In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Dr Jessica Winegar, author of “Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt” and professor at Northwestern University, reflected on the groundbreaking change Cairo’s contemporary art scene has undergone in the past two decades.
Winegar discussed the blossoming of Egypt’s contemporary art scene against a backdrop of the country’s transition from socialism to neoliberalism, looking at what art can reveal about the larger processes of political and economic transformation.
“I found that the art really captured that shift and was a privileged place for dealing with that change in society,” she said.
Winegar’s pioneering scholarship on contemporary visual arts in Egypt began in the early 1990s. Coming to Egypt at that time, Winegar described finding a century-old visual arts scene that was barely mentioned in English-language scholarship. Because artists were “grappling with questions of what the best way to navigate social change is, and how to render that visually,” art had the capacity to provide a rich window into Egyptian social life.
How have visual arts in Egypt changed over the last two decades and what does this mean for the field today? One key difference has come in terms of funding mechanisms.
“The Egyptian state provided a dependable source of funding for the arts. This support gave a modicum of security to artists, but also a kind of mediocrity,” she said, which was both a cause and a consequence of Egyptian art’s failure to attract any substantial international audience.
In contrast, recent professionalization and privatization of the sector has given artists a diversity of places to exhibit and to visit, and attracted more sustained international attention and exchange. Whereas artists’ only path out of Egypt in the past was through a government invitation, today’s cross-region linkages between galleries provide far more opportunities for international dialogue.
The last two decades’ changes have thrown up challenges as well as opportunities associated with privatization. Massive growth in the private sector means that the market has often come to define the value of art, Winegar explained. “Artists want to do work that’s true to themselves, but also are concerned about making work that sells,” she said. In the past, “when art’s value was determined by bureaucrats, it was not nearly as determined by a price.”
“This is not necessarily very liberating for artists,” she explained. Egyptian artists today confront not only the challenge of balancing creativity and salability, but also different pressures — depending on who’s buying.
“With the enhanced connections with Europe in particular, you have the pressure of the European desire to see certain kinds of art in the Middle East, which deal with religion, gender, Orientalist themes, poverty and struggle,” she observed. “One of the main challenges for artists is that there are new ways that their art becomes evaluated, which is not always in line with how they want to produce their art.”
Since Winegar concluded her research in 2005, the development of Cairo’s art scene has only accelerated, with the rise of an international market for Arab art as well as the opening of many new galleries and exhibition spaces that buzz with activity.
The establishment of spaces like the Townhouse Gallery, Darb 17 18, Artellewa, and others has not come without controversy, however. While some argue that the new exhibition spaces represent elitism and western imperialism, others say they are the only places for free and avant garde expression.
For Winegar, who maintains that neither of the above extremes capture the reality, the overall consequences for the art scene are positive: the creation of new venues has widened the forum for debate and dialogue, while a diversity in exhibition spaces has made room for multiple voices and different kinds of art and artists.
In her book, Winegar challenges received notions of what it means to be an artist, arguing against the universality of autonomy and opposition as core artistic values/traits. In doing so, she challenges the “Western curatorial chauvinism” which promotes “very specific ideas about what counts as good art and shows very little interest in the context or history that Egyptians find so important.”
What are these ideas, and where do they diverge? Egyptian artists in the 1990s weren’t as defiant or oppositional as the stereotype of their Western counterparts, Winegar argues, with the caveat that, while Egyptian artists are much more consciously oppositional today than 20 years prior, the distinction remains noteworthy.
“The anxieties of Egyptian modernism were located in debates over definitions of what constituted cultural authenticity,” she writes, “rather than in the existential angst about what constituted the authentic individual,” as is typically the case in Europe and America.
Notwithstanding growing international exchange for creative professionals in Egypt, one thing that continues to distinguish Egyptian artists from their counterparts in Europe and America is that their artistic credentials and raison d’être remains rooted in national identity which is often placed upon them by institutions and audiences.
“[A]rt students were taught how to contribute to society, and… most came to believe that they should,” writes Winegar, noting that, “to increase the social value of what they did, [Egyptian artists] continually asserted their usefulness to society and the nation.”
The bottom line: The differences between Western and Egyptian artists do not imply a lesser membership in the global artistic community, but rather a different vision of what it is to be an artist.
Winegar’s current research looks at how both governmental and non-governmental actors are using art for the purpose of acculturation/cultural uplift (tathqif) and youth development. She has observed that art is being leveraged in the service of bridging the disparity between labor market demands and youth’s skills, especially “soft skills.” Institutions are using art as a way to teach creative thinking, and also how to speak and behave in a more refined way, aiming to enable them to transcend socioeconomic boundaries by being able to “pass for” a higher class.
As a part of this project, she is also looking at the political aims of such arts programming: making youth more peaceful, teaching them to express disagreements in a peaceful way and to enhance cross-cultural dialogue.
The main difference between NGOs and Egyptian government, she says, is not in substance but in scope: the government disseminates visual arts through 550 cultural centers spread around the country, while NGOs tend to focus solely on Cairo.