Art d’Egypte combines past and present of Egypt’s inspirational art scene

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Visitors at Art d’Egypte's “Eternal Light — A Night of Art at the Egyptian Museum.” (Supplied)
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"Unfreeze Time" by Islam Shabana. (Supplied)
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"Waiting for Admission" by Huda Lutfi. (Supplied)
Updated 05 June 2019

Art d’Egypte combines past and present of Egypt’s inspirational art scene

  • The art consultancy presents contemporary work in historical settings
  • “Everybody has this romantic image of the ancient layer of Egypt, but they don’t know the other layers, which are also very rich.”

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."


Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

‘People aren’t born hard and aggressive,’ says Jolie. ‘Something happens and you don’t feel safe.’ (Supplied)
Updated 21 October 2019

Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

LOS ANGELES: No one is born the villain. Not Lucifer in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, not Arthur Fleck in Todd Philips’ recent release “Joker,” and certainly not Maleficent, whom Angelina Jolie brought to life in 2014. Unlike “Joker,” however, “Maleficent,” a reimagining of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), was an open-hearted film, showing not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more.

“We think of her as evil and dark, and we asked why, and went deeper,” says Jolie of the character. “Most women — most people — aren’t born with a certain hardness and aggression; something happens in your life where you lose trust, you don’t feel safe, and you start to fight and you protect yourself in a different way.”

“Maleficent” shows not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more. (Supplied)

In “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel set six years later, Maleficent hardly lives up to that title, but rumor would have it otherwise. The story of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora (Elle Fanning) has spread across the land, painting Maleficent as the villain, rather than the one whose love saved her. Now, as Aurora plans to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world.

“When you see a leader like (Ingrith), who is so angry, so hostile, and who believes that the only way to survive is to destroy the other… we make it very clear in this film that she’s afraid, she’s weak and she’s ignorant. That’s why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s wrong,” Jolie says. “It’s not political, it’s not trying to be, but if you’re happy about the way the film ends, and it feels right, I think that heads you in the right direction, and for children it gives a nice guide.”

In the film, Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world. (Supplied)

While the film features a lot of violent spectacle, the inner conflict of the lead characters themselves is whether they are strong enough to resist becoming violent, rather than the inverse.

“That’s something that isn’t portrayed a lot on screen — a lot of princesses grew up and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her a strong princess, and we’re going to make her tough, so we’re going to make her fight!’ Is that what being a strong woman means? We’re going to have to have a sword and armor on and fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress. It’s beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities as her strengths,” says Fanning.

Redefining the ‘strong woman’ character is not just about redefining strength, for Jolie. It’s about lifting women up without pushing men down.

Harris Dickinson plays Prince Phillip in Disney's live-action “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

“We show diverse types of women, but we have extraordinary men in the film,” she says. “I really want to press that point, because I think so often when a story is told of a ‘strong woman’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man. We both very much need and love and learn from the men. I think that’s also an important message for young girls — to find their own power, but to learn from and respect the men around them.”

For Maleficent, those men include Conall and Borra (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein respectively), both of whom are of the same race as her, cast out from the rest of the world. The two play out the conflict at the center of the film — whether the only path to peace is conflict, or whether diplomacy and goodwill can help.

Elle Fanning plays Aurora in “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” says he was captivated by the film’s themes.

“It was an interesting conversation about leadership — what self-sacrifice means in terms of leadership — and has a real engagement with optimism and positivity in terms of leadership and what is beneficial to most people, and what part leadership plays in that. I felt there was something very rich in the script,” he says.

Even Prince Philip was built to break stereotypes and challenge perspectives, according to Dickinson.

Angelina Jolie brought Maleficent to life in 2014. (Supplied)

“I saw him as this young man trying to figure out how to find his voice and challenge the perspectives of his parents and rule in a more inclusive way,” he says. “(Director Joachim Rønning) and I spoke about him as not just the archetype of a Disney prince who comes along and saves the day.”

While Skrein’s Borra at first seems to be the cliched hawkish brute, he too turns out to be more openminded than he appears.

“The love and understanding of Conall’s message really resonated more, and we do see Borra go on a real arc or journey of his moral stance,” Skrein says. “I think that comes from Conall and that’s why we have to try and preach empathy and peace over violence as much as we can.”