A land of sand, myths, legends and bustling markets, Egypt is a country of deep-seated history and hidden gems. In a tantalizing culture and art scene, Egyptian artists are struggling between enthusiasm and oppression. Following the rich culture of Ancient Egypt, the country has a long relationship with arts. Yet, the contemporary art scene is facing many challenges such as unsatisfactory cultural policies, lack of government funding, bad management and weak curatorship at state-owned spaces, lack of critical writing practice, lack of space, censorship and issues with foreign funding. Despite working within the scene whose development is obstructed in so many ways, the practice of Egyptian artists is so incredibly rich and diverse.
Following the presidency of Anwar Sadat in 1970 who allowed the coming back of Islamism, contemporary art has seen the emergence of religious aspects in the works through the introduction of calligraphy or through works depicting Islamic historic events. The establishment of Townhouse Gallery in 1998 announced the beginning of a new era in Egyptian contemporary art and its democratization to any audience. New mediums such as video or installation art flourished and free art spaces proliferated. Following the Egyptian revolution in 2011, Egyptian artists started reflecting this new social and political environment. Triggering a new public culture, artists documented and captured the essence of the revolution and the changing Egyptian society. In the midst of all of this, street art became a vessel for the articulation of social meaning, as documented in an influential art book Walls of Freedom.
Today, there are well over hundred exhibition spaces throughout Egypt, and country hosts several international biennials and triennials. Yet, many artists still seek more dialogue with the international art scene to counteract what they perceive as an overly inwards search for Egyptianness. On the other hand, many of them are also reviving ancient Egyptian practices while using a modified and more contemporary mood.
Featured pictures: Armen Agop, Installation View, via artpluralgallery.com; Tarek El Komi Sculpture, viazamalekartgallery.com; George Lappas at Benaki Museum, via authenticathens.com
An Egyptian-born and Italian-based sculptor, Armen Agop is known for his clean and minimalistic sculptures made out of black granite and basalt. Working with the materials that possess a strong inner gravity, he has adopted ancient stonework skills in a perpetual quest for the purest form. Combining contemporary and ancient, he makes sculptures that reminiscence the harmony, balance and purity of the human soul. Growing up in Egypt, what inspired him the most is the simplicity of the desert and the power of one line to change the landscape.
Featured image: Armen Agop, photo courtesy of Bob Bagley; Armen Agop Sculpture, via armenagop.com
A Cairo-born and New York-based artist and photographer, Youssef Nabil creates black-and-white photographs, which he subsequently hand-colors in a rich and varied palette, using a technique based on the color-tinting in the 1970s Egyptian studios. His photographs evoke the deliciously outmoded feel of the photo-novels that accompanied cinema at the time and highlight in each portrait the extraordinary character of his models, distinguished artists, actors, singers, and friends. He has photographed many artists, musicians, and actors including Nan Goldin, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeoise, and Catherine Deneuve.
Featured image: Youssef Nabil, via youtube.com; Youssef Nabil Photography, via theindependent.co.uk
A Greek national born in Cairo, George Lappas reflects on the limits of the body and its deviations from normality. Working between sculpture and installation, he plays with scale and volume to create a very perceptible, energized luminous field. Exploring contemporary analogical culture, Lappas transforms the everyday life by animating mundane objects to create a new dimension and give the impression of a metaphysical presence. His sculptures are a reference to products whose design follows any form or fabrication constraints. The titles of his pieces provide hints for their interpretation.
Featured image: George Lappas at Jewish Museum, via donopoulosinternationalfinearts.com; George Lappas Installation View, via whyathens.com
The Egyptian artist Tarek El Komi creates sculptures that are imposing and haunting, with edges impossibly smooth and lines declaratively drawn. Reflecting Egyptian Pharaonic identity, he creates figures inspired by harmonious forms of Ancient Egypt. He is strongly drawing from Egyptian artistic heritage to create contemporary sculptures with clean lines. A selection of his works can be seen at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Cairo.
Featured image: Tarek El-Komi, Bronze Sculpture, 2014, via zamalekartgallery.com
Growing up in a society that has been reshaped through continuous changes since the mid-seventies, Khaled Hafez tackles challenging themes such as the sacred versus the commercial. His practice spans the mediums of painting, film, video, photography, installation and interdisciplinary approaches. Exploring identity as a dominant and recurring theme in his work, he often uses multiple juxtapositions to explore a combination of multiple visual elements. Combining ancient Egyptian symbols with Western icons, he employs an ironic approach, without using it forcibly in a manner favorable by neither old nor the new regimes.
Featured image: Khaled Hafez; Khaled Hafez - Stockh, via oryxfoundation.com
A prominent painter and writer, Ramses Younan was one of the creators of the surrealist journal La Part du Sable and a member of the Trotskyist group Art et Liberté since 1939. He was instrumental in introducing the concept of abstraction to Egypt. In Younan's words, "True Egyptian art will not exist unless our past heritage is allowed to react with international heritage: only that will lead us to establish a foundation for our modern art. Therefore, we should not fear any innovation, no matter how extreme it may be, for those who fight innovation under the pretext of protecting our national identity reveal the weakness of their faith in its potential for growth."
Featured image: Ramses Younan and Egyptian Surrealists (fourth from the right), via pinterest.com; Ramses Younan - Untitled III, via sothebys.com
With paintings as diverse as the inspiration they are drawn from, Hazem Taha Hussein, seamlessly brings together the iconography of American Graffiti, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Arabic text. Notorious for his unique composition technique, he builds his work by overlaying Islamic patterns or motifs in the background in an attempt to obscure his abstract figures. With patterns superimposed on the figures creating a sense of fluidity, movement, and change, the painting becomes an optical illusion similar to a photograph. Successfully combining western and eastern elements, Hazem Taha involves the spectator in a dialogue questioning meanings.
Featured image: Hazem Taha Hussein, via youtube.com; Hazem Taha Hussein - Face III, via communitytimes.com
An Egyptian graffiti artist, Khadiga El-Ghawas became the first Light Calligrapher in Egypt and the first woman in the world to be mastering this art along with 6 men from different countries around the world. As she explains, “When I am dealing with calligraphy and its designs I put every piece of my passion and experience for this kind of art in it starting from the first set of the whole shape to the big and fine details, colors, movements. Every piece of me is put in it. Making a good, comfort, cheerful calligraphy piece is my mission. Calligraphy is my soul, it enriches me and makes me full of life.”
Featured images: Khadiga El-Ghawas; Arabic calligraphy featuring Khadiga El-Ghawas, via flickr.com
An Egyptian painter, sculptor, and installation artist, the practice of Ghada Amer tackles the issues of femininity, sexuality, and gender roles. Believing that all women should like their bodies and use them as tools of seduction, Amer uses the ideas and symbols of cultural identity and religious fundamentalism and turns them upside down in her daring paintings and sculptures. She is known for her thickly embroidered canvases that feature fragmented erotic imagery sourced from pornographic magazines that she transforms into meditations on the private nature of ecstasy.
Featured images: Ghada Amer, via artspace com; Ghada Amer - My Nympheas, via goodmangallery.com
An Egyptian street artist, Alaa Awad is known for his neo-pharaonic murals. The mythological figures in all of his paintings symbolize and captivate the viewer by its details and colorfulness. He rose to prominence in 2012 after painting a Port Said massacre memorial mural. Concerned with retaining and reviving Egyptian identity, he places current political issues within the linear trajectory of Egyptian history. The binaries such as the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed, are always present and questioned in his work.
Featured images: Alaa Awad, via arte.com; Alaa Awad Mural, via arte.com