9th Cairo International Biennale, Dec. 13, 2003-Feb. 13, 2004, Palace of Art, Centre of Art-Zamalek, Gezira Art Center, Cairo
PhotoCairo 2003, Dec. 18, 2003-Jan. 10, 2005, at the Townhouse Gallery, 10 Nabrawy Street (off Champollion Street), Cairo
In the city of the thousand minarets, the Cairo biennial creaked open its musty doors on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003. At the opening, Egyptian government officials ambled through the installation of works by 220 artists sent by 56 governments (notably, the Arab world, former Soviet bloc states and Western Europe). The overall quality was something like a sidewalk crafts fair -- nearly everything was alarmingly provincial, academic or derivative. In the days following the opening, attendance dropped off substantially.
Yet this biennale, however flawed, provides a place for a sorely needed dialogue, especially now when violent misunderstandings tear apart troubled cultures.
As it happens, to taste the kind of international fare such a festival should be offering, you have to detour downtown to a noisy, bazaarlike alley. There is found the Townhouse Gallery, the home site of "PhotoCairo 2003," a show of installations by eight young Egyptians distributed among several buildings, including a former paper factory and a seedy Internet cafe.
During the last biennial, Townhouse's enterprising founder, William Wells, spearheaded a fringe festival titled Al Nitaq. The show so threatened the city's establishment that the 17-year Cairo resident was attacked in the press, where he was accused of being funded by nefarious sources to plant subversive ideas poisoning the "purity" of Egyptian identity. This year, Wells is lying relatively low.
He made his point when he grabbed this reporter's arm, staring with very blue eyes, and exclaimed, "I'm not trying to be political in any way."
But the actual festival, the 9th Cairo International Biennale, the Arab world's largest international art fair, could use a little subversion. Words can barely describe the astonishing mishmash of old-fashioned styles -- "modern" sculptures a la 1950, the kind of paintings with lively colors you'd see in your dentist's office and message-heavy examples of installation art, many of them featuring floors of sand or dirt.
One example is the prize-winning (it was dubbed one of the best five works) Inside the Bar Code by Gamal Meleka, a protg of the biennial's commissioner. Inside a white building whose exterior is painted as a bar code is a dark room where an occasional simple digit flashes, accompanied by a bleating beep.
Another example is the jury-panel prize-winner, The Look: The Myth of Consumption Society by the Italian artist Elizabetta Catano, a group of metal wall reliefs shaped like geometrically stylized shirts with design-y configurations of nails jutting out.
My favorite bad piece, though not a prize-winner, was Nathan Doss' Cosmic Vagina, a depressing vestibule of menacing-looking pods and dripping stalactites, made of brown ceramic but resembling rusty metal. The uterus as torture chamber. The installation also included a poem.
And then there was the performance piece, a woman artist with "God Bless America" spelled out in sequins on her burkha, who was singing Britney Spears'. . . no, no, stop me here!
Denizens of Cairo's alternative scene insist the biennial in no way represents contemporary Egyptian art. "You have to understand that in Arabic culture, there is a kind of official art," fumes the artist and critic Ashraf Ibrahin, who was more than a little angry that visiting U.S. critics arrived clueless about the nuances of the local art world, including the well known inadequacies of the official fest.
"I'm also a civil servant," he adds, "and haven't been paid. Do you realize how outrageous it is to see 360,000 Egyptian pounds going for prize money?"
The U.S. State Department is apparently unaware of the event's inadequacies, for it takes this festival extremely seriously. After the Venice Biennale, Cairo represents the most significant direct investment of art-event money it makes.
Around $100,000 (funds raised in conjunction with the NEA and private foundations) was spent showcasing this year's representative, Paul Pfeiffer. A meditative two-room installation of looped, digitally manipulated video clips was arranged by commissioners Holly Block from Art in General in New York and M.I.T. curator Jane Farver.
Many of Pfeiffer's enigmatic, looped video clips of found footage -- exploring fame and race -- feature sports stars, like boxer Muhammed Ali and New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson. Presumably, someone thought that these works would appeal to the young, male demographic here, where more than 50 percent of the population is under age 25.
However, the well-funded effort to ensure Pfeiffer's high-tech installation went smoothly -- in a city where a taxi ride is 90 cents -- inadvertently suggested a bit of the Ugly American complex. First, a technical team assembled a white-box room to cover the gallery's stucco walls, and then Pfeiffer's own technician installed his four LCD micromonitors displaying teeny images, one on each wall, and an overhead projector that produced a wall-sized image of sunrise and sunset, but with the blazing sun staying in place, only the horizon line moving.
"At first, people were baffled," Pfeiffer remarked, of viewer reactions in a festival that few of the more cosmopolitan artists visit, and where video art was only allowed in for the first time two years ago. (In this conservative Islamic society, one can only wonder about the reaction to Pfeiffer's Risky Business clip of Tom Cruise in his underwear, repeatedly humping a couch.)
Of course, political tensions lurk beneath everything. Egyptians themselves are polite and non-confrontational, but in a few situations, this critic heard frustrations vented openly, and a mind-boggling cultural divide yawned. At a biennial symposium, for instance, a middle-aged artist in the audience began with a discussion of Plato's Cave and suddenly switched to fuming that globalism was an American plot and that violence had been invented by the West.
Global politics could be found in the works in the biennial, too. A rough-hewn wood case by Argentinian artist Ricardo Eduardo Longhini hangs open on the wall displaying a row of pods of crushed olive trees and seeds, an image designed to evoke, according to the artist, Palestinian trees rooted out by the Israeli army and sheep bones to portray the slaughter of innocents. (According to cairolive.com, the plan to have an American on the biennial's jury panel was scuttled in 2002 to show displeasure with U.S. support of Israel.)
In Pakistani Rashid Rana's jury-prize-winning color Xerox, This Picture Is Not At Rest, TV news images of battle scenes are collaged into a tranquil mountain valley vista somewhere resembling Switzerland to make it seem as if tiny soldiers are fancifully raiding bourgeois residences -- the only work besides Pfeiffer's, which also garnered a jury award, that actually seemed worthy of winning something.
The Opera House complex, in which the main Palace of Art venue is located, is set in the leafy, green Gezira district, which is illuminated at night and evokes the Tales of the Arabian Nights. But there's nothing romantic about the biennial's mediocrity, which, according to observers, results from the fact that for many years it has been in the grip of Commissaire-General Ahmed Fouad Selim. With wavy grey hair, sporting an artiste-like kerchief, he himself is an artist (and winner of the Third Biennale's premiere Grand Nile prize). He and other organizers form an interlocking network of art academics and gallerists who, while suspicious of the West, are invested in an "Egyptian" idea of art stemming from such Arabic influences as Picasso and Max Ernst.
Luckily, other voices are beginning to emerge in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates Sharjah Bienniale scored a surprise success this spring when one of the local shiek's daughters, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, a 23-year-old London art student, co-organized a surprisingly cosmopolitan biennial in conjunction with one of her instructors at Goldsmith's College.