Faraway from obscure independent galleries, the monolithic Opera House complex is hosting the 23rd Salon of Youth, an annual art salon for those between the ages of 18 and 35. The 189 artists where chosen from over 600 applicants and given the chance to display their work at the Qasr Al Fenoon, or Palace of the Arts, where a jury has already picked the recipients of the top prizes.
The Opera House may seem like an inherently elitist institution; its shows require a dress code, many are foreign and some are expensive. Yet the Opera House is far more influential in mainstream Egyptian culture than most places that think themselves accessible and are free. The Salon of Youth brings together a diverse group of artists from all over the country, and feels both accessible and unpretentious.
The exhibition has been meticulously designed by its curator, Yasser El Mongy, who says that curating the Palace of Arts is a challenge in itself. “A curator must study and know very well the architecture of his space before he starts placing art pieces around it. The ultimate goal is to draw the eye to every art work and for the viewer to have a sense of continuity or guidance as they go along.”
The vast space includes several floors and back rooms, a peculiar balcony and doors connecting everything together with no specific sense of order. Without El Mongy’s explanation, it would be admittedly difficult to navigate the space as he intended, but El-Mongy has made sure that whichever direction you decide to explore first, you have guidance.
“Everything points to a general direction to guide your eye to the next room. There are some rooms that are more spacious or monotonous than others and I have tried to reconcile the artworks with the architecture.”
For example, El Mongy places a huge painting of a throne in an area with a higher roof because he says that smaller pieces “would be dwarfed” or an equally big painting of a Salafi face on the balcony so that the viewer is provoked by a vibrant set of eyes looking at him as he descends the stairs. Everything from the centrepiece sculpture as you enter the exhibition, to the last portrait on your way out has been carefully placed to attract your eye.
The exhibition includes more than 200 artworks; paintings, installations, sculptures, photography. And within these art forms, there is still not a unified theme and works can range from a mechatronic simulation of sand dunes to a sculpture of the female form to an installation on identity. “Usually we have a theme for the artists to work with but this year we chose ‘your direction alone’,” El Mongy says. “After the revolution, artists would rather create on their own than within a unified theme and we have tried to accommodate that.”
In addition to the pieces on display for the participating artists, the Salon is honouring the memory of two artists who died at a young age, including the late Amal Kenawy, who El-Mongy describes as one of the “children of the Salon” and Nahmia Saad, a young Egyptian artist who died in 1945 at the age of 33.
Though the Palace of the Arts may feel like a maze sometimes, there is a sense of continuity both visually and conceptually by El-Mongy that will help you go through the immense number of pieces on display. Ask about the installations that require the presence of the artist and the workshops that have a dedicated room in the space.
In short, the Salon of Youth offers you a chance to not only go through a diverse group of works in different forms and techniques, but also allows you an introduction to Egypt’s burgeoning artists who have found inspiration in every one of its corners.