Five Days in Cairo *

I have attempted to make sense of my notes and find some key themes and questions for the conference…


Egypt seems to have been conquered many times, some of the major controlling empires were:

Pharaonic                    from3150 BC

Persian                        from525 BC

Greek                          from332 BC

Roman                         from30 BC

Arab                             from639 AD

Ottoman                       from1517 AD

French                          from1798 AD

MohammedAli             from1805 AD

British                           from1882 AD

Independence was granted in 1922 AD, so for almost 2500 years Egypt was under foreign rule


There are many ways in which this history seems to have affected modern Egyptians – several spoke of the “weight of history” (hence also the debate over whether we really are living in a “post colonial” world?). The conquerer never takes on the language of the conquered, instead they always impose their own culture and language.  People have been told they are not Pharaonic, not Arabs, not Muslims… which has led to difficult discussions around personal identity, representation, false notions such as “which tradition is more justified” that has not allowed for an “inbetweeness of cultures, eg to be an Egyptian you have to wear a jeelebah“.  This is where contemporary artists can make a significant contribution, since they act as individuals and can break out of restrictive and reductive discussions –however design is more institutionally based and therefore not as easy to assert individuality.  There is also an issue around artists and new ideas becoming acceptable only once they have gained recognition abroad. Before they receive international acclaim they are considered to be challenging the status quo, and even “destroying” Egyptian identity.  Could Eypt’s history also account for the fact that “Egyptians start a game believing they will lose – its just amatter of how much”, and the idea coming through one of Mona Hartoum’s cages,the bird cage which could be pushed apart, but required belief in the capacity for change in order to do so.


The tightly controlled educational system has also had a major impact on the individual’s sense of identity and their access to new ideas.  The primary aim is to produce good citizens rather than independent thinkers and the heavy censorship means knowledge was controlled and teachers stuck to what they knew was safe to teach.  Recently students and influences from outside Egypt have been infiltrating and challenging the system, as a result, the self perpetuating system (where students following their teachers exactly are given teaching jobs, rather than those questioning) is now self-destructing.  At the same time public art schools are being taken over by fundamentalists, who are removing figurative imagery, but the Minister of Culture, who was a painter and is against women being pressured to wear the veil, does not welcome this.  This is leading to new relationships forming between the Ministry of Culture and the independent/ private art sector.  For the first time the Cairo Biennale is being selected by a curator selected by 4 artists and it has a shared vision with the independent Photo Cairo.  Although the American University has just moved out of Downtown Cairo, into the desert, the competition between the private institutions is developing thinking and teaching, but there is a long way to go- the Townhouse Gallery is running a curatorial training programme because there are no others, and hopes the Universities will take it on.  There are also no courses on art history or arts administration across the Middle East. 


Many individuals working in different fields (jewellery, costume, design) spoke about the need to inform the younger generations about their cultural heritage to inspire and motivate them to reclaim and reinvent it for themselves.  We were told to be aware of people’s alienation from their own culture, eg the use of the term Washarabi – which was used to refer to a particular type of screen, with a protruding section for cooling water jars, and not a generic term for the screens.  This lack of knowledge was also highlighted by foreigners taking work out of context and training crafts people in traditional craft skills without an understanding of where and why those skills had been used.  For example, function and efficient use of materials were significant factors in Ottoman Egyptian design; architectural features such as supporting wooden beams were decorated, the doors were made from the tiny off-cuts creating intricate designs, and most of the furniture was built into the interior architecture, including seating and storage, or very simply decorated.  Even the wooden screens were patterned in order to refract the light and therefore cool the interior space.  Egyptians were researching and identifying individuals who were still using the traditional skills but fusing them with new ideas, or making them relevant to their own lives, “The tradition may be dying but the craft isn’t”. This was described as an “inside out” approach as opposed to the “outside in” approach favoured by the Prices Trust.


Some artistic themes, in no particular order

- work that relates to daily life

- ideas around representation and identity

- design as a verb rather than a noun

-international partnerships/relationship with other Mediterranean countries, the possible threat from Dubai is seen as an opportunity

- “the world is searching for new stories” and Egypt has many stories to tell

- the ability of art to communicate to a population with very low literacy levels

- artists needing a space for failure to allow for critical dialogue to take place

-alternative view of socially engaged practice – watch how the community uses their space and then infiltrate it, find out their needs , set up a support system

-object/installation work rather than text based (Lebanese), there is not a single “Islamic Culture” but many (eg difference in mosque design, treatment of women)

- Cairo is a city which “recycles itself” a lot of collage, use of found imagery and objects, eg dolls, talismanic symbols

- famous people become saints and/or icons and are then untouchable, other than through art work

- responses to the teachings of the Quran, calligraphy, women’s roles

- responses to Egypt’s history and culture, addressing it in the light on modern Egypt, rather than attempting to preserve it in aspic, not an archaeology subject, instead seen as living traditions

- the value of the crafts, eg figurative work (Ramses Wissa Arts Centre tapestries) could be seen as social and personal documents, and in this context, abstract painting would be purely decorative.



What has struck me is The Changing Face of Cairo - how past structures (education,government, religion) affect the individual and how the individual can and is in turn shaping the future society (individual artists and makers, Walid Ramadan’s festival in the western desert, Townhouse’s approach to socially engaged practice, the workshops run by Magaz), which connects with the idea of khamaseen– sandstorms.


I think we should ask some of the people we met to act as our advisors and maybe invite Sherif Awad to curate a video art programme?



Yasmin Canvin



* Although I noted with interest that several local people referred to Cairo as “Egypt”