LONDON: The Valley of the Kings in Luxor; Tutankhamun’s tomb; the Pyramids; and the Great Sphinx of Giza. These iconic wonders of ancient Egypt continue to enthrall the world today — but some might say their overwhelming beauty puts everything else in the shadows. How can contemporary artists in Egypt compete with these 7,000-year-old treasures that draw visitors from all corners of the globe?
That’s a question Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, founder of art consultancy Art d’Egypte, has spent a lot of time contemplating, and she has come up with a highly imaginative answer. She has rewritten the rules for presenting contemporary art works — bringing the pieces into the heart of historic sites, creating a dialogue between past and present.
The first attempt to realize this blend of old and new was a spectacular success. It’s safe to say “Eternal Light — A Night of Art at the Egyptian Museum” was a groundbreaking initiative. In fact, it was such a departure from its usual mode of operation that the museum agreed to host the exhibition for one night only before it was moved to another venue.
It was clear, however, that it was a formula that had great appeal, and the following year saw the magnificent early 20th Century Manial Palace of Prince Mohamed Al Tewfik host the “Nothing Vanishes, Everything Transforms” exhibition for one month, with workshops and talks by art experts weaved into the program.
Art d’Egypte does a lot of work to support young artists and aims also to catalogue Egypt’s modern and contemporary art. As a private organization, it reaches out to investors and its public-private partnership model produces some impressive initiatives. For example, when the team went into the Egyptian Museum for their first exhibition in 2017, they noted that the lighting for the exhibits needed upgrading. They spoke to their Philips Lighting contact in Cairo, who in turn contacted global headquarters in Amsterdam, with the result that the company installed specialist ‘preservation lighting’ in the museum and the Manial Palace.
“We guarantee companies branding opportunities and in return they are more willing to donate in kind to sites,” said Abdel Ghaffar.
This year, excitement is building for the third presentation to be held on Cairo’s Muiz Street - the longest inhabited street in Egypt, with a vibrant history dating back to 969.
Arab News spoke to Abdel Ghaffar when she visited London to host a talk with representatives from the V&A and Dalloul Art Foundation, held at Christie’s auction house, about Egypt’s creative journey in relation to its ancient, modern and contemporary art.
She noted: “Everybody has this romantic image of the ancient layer of Egypt, but they don’t know the other layers, which are also very rich.”
She described the experience of looking at contemporary art within a great, historical setting. “You are immersed in an experience which you can’t get anywhere else — you fall under the spell of the place. I feel that when you go to these places, you live a thousand lives. You feel the souls of those thousands and thousands of people who were there before. There is a certain energy that you can’t explain but you feel it.”
Abdel Ghaffar’s team consists of just three people — which, considering the scale of the projects they undertake, is pretty amazing. We spoke to Malak Shenouda, who was recruited by Abdel Ghaffar straight after graduating from the American University in Cairo (AUC).
She admits that the whole experience has been both exhilarating and a very steep learning curve.
“I graduated last May and went straight from college to a very high level. It has been an incredible learning experience — from trying to find funding, talking to artists, finalizing paperwork with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, dealing with the logistics of installing the art pieces, doing research, writing catalogues and curatorial statements to drawing up guest lists and invitations.
“I’ve learned a lot very fast. I now know what it means when people say ‘Life is your best teacher.’ I was doing my graduation project in parallel with the first exhibition. Nadine has been very patient and given myself and my colleague, Hana El Beblawy — also a recent AUC arts graduate — a lot of responsibility,” she said.
Shenouda described some of the artworks that particularly inspired her at last year’s exhibition, “Nothing Vanishes, Everything Transforms.”
She particularly admired a work called “Waiting for Admission” by Huda Lutfi, formed of 60 wooden molds of women’s shoes lined up in neat rows.
“It speaks about those women who are always waiting for admission, whether it’s for job opportunities or for approval in society, or whatever,” she said. “This is a powerful statement.”
Another work she admired was by the multidisciplinary artist and digital media designer, Islam Shabana. His “Unfreeze Time,” a 3D digital mapping piece, brought to life the clock tower in the palace, raising questions about its original purpose, which — due to a lack of historical references — is shrouded in mystery. As the artist explained: “The piece will digitally unfreeze time, opening possibilities of dialectical narratives to answer old questions or ask more important ones about the present.”
“This was a site-specific work which could not be exhibited anywhere else,” said Shenouda.
She also described the impact of seeing a huge suspended sculpture made of cardboard called “The Provisionary that Lasts,” by Ahmed Badry.
“I think seeing two gigantic depictions of common objects (a coat hanger and light bulb) that you see daily, and the juxtaposition of this contemporary piece in the historical surrounds of the palace, was very striking,” she said.
All the team’s efforts are now focused on the upcoming Muiz Street exhibition in October, which will be held under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
With many visitors looking forward to travelling to Cairo for the two-week exhibition, Abdel Ghaffar was asked about security — especially in the context of the recent attack on a tourist coach near the new Egyptian Museum in Giza. She pointed out that such attacks have occurred in many cities across the world — including London, Manchester, Madrid, Paris and Nice.
“What has happened in Egypt is no different to what has happened anywhere else in the world. Egypt remains one of the safest countries,” she said. “We have high security measures, and I am not worried.”
The exhibition’s location fits perfectly with Art D’Egypte’s aims, she explained: “On this one street you have several layers of history: Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman — right up to our present day, with people living in the historical houses. It’s living history. It’s not something preserved but a continuously evolving environment. You have workshops and people who live in the old houses. It’s beautiful because it’s like a mosaic. One of the mosques has a church door with Pharaonic granite and Greek Roman columns.
“In Egypt," she added, "we always say that Egyptian heritage is for all mankind, not just for Egyptians."