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Writing the Canon: Notes on Art Education in Egypt

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Artist Wael Shawky with students from MASS Alexandria’s 2012 program. Courtesy MASS Alexandria

Six Degrees encompasses critical essays, in-depth research, and diverse opinions about the arts and its contexts from practitioners around the world, as well as dispatches by New Museum staff. In this essay, Omar Kholeif, curator, writer, and Senior Editor of Ibraaz.org, reflects on his involvement in MASS Alexandria in relation to the current state of arts education in Egypt.

Writing the Canon: Notes on Art Education by Omar Kholeif

There is a particular aloofness among artists working in the Middle East and North Africa toward the North American and Western European cultural brokers who seek to engage them. A natural assumption is that this is due to a postcolonial paranoia. This is no surprise, especially as the reactive politics of the post-9/11 cultural spheres (not to mention the Arab uprisings that sparked after January 2011) have undeniably sought to turn many contemporary artists’ works into instruments of a neoliberal agenda. Artists have seen their output culled into exhibitions and projects that seek to address prescriptive sociopolitical agendas, often prioritizing ethnic or political categorization over formal, conceptual, or aesthetic art historical concerns. Projects adopting these tendencies include the major exhibition “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East,” Saatchi Gallery, London, 2009; “Light from the Middle East,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2012; and the Mayor of London’s 2011 Shubbak Festival, which fetishized the post–“Arab Spring” politic with exhibitions such as “From Nassbook to Facebook: Contemporary Egyptian Artists” and events including “A Night in Tahrir” at the Barbican, to name but a few examples.

Part of the rationale behind this form of shoehorning has often resulted from the issues and tensions that arise out of language, translation, and art historical education. In Egypt, for example, the largest country within the region, the higher education system is notoriously corrupt. According to artist and educator Shady El Noshokaty (who founded the Experimental Media Arts Workshop [2000–11], first at the Faculty of Art Education at Cairo’s Helwan University), university administrators initially banned him from developing platforms within the arts department that diverged from the entrenched curriculum.1 Unlike liberal arts colleges, students were expected to be taught a set of strict artisanal approaches to art-making that could be utilized in day-to-day life—critical theory and experimentation with new technologies was, until very recently, dismissed in the Egyptian public education system.

Another case can be made, for instance, out of the Fine Art program at Alexandria University—the only graduate level Fine Art program in Egypt’s second city. A prestigious university, undergraduate Fine Art students have historically been restricted to the practice of printmaking, sculpture, and what they call “the decoration department” (recently expanding into photography education). Students of the program traditionally focus on very specific periods. Painting, for example, one student informed me recently, is restricted to a period that ends with the Renaissance. Contemporary production is rarely emphasized and critical writing, or engagement with art historical research (reading and writing), is limited.

Art historians such as Nada Shabout and Salwa Mikdadi have asserted that part of this condition has much to do with the fact that art schools in the Arab World in particular have often been considered as a space for students who either a) seek to learn a physical or manual skill, i.e., decorative arts, or b) are aristocrats often taking this as an easy-access route to an education. Over the last five years, however, contemporary arts organizations in Egypt have sought to create new forms of pedagogical experimentation. The aforementioned Noshokaty recently launched ASCII, an educational charity promoting research into artistic practice that engages with emerging technology. The Contemporary Image Collective Cairo has launched a retro photography school, the Museum as Hub partner Townhouse Gallery has continued to develop its Independent Study Program (ISP), and Artellewa, a new peripheral arts organization, has started to host public workshops. The notion of “independence” also sits right at the heart of a project by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky called MASS Alexandria. MASS Alexandria was founded (in 2010) in the artist’s former 4,750-square-foot basement studio in one of Alexandria’s farthest neighborhoods: Miami (ironic, of course, that this version of Miami [in one of the city’s more religious areas] boasts none of the decadence synonymous with the US city of the same name).

Façade of MASS Alexandria. Courtesy MASS Alexandria

Shawky developed the project as a platform led by conceptual ideas. This discursive space for artistic production consists of a shared studio and study program that is completely free for participants. Each year’s program is developed and produced by a Program Curator and Coordinator that decides how to frame the interconnected threads running through the seven months of activities. Each year, between fifteen to twenty associate artists (ranging from thirteen to thirty-three years of age in 2012) take part, with some art graduates and others still to embark on formal post-secondary education. The program consists of workshops, lectures, group crits, and a final exhibition, developed with leading artists, writers, and curators working internationally. (As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that many international figures will be aware that MASS also hosts international exchanges for a select few of its artists. For example, in 2012, a number of artists spent a period of time in Kassel, Germany, assisting artists at Documenta 13 before returning to Alexandria to host the international art community in their studio as part of a “closed seminar.”)

In 2012, I was invited to consider putting together a program for the participating artists in MASS’s program with its then-curator, Daniella Rose King. I chose to present a two-day-long series of four workshops and a lecture, which sought to ask critical questions about the manner in which artistic practice is “framed” through critical writing. Specifically, I chose to focus on the relationship between the regional context the artists were working in and the international contexts that were being exposed to the artists through the regular guest lectures and workshops.

My experience commissioning and editing writing about the so-called Middle East instinctively drew me to the notion of language and its potential for foregrounding meaning. Too much output produced in and on Egypt in particular is written by curators, writers, and historians who tend to operate without the nuances of local context. While the globalizing interconnectedness of the art world boasts numerous byproducts—it is problematized by its tendency to mediate an artist’s work, often shifting the artwork’s original agency. This, it can be argued, has much to do with the fact that most art historical language distributed across platforms such as Artforum, Frieze, Art Papers, Flash Art, and so forth, often operates from a self-referential (yes, Western) axis point.

I decided that the goal of my sessions would be to push the pen of criticism back into the artists’ hands. My inspiration for this was the writing of Dina A. Ramadan, a professor at Bard College. Her research discusses the magazine Sawt Al Fannan [The Artist’s Voice], a publication largely penned by artists in the early 1950s in Egypt, which Ramadan believes was formative in cultivating modern Egyptian taste. (I have never seen a copy of the journal myself, but have been led to believe that it significantly managed to bring new artistic forms into the Egyptian public consciousness.)

Invite to MASS Alexandria’s 2012 student exhibition. Courtesy MASS Alexandria

With this in mind, the artists who took part in the MASS program were each required to articulate their own artwork as well as that of others through a series of exercises. They began with short texts, before building up to longer lengths. It was essential that they remained constantly critical, and adopting different structures, they questioned the impetus that went into each object or idea’s development and production. The first exercise required that they write personal statements of each other’s work—read aloud in peer groups and dissected. The second involved the development of lengthy personalized artist statements, anchored by a discussion of concepts, form, and aesthetics, which were critiqued on an individual basis by the group. The third and most significant exercise was a formal assessment of a work of art that they had seen in the last three months. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, more than half of the students at the time professed to not having seen a work of art in the flesh in the three months preceding this particular exercise. Alexandria had become a city without an infrastructure, and now with the closure of the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF), it seems to me that the majority of participants in these kinds of programs are engaging with contemporary art through visual representations seen or experienced on the internet.

Although greeted with enthusiasm, the challenge proved overwhelming to some. The artists showed up with their texts—some typed, others scribbled on handkerchiefs and napkins. As opposed to a formal object-based approach to writing, most of the outputs focused on events, experiences, or even interfaces that were analyzed through the formal lenses of art criticism. Of these case studies, there included an analysis of local monuments, cars, a road sign, and even an individual.

Farida Refaat, Classroom, 2012. Mixed mediums, dimensions variable. Installation view: MASS Alexandria, Egypt. Courtesy Aziz Abaza School, Alexandria, and Daniella Rose King

The process was challenging, with most students requiring encouragement. And although the instruction was in a mixture of Arabic and English, the resulting texts had to be in English. The rationale behind this was that the art world operates at its most holistic level in English—and to avoid being instrumentalized by cultural brokers, MASS participants would be required to develop tools to contend in such an arena. These were not intended to be tools for attack or defense, but rather, a means to agree to a common language that honestly presented each artist’s work.

Walid Elsawi, A Contemporary Artist vs. a Con Artist, 2012. Painted text on thirteen light boxes. Courtesy Daniella Rose King

After two days’ worth of this activity, I was challenged: “Why should an artist have to write criticism? Shouldn’t we focus on making art?” This statement in and of itself speaks of what I believe to be a common condition among emerging artists in Egypt. On the one hand, we have very few artists, such as Shawky himself, operating on an international scale, working with international curators, writers, galleries, and so forth. Yet the reality for most is that at home in Egypt, there is a lack of infrastructure—few meaningful critics writing in either Arabic or English, and a poor art historical base that does not account for its own references. While there are, of course, exceptions to the norm, and examples that contend with such, the reality is that international cultural brokering is one of the predominant “spaces” or instances where Egyptian artists gain the full experience of working with a curator, commercial gallery, museum, and most importantly, critic, historian, or writer. Indeed, it is the critical writing, or the words that are written about an artist’s work that make it most meaningful.

Reading Group: Collective rewriting of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, with curator Sarah Rifky, 2010. Courtesy MASS Alexandria

Subsequent to the workshop, I was promised that I would see new editions of drafted texts, but I was disappointingly made aware that so many of the students disposed of their written drafts as soon as the workshop series was completed. One cannot assume that a series of short interventions has the potential to alter the seriousness with which one produces writing. Still, writing about art has to be forefronted and emphasized with serious graft in this particular context—what with so much visual culture produced in Egypt today being left vulnerable to exploitation and misappropriation. Indeed, until the practice of criticism is taught within the local academies and we start to see a proliferation of responsible individuals producing art criticism, the onus will sit with artists—who must take some responsibility for how their work is presented and articulated.


1 Interview with Shady El Noshokaty, Ibraaz Platform #004, October 11, 2012.

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