then contemporary history and adopted/applied systems.
Today the then art system is still run with the type of obsolete management
that prevailed in the sixties, simply because waves of reforms in the
past decades never approached culture since culture has never been a priority.
The hierarchy goes as follows: top of the hierarchy is the ministry of
culture, then visual arts are run by what is known as the cultural sector,
which supervises all public art spaces, dictating many times who exhibits
and who does not.
For the past two decades an independent art movement with self-financed
or privately funded projects, established itself as an omnipresent competitor
to the “relatively wealthy” state run system.
MS: What kind of role, if any, does art and culture play in contemporary
KH: Art, especially film, music and literature have been
indispensable for Egyptians for a century today; of course those arts,
and visual arts too, are not “indispensable” for aesthetic
reasons; rather, representative and realistic styles have been more successful
than simple aesthetic methods of expression. There were decades when certain
arts boomed and others declined: in music it was the first four decades
of the twentieth century, while in film it was the fifties and sixties.
Visual arts, at that time only painting and sculpture were recognized,
flourished extensively in the fifties and sixties, for the simple reason
that the revolution required cultural representation; a genre of “social
And ‘revolution arts” were inflicted on the public; artists
_painters and sculptors_ became recognized at that time; a grant was created
by the state to encourage artists to be full-timers. Only realistic and
representational art was encouraged then.
Today, after the effects of cultural globalization, the Egyptian society
is passing through a time of “priority selection”; in such
times, with identity and economic constraints, art and culture are not
a popular product to consume since it takes a priority that comes after
fulfillment of basic needs.
Artists and cultural operators today are all experimenting in the Middle
East, not just Egypt; eventually a more stable role for art and culture
will be established in the near future, at the end of decades of experimentation.
MS: How do you see your role as artist and intellectual in the
KH: to speak and express; I do believe that I, among
other artists and intellectuals in Egypt today, though involved in personal
research, are obsessed by a quest to create a dialogue between “us
and the other”, as well as finding another bridge between the present
and the past; both quests are pillars of a new identity that best describes
me, my generation and other generations “living” today in
Egypt, the region and elsewhere in the world.
MS: Do you recognize recurrent issues or topic or aesthetics in
Definitely; each one of us has his/her own possessions; when I say “us”
here I mean artists and cultural operators working today in Egypt; personally,
all my work, whether video or painting, is about identity; I try to break
the barriers between East and West, and those between past and present;
that is why I use Eastern element from the past like the God Anubis and
juxtaposes it with an element of the West from the present like Batman,
and the Goddess Bastet versus the comic icon catwoman, etc; in my work
there is probing of established sacred values as well as traits of the
consumer goods culture and behavior.
MS: Are there aspects relating to the Cairo context, and how?
Yes and no; or rather no and yes; no in terms of the totality of the project
is about being Egyptian, not just Cairene; and yes if you look at those
new pseudo-religious phenomena bombarding Cairo like the aggression of
mosque microphones, the contaminated beliefs and culture of the current
citizens of Cairo. I grew up in a different Cairo, different Egypt, where
people looked different, spoke differently and were more focused in their
objectives; there was one identity then in the late sixties and early
seventies; today kids barely know the difference between a king, a president
or a pharaoh?
MS: In the past few years the Egyptian contemporary art has been
on the spotlight and has enjoyed quite some interest from western institution,
galleries, and curators looking for artists "discoveries". In
your opinion, what do western curators look for in Cairo/Egypt, what do
KH: I will quote myself in a previous interview with
Maymanah Farahat that took place last December.
With the exception of the pioneer and near-avant-guard curatorial work
of Marilu Knode (currently Curator at the Scottsdale Museum, Arizona)
and Martina Corgnati (Italian Academic, art historian, critic and curator,
currently finishing her book on Middle East contemporary art practices)
who both showed interest in Middle East art practices as early as 1996,
and who sensed a “premonition” somewhere in the virtual art
spaces that a wave of Middle East art and artists will emerge, I personally
believe this current interest only started with the grave incidents of
With the rise of the neo-Republicans in the US and right wing trends in
the rest of the West, and the near-establishment of a new generation of
international terrorists most of whom have Arabo-islamic backgrounds,
the need to discover (curiosity) and establish bridges between the inevitably
clashing civilizations made (and still make) a wealthy and cheesy curatorial
material to feed the already curatorial favorite themes of “gender”,
“identity”, “sexuality”, “sexism”,
“feminism”, the “sacred” and the “ephemeral”.
So I see now much curatorial work about “identity and gender under
Islam”; much interest is given to second-generation Arab female
artists (After Mona Hatoum, Ghada Amer and Sherin Neshaat making the first
Many of the female artists from the Middle East though refuse any link
or adherence to any feminist description, and insist to be approaches
as “artists” rather than “female Arab” artist
or “female Arab feminist” artist.
Visual artists Amal Kenawi and Sabah Naim (both based in Cairo) as well
as writer May el Telmissany (based in Montreal, Canada) refuse categorically
any link to Arab feminism.
To summarize, I think that the current interest in Middle Eastern and
“Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American
art institutions, markets and galleries shows three basic trends:
1. Curiosity: serious curatorial work really trying to
trace actual changes happening in the Middle East and the subsequent changes,
development and progress happening to art and artists.
2. Pursuing cliché: curatorial work looking for
gender, identity, etc
3. Pursuing exotism: curatorial work looking for non-existent-anymore
themes like oppression, persecution, etc..
MS: Internet made information available, and information circulation
possible in the past decade. The coordinates of the art system seem to
have started changing, with important centres and "players"
also in the Arab world (emirates) or in Asia. Can we still talk of centre
and periphery, or is it anything changing right now? How?
KH: We can still talk of center and periphery; Egypt
has been the art center of the Arab-speaking world since its inception,
I mean for hundreds of years; only in very small periods of time in history
had the center been taken away from it: Baghdad, Damascus, Istanbul or
Granada. For a century Egypt has maintained leadership, a leadership it
is destined to lose soon, with the founding of the first Christie’s
office in the Middle East, the reform of the Sharjah Biennial and the
opening of the Guggenheim and Louvre, all taking place in the Emirates;
I think Egypt and Beirut will remain for very long the main creative suppliers
of artists and cultural operators, while the Emirates, particularly Dubai,
will become the principal showcase.
MS: What kind of art market is there in Egypt and how is it evolving?
KH: if we judge a market by the dollar amount, Egypt
has a remarkably poor market; though the majority of today’s newly
recognized international Middle East/Arab artists come out of Egypt and
Lebanon, still the money value of artworks in Egypt is remarkably low.
Lebanon on the other hand shows more potential in terms of economics.
The local art market in Egypt has depended for decades on expatriates,
though in the past ten years newer generations of Egyptian executives
and corporate managers are buying some painting and photography. Established
artists (above 55 years of age) sell much more than younger artists; many
of the artists who got newly recognized, I included, sell more abroad
with our European galleries.
Locally, the money value remains low and the market remains poor.
MS: What kinds of art schools are there in Egypt? What kind of
education do artists receive?
numerically, Egypt has three art schools in Cairo, one in Alexandria,
one in Minia, and that’s it. The Cairo schools are: Fine Arts, then
Art Education and then Applied Arts. The Alexandria and Minia Schools
are Fine Art schools.
Education is principally theoretical with more or less some practice;
only fine art schools have enough credit hours for technique. The art
history courses are noticeably weak, and the resulting graduates need
to continue “personal” education if they need to pursue a
career of artist. This is now more accessible with computer literacy,
internet, libraries and more graduates traveling abroad.
‘Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon.’ George