At a major art exhibition in Cairo on Tuesday, June 11, defiant Egyptian artists say their artwork has been inspired by ongoing political and social upheaval and they vowed to continue to work despite fears of restrictions by the country’s conservative Islamist government.
The two-day exhibition, at a five star hotel in Cairo, brought together some of the country’s best known artists as well as many up and coming talents.
Over 200 works of art were on sale, making the exhibition organized by the Arts-Mart group, one of the largest privately held exhibits in the region.
The exhibition comes amidst a growing controversy over the government of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi’s plans to reorganise the Ministry of Culture.
Prominent filmmakers, writers and performers have camped out at the Cairo ministry for days, accusing Mursi’s new culture minister of sacking respected officials with the intention of filling key posts with supporters - a charge denied by the ministry.
On Tuesday violent clashes broke out between those conducting the sit-in and their liberal supporters and pro-Mursi protesters who held a demonstration outside of the Ministry.
Art-Mart curator Lina Mowafi said that many Egyptians were taking shelter in culture and the arts in the midst of the upheaval that has gripped the country since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
“The difficult period that we are going through now has actually helped us because people are disappointed with what’s going on and need to see something like this, to see art, to see joy, to meet artists, to see the finer things in the country instead of watching the terrible events that have been going on here.They’re now seeing the most beautiful things in the country,” she said.
The government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi vehemently denies that it plans to restrict the arts or free expression.
But the removal of several heads of key arts institutions and their replacement by allies of the Muslim Brotherhood has stirred fears that the government may impose its conservative worldview on the arts.
Islamist politicians earlier this month said that ballet promotes indecency in a parliamentary debate.
The Arts Mart exhibition featured prominent Egyptian painters like Omar El-Nagdy, who has had numerous exhibitions in Europe.
El-Nagdy said that all Egyptians are living through extraordinary times, and that he attempts to reflect this in his work.
“The culture of the masses is the time, I, you and all of us are all living in. That is why I respect this period of time and I’m documenting it in hope it has a resonance,” he said.
While Egypt has seen an explosion of popular art like graffiti overtly inspired by the political events surrounding the revolution, much of the work on display was of a personal nature and examines the role of ordinary people during extraordinary times.
Painter Ibrahim El-Tanbouly said that the common thread in his work is the struggle of ordinary Egyptians.
“I express Egypt, how the Egyptian person is living, his reactions, his life, the problems that we’ve faced before, during, and after the revolution. All of this has had an effect on my work. I don’t fabricate while I’m working on any of my pieces. I try to keep things natural and that’s why I rely on psychology in my work,” he said.
But many artists said that the events at the Culture Ministry of the last week had made them more determined than ever to continue their work uninhibited.
Painter Yasser Rostom said that Egypt’s rich cultural heritage meant that it would continue to be the cultural center of the Arab world.
“The timing of the exhibition is fitting. It’s coming simultaneously with the events of the Ministry of Culture, so we can tell the world that Egypt will always remain the capital of culture in the Middle East whatever anybody does,” he said, referring to an ongoing sit-in at the Ministry by artists and clashes between them and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Arab Spring has increased interest in art from the Arab world internationally, offering young artists in particular opportunities that their older counterparts may not have had.
But the rise of Islamist parties in Arab spring countries, including Tunisia, Libya has led to fears that artistic expression could be restricted as those parties consolidate power.
Artist Mostafa Rahma said that Egyptians are religious already and that all aspects of society needed to flourish for the country’s fortunes to shift.
“Assumingly, if there is faction that opposes art in general because its followers have narrow worldview and don’t know the importance of art and believe that the right path to the renaissance of a nation is by religion, then all this is one hundred percent wrong,” he said
Khaled Ezzeldin ElFarrag, a viewer at the exhibit, said it was one of the most impressive he had seen.
“The exhibition is diverse. There is a beautiful mix of popular and upcoming artists. The presentation is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The Arts-Mart Summer Exhibition, which ends on Wednesday (June 12) night, has offered dozens of Egyptian artists a chance to publicize their work.
It has also served as yet another reminder of the country’s extraordinary cultural heritage at a time when culture too is becoming a battleground in Egypt’s increasingly divided society.