Articales


    

 
 

Jessica wineger
Creative
Reckonings
First published in Egypt in 2008 by The American University in Cairo Press 113 Sharia Kasr el Aim, Cairo, Egypt www.aucpress.com
This edition published by arrangement with Stanford University Press Copyright © 2006 by the Board of Trustees of the Leiand Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Dar el Kutub No. 27022/07 ISBN 978 977 416 1780
Dar el Kutub Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Winegar, Jessica
Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt / Jessica Winegar.—-Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2007 p.        cm. ISBN 977 416 178 5
1. Egyptians in art   2,Egypt—Civilization          I. Title 927
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Designed by Bruce Lundquist Printed in Egypt
on the side of the other major position in the art world. Instead, I shall now discuss how those other artists and critics articulated their perspective, which they did in part by deconstructing the asala position.
ARTISTIC INFITAH:
THE "MODERN/POSTMODERN" PERSPECTIVE
Those who disagreed with the asala perspective dismissed 'Izz al-Din Nagib as a ranting old-timer, an "old communist" who was out of touch with reality. Older generation artists who held prestigious positions at universities and in the Ministry of Culture, as well as young artists who had won government prizes, said that unlike the asala artists, they (and their art) were "modern," "postmodern," or "contemporary." They peppered their speech with the Eng­lish versions of these words, which implied a connection between themselves and the West, and suggested that it was this link that made them modern or postmodern. Since the 1970S, their artistic perspective, the conceptual op­posite of asala, had also been glossed in Arabic as miiasira (contemporary). However, by the late 1990s, they had gained enough power in the structures of the art world not to need to regularly use this word to signify themselves.
There was a way in which they criticized labels because they wanted to move beyond them, a luxury the asala artists (who had to name their struggle) did not have.
Although authenticity—both cultural and individual—was equally im­portant to mu'asira artists, they constructed the cultural component in a very different way. While they agreed that the path to meeting universal standards (of high art culture) was through the local, they thought that asala, with its emphasis on idealized motifs, imprisoned the local in a fixed national culture that would forever render it provincial and second-rate. In their view, the local should be a free, fluid source for artistic inspiration. If the local was ossified or reified, the artist was inauthentic and just not good enough for the world stage. Thus, while their opponents fought Western dismissal of Egyptian art as imitative, these artists countered Western audiences' tendency to put their art in the box of "ethnic" or "Egyptian" art.
These interlocutors wanted to escape Western (and elite Egyptian) de­sires for art expressing some Orientalized notion of the "real Egypt." Thus, they advocated art that they thought reflected the social changes wrought by Egypt's engagement with the West. In their view, if art honestly reflected one's experience in the space and place of contemporary Egypt, with all its glories and problems, it was real and good.
Like the asala artists, these artists did not break with the past, a move common to many European modernisms (cf. Armbrust 1996). Rather, they ar­gued that Egypt had always accepted other cultural influences and made them its own. It was this ability to "digest" foreign elements that was the true mark of Egyptianness, and to ignore it would be to deny Egypt's historically inter­national and cosmopolitan nature. This group's different construction of the cultural component of authenticity thus reflects a competing understanding of Egyptianness in a time of tremendous flux. Although these artists abhorred the label "nationalist," theirs was also, in fact, a national ideology, and one promoted in the media by many politicians, intellectuals, and businessmen in Egypt in the late 1990s.
These artists' aesthetic position was shaped by their different conception of history. Although they agreed with the asala argument that the indigenous artistic trajectory had been interrupted (i.e., by the decline of ancient Egypt, colonialism, or socialist modernization), they thought that this break could never be repaired. Furthermore, the colonial basis of contemporary Egyptian art rendered any search for prior roots futile. To search for roots, in their view,
one would have to force a certain relationship with the past (or the rural pres­ent) that was no longer possible. Thus, the relationship would be "artificial." Moreover, they said, such a project would deny the European basis of modern Egyptian art and would therefore be "dishonest" or "insincere."
For them, the proof of this "inauthentic" relationship with history was to be found in asala artists' penchant for using symbols and figures from Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic or folk art. Mu'asira artists dismissed such work as motifat (motifs), implying a lack of depth, awareness, and understand­ing of artistic elements. Images such as peasant women carrying water jugs, folk dolls, palm trees, the Sphinx, and camels, for example, were particularly despised if seen to be executed too superficially. Such "motifs" are employed according to the widespread "vulgar" (suqi) understanding of them among the masses, according to Ahmad Fu'ad Salim, the ex-curator of the Centre for Fine Arts in Cairo, often seen as the most influential and prolific muasira art critic (1999:9o).37 It was not that Salim and other artists denied that peas­ant women carrying water jugs, or the Sphinx, were part of Egypt. Many of them were also inspired by rural life, or by Pharaonic or Islamic art. Rather, these artists argued that it was the superficial use of these elements and preoccupation with them at the expense of other elements of Egyptian life that devalued the meaning of the noble term "heritage" {turath}. They joked about the lack of value and understanding in the particular turath discourses of asala artists, changing the word turath slightly to form turash—which means "vomit."
The work ofMustafa al-Razzaz, then the influential Chair of the Fine Arts Committee of the Supreme Council for Culture, and one of Egypt's first instal­lation artists, shows that mu'asira-oriented artists were not necessarily against the use of heritage elements in their work, as their opponents often claimed. But they argued that such elements could only be included after long and serious research. I discuss Razzaz's work extensively in the interlude between Chapters 3 and 4, but here I want to note that the figurative nature of his work, and its references to Pharaonic and Sufi theories of transformation, made it more palatable to asala artists. His age and institutional position afforded him additional prestige. But when younger artists explored similar ideas in more abstract ways, they were often subjected to accusations of Western imitation and deviation from Egyptian authenticity. For example, Razzaz's former stu­dent, the painter and installation artist Shadi al-Nushuqati, also explored the concept of transformation but was often criticized for copying Western art.
The layout of an installation al-Nushuqati created for the 1999 Venice Bien-nale is reminiscent of certain Sufi ceremonial formations, as well as of ancient Egyptian temples, where transformations of men and animals into gods are often depicted. The lights are simultaneously points for ritual concentration and also formal references to mosque or shrine lighting. The gauze, as a mate­rial, suggests the Sufi idea of the bridge or thin veil between this world and the other world, or the state of enlightened consciousness (fig. 2.3).
Unlike his mentor Razzaz, al-Nushuqati departs from figural represen­tation. The different reactions to these two artists not only illuminate the influence of generational difference and institutional position on the evalu­ation of art but also suggest that asala-onented artists were often suspicious of installation (seen to be a wholly foreign medium) and of abstraction that did not seem (to them) to be derived from "native traditions" such as Islamic design.
Installation artists in particular felt compelled to counter the accusations that they imitated the West. Definitions of the category of art itself—and how much it was determined by the West—were at stake. They often said: "If asala". artists call our installations a Western imitation, then why are their canvases
anymore 'authentic'?" One installation artist complained to me,
The idea of painting itself is a European idea. Why can't they understand that?! Even what we teach in the arts college—proportionality, rhythm, balance,shadows, light—these are European rules [cf. Chapter i]. JW: But there are still critics who keep telling you that the Pharaohs had sculptures and that the idea of art is originally Egyptian. Yes, we had sculpture, but we didn't have canvas painting. . . . They can't comprehend that the ancient Egyptian work of art was not in fact art but part of a civilization.... So there weren't artists during that time. There were skilled people who were used by the ancient Egyptian priests [to create objects] to serve the [ancient] Egyptian faith.% Here we see a debate over the definition of "art" that is shaped by the colonial encounter. Whereas the asala-identified artists most often drew on the broad definition of "art" typical of general art history, artists such as this one more frequently defined art as "modern art" that starts in the late i8oos in Europe. These were different reckonings with the power of various canons. Asala artists' broader definition of art enabled them to resist the Western canon by constructing their own parallel canon. Meanwhile, their opponents' narrower definition of art allowed them to resist the exclusivity of the West- ern canon by arguing for inclusion on their own terms. Mu'asimonented artists questioned the exclusive nationalist ownership that asala artists wantedto claim for artistic heritage, often by turning the tables on colonial pillory of ancient Egyptian objects and using the discourse of "rights." Artists frequently said that it was their "right" (haqq) to use forms, media, or other elements from the West, just as Picasso and Miro used African or Pharaonic forms. For example, a ceramist of the younger generation, Diya' Dawud, told me that when people asked him how he could look "abroad" when he had a "7,000 year old civilization" right in front of him, he countered that it was his "right" to do so. Referring to the West, his friend at the table added poignantly, "If you have a nice piece of cake in front of you, will you eat it or just look at it? We're hungry, so you can't tell us not to eat it!"-19 Dawud's own work was rooted in a long history of ceramic production in Egypt. Like the work of 'Aliya' al-Giridi, Mustafa al-Razzaz and Shadi al-Nushuqati, it was concerned with ideas of birth, death, and transformation (primarily through the use of forms breaking through eggshells and crossing over to the other side of the wall). Also like their work, his took advantage of forms of installation devel­oped in Europe (fig. 2.4).
This demand for inclusion in the give-and-take of world heritages did not preclude muasira ruminations on their own Egyptian identity. It was part of it. As Muhsin 'Atiyya, an art historian and professor at the Cairo College of Art Education, writes, "any artistic antiquity that was produced under the.
patronage of Egyptian culture will become a part of human heritage. In fact many of these antiquities have already become part of the heritage of the whole world—just as the authenticity of heritage in Egyptian art was always to be found in its openness [infitah] to all tastes and in its ability to satisfy the col­lective desire of different peoples" ('Atiyya 1998:64).40 Many arts interlocutors used a version of this argument, made famous by the geographer and Egyptian personality theorist Jamal Hamdan, to prove that an authentic Egypt was one that was historically open to all cultures. Hamdan (1970) argues that Egypt's geographical position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, on the Mediter­ranean and Red Seas, and its connection to sub-Saharan Africa through the Nile Valley, have made it a unique and fertile ground for the mixing of popu­lations. In this view, the "Egyptian character" was built upon this mixing, which brought about an absorption and Egyptianization of other cultures in a "welcome acceptance"—as a writer at the Cairo Atelier once told me.4'
MyWrfl-oriented people applied this logic to the increasing influx of West­ern ideas and products since Sadat's economic reforms, and especially to the processes that had recently been glossed as "globalization" ('awlama). Not only did they see no reason to oppose Western trends in art, but they thought that to do so would actually be culturally inauthentic, given Egypt's geographical loca­tion, its colonial art history, and the Egyptian character. They considered it dis­honest to deny what they saw as already a part of Egyptian society. For example, the art critic Salim asks whether identity is to be found solely in "a peasant woman carrying a bundle of wheat along an agricultural ditch ... or Pharaonic symbols ... or Islamic aesthetics" (1999:50). He criticizes the use of such ele­ments as implying that asala can only be found in the past (1999) or in scenes of poor people's lives (1998). Really authentic Egypt was about history and all the people in the country. But it was also about technology, consumer goods, pol­lution, and other things that characterized the contemporary era. Indeed, these artists believed that they were more asil than others, because, they said, they were not actively filtering out influences that were already there. Furthermore, they said that they did not have to "prove" their Egyptianness, because the mere fact of their being Egyptian would make the work culturally authentic.
These artists extended the metaphor of Egyptian geographic digestion of other cultures to themselves as Egyptians. In Hamdan's theory, Egypt digests foreign cultures to create its unique Egyptian character. Similarly, these artists believed that they (visually, mentally, and sensorially) digest all that is around them. 'Aliya' al-Giridi talked about her "internal mill" that processed everything
she saw and experienced. Artists talked about digesting such things as art theo­ries and other ideas, local history, visual aspects of Egyptian life, their individual experiences, and contemporary art from the West. They said that these dispa­rate elements interacted inside them, and then were brought out in a unique artistic product—one that was produced from elements specific to the present moment in Egypt, but that was also an expression of the individual artist's per­ception of these elements.
Sabah Na'im, an artist of the younger generation, eloquently explained this perspective to me as we sat outside a state gallery one evening in the fall of 1999:
I cannot say that to be asila [authentic] I should paint a picture of a peasant woman holding some green plant, or paintings of ancient Egyptians. I am living a condition. I cannot start making art of 1901.
What does Egypt look like? Egypt is so open to the rest of the world. The traditional form of [artistic] expression of Egypt is a girl wearing a face veil and a robe. Well, I am not wearing that. We all wear jeans and eat at fast food restaurants. We don't all live a single identical life. . . . Globalization is not a monster that is going to force me to stick to the old and say "This is Egyptian art" That is our heritage, but not our current state.... You cannot build your future solely on your past. You have to include the present as well. [It's like] adding a few components to your VCR.
This is asala. This is what is asil 1 have to express the world I live in. I can have the old serve as a reference, but not as a basis for asala.41
Na'im's assemblages show how this perspective shaped artistic production among many m^Wm-oriented artists. In an early series of works, she rolled Arabic, French, and English-language newspapers into small balls and placed them next to each other (as shown here in fig. 2.5). She explained the work as exploring what happens when the inner self (each ball) is placed side by side with others, entering into a relationship of social or global mixing, as refer­enced by the barrage of media images and texts in different languages.
Na'inis discussion illuminates a particular understanding of the cultural component of authenticity, which, like 'Aliya' al-Giridi's words at the begin­ning of this chapter, emphasizes a particularity within a universal:
I was thinking about the issue of repetitiveness, and how from a distance we all look the same. Differences appear only at closer distances—differences in
the ways we look, our ways of thinking, and in our ways of dealing with other human beings. Inside each circle is a world that is so distinctive from the others beside it. Each circle of newspaper is a world that embodies other worlds ... I have always been looking for something that is very shared but specific to me at the same time.43
These artists still faced the problem of how to ensure that the digestive pro­cess did not compromise their artistic sincerity and honesty. Again, "aware­ness" and "understanding" were the key discursive elements. One could not absorb just anything from the environment. Artists had to pick and choose from their surroundings what to digest, and this required considerable aware­ness—of the history behind things, of what had quality, what was substantive, and what was aesthetically interesting. As mentioned earlier, this idea of criti­cal engagement with the West has a long trajectory, dating at least to the early nineteenth century, and draws on different genealogies of Islamic thought. During a passionate discussion with friends over tea, the painter Salwa Khadr echoed earlier Islamic reformers when she argued that critical engagement with the West, as opposed to refusal, was actually within the Islamic tradi­tion—either in its historical openness to influence from other cultures (es­pecially during the Abbasid period) or in its emphasis on scientific reasoning (see also Munir 1998).
These artists were less interested in constructing an unadulterated parallel history than in being "on par" with the West. Contrary to the asala camp's charge that they "run after the West" (biyigru wara al-gharb), these artists did not want to be the same as Western artists; they just did not want to be more "backward." The overwhelming perception among artists that Egypt lagged behind the West was an undeniable outcome of colonialism and moderniza­tion and was related to larger concerns among many Arab intellectuals that a so-called superficial turn to tradition promotes a kind of cultural retarda­tion.44 This perception evidences a partial acceptance of Western teleologi-cal thinking about modernity, and the impetus for many mu'asira artists to become aware of and use Western styles, media, and concepts in their work was indeed a concern about backwardness.45 They lamented what they per­ceived to be the backwardness or "reactionary" nature of asala art, which in their view threatened to propel Egyptian art in its entirety into the dark ages. Some artists expressed embarrassment at the prospect of Westerners seeing this work and thinking that it represented all of contemporary Egyptian art.
For example, one audience member at an art college conference complained that the only contemporary Egyptian art he had seen in the United States were paintings of peasants playing the wooden flute. "Then the Americans ask me about camels. The work we show abroad is embarrassing!" he cried.46 Fur­thermore, whereas asala artists almost never compared their work to Western art, their opponents continually judged their art scene in comparison with what was going on in the art centers of western Europe and the United States. In public lectures and debates, coffee shop discussions, and interviews with me, arts interlocutors repeatedly said, "We are so backward here." Often, an artist would return from a visit to the United States or a European country and tell his or her friends something like, "I saw this and that there, and I just thought, 'Look how far behind we are in Egypt.'" One older artist who worked for the state conveyed this sentiment in another way: "It is not shameful ['ayb] to say that the West is actually superior [mutafawwiq] and that Egyptians can learn from it. What matters is how."47 What mattered was how to learn and take from the West with awareness and understanding, and with sincerity and honesty. These arts interlocutors' reckoning with Western dominance in­volved a critical engagement with the West, not a refusal of it or the construc­tion of a parallel artistic canon.
In an example of this critical engagement, the critic Ahmad Fu'ad Salim turned the tables on asala accusations that he and others run after the West. In a public lecture to the artists' union, he claimed that the West had captured asala artists' minds by exporting the idea of "Egyptian identity," which he ar­gued was basically a box imprisoning Egyptian artists, forcing them to paint camels and peasants.48 Here, Salim overturns Nagib's accusation that mu'asira artists cannot maintain their identity in the face of Western influence. It is asala artists, in his view, who are deluded by Western curators and buyers seeking work that "looks Egyptian."
CONCLUSIONS
This idea of "the West" {al-gharb), a signifier for imperialism and globalization, has been a primary force in processes of artistic production and evaluation in Egyptian art throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In this chapter I have traced two of the primary reckonings with Western domi­nance, which shaped and were shaped by the concerns over individual and cultural authenticity. And I have shown how discourses of authenticity were one of the primary means through which Egyptians made art, represented.