apexart :: Conference Program :: Dina Ramadan

Regional Emissaries: Geographical Platforms and the Challenges of Marginalisation in Contemporary Egyptian Art
Dina Ramadan

Over the last few years, particularly post-9/11, there has been a dramatic increase in interest in the Middle East and Islamic world.(1) Naturally there have been manifestations of such interest in the realm of cultural production, and artists from the region have found themselves sought-after commodities after years of disregard on the part of the Western art world. Initially such attention was greeted with enthusiasm by artists who felt that they were finally being given the opportunity to exhibit abroad. Indeed, the last two years alone have seen more work by independent artists of Middle Eastern origin being showcased in international art capitals than ever before. However, zeal is quickly giving way to disillusionment as it becomes more and more apparent that 'curiosity' about these artists is restricted to their position as regional or cultural emissaries, with little attention being given to them as individual artists engaged in an international art scene. An overwhelming majority of the opportunities available come under the umbrella of platforms with a specific geographical or ethnic focus, to which artists must cater if they expect to be included. As I hope to illustrate, rather than challenging and overcoming the boundaries which have been constructed between East and West, such exhibitions reinforce them, perpetuating many of the preconceived ideas in circulation — as well as creating new clichés — about what it is to be Arab, African or Muslim. While my paper will focus primarily on the Egyptian case, such questions concerning issues of representation are equally applicable to the Middle East, Africa and the Third World at large. This problem is evident in the growing awareness on the part of artists, curators and critics that they play a minimal role in the way they are being represented. Consequently, we are witnessing an increase in independent initiatives — removed from both the private and government sectors — which attempt to release artists from their previously prescribed role as cultural ambassadors, allowing them to be viewed as subjects rather than objects, as practitioners involved in an international discourse which transcends national and ethnic boundaries.

Possibly one of the most visually represented countries in the world, Egypt has a long history as the object of Western depiction, dating back to the Napoleonic invasion of 1798. The immense ten-volume project Description de L'Egypte essentially signified the initial step in 'the visual mapping of the Orient',(2) which had the ultimate goal of rendering this part of the world accessible to Europe in a (visual) language it could find legible. One need only look at the lithographs of David Roberts (1839) and the photography of Lehnert and Landroch (1905–25) — reproductions of which continue to be used on innumerable book covers, postcards, and posters — to realize that a certain image of Egypt has been immortalized despite the disconnect that may exist between it and present-day reality. The result is a country, indeed a region, restricted and confined to a particular time and space, static, unevolving, constructed only to serve a Western gaze, never being allowed to exist independently of its audience.(3)

In the case of Egypt, the Pharaonic continues to fascinate, and has been deemed the country's most significant asset, overriding all other periods of its multifaceted history, to the extent that visitors often seem oblivious to the existence of a rich Greco-Roman, Coptic, Ottoman, Mameluke or European heritage. Such a limited focus has been promoted by Europe, and more recently the United States, in an attempt to de-emphasize the Arab and Islamic elements in Egyptian culture, which, considering the role it has historically played in the region, are regarded as potentially dangerous. The Biblical face of Egypt, as an extension of the Pharaonic, is also highlighted, indicative of an 'American passion for origins, historical myths by which' they explain themselves 'with reference to a past that dignifies and makes sense' of them.(4) It legitimizes a presence and interest in the region — including America's unwaning support of Israel — to its own citizens, rather than reflecting anything of the way Egyptians themselves view their country. One should briefly note that the Egyptian government itself has internalized this image and perpetuates it for many of the same reasons.(5) What is interesting here is the way in which the West has monopolized, and continues to do so, the means through which Egypt, and by extension the 'Orient,' is artistically represented. As we shall see, this continues to be the case on the contemporary art scene; by objectifying the artist, by rendering him or her silent, the Western art world is able to retain the control it has historically maintained over the way in which its 'Other' is represented, as well as the criteria through which art — and in this case contemporary art — is defined and assessed.

There is no denying that, at a surface level at least, there has been a change in the landscape of the international art scene and what it is willing or able to absorb. Post-colonial theory has no doubt played an essential role — as it has in other fields — in challenging the West's historical dominance over the concept of 'modernity.' Historically a Eurocentric construct, the post-colonial has allowed for the possibility of a multiplicity of modernities which do not necessarily entail 'a decisive break or rupture with the past,' but instead provide a space for 'an uneven negotiation between past and future that can remain unresolved.'(6) After years of being restricted to the museum space, art from across the Middle East, Africa and further afield is being recognized as a 'valid' means of contemporary artistic expression. This seeming change in attitude is evident in the numerous exhibitions which have centered on these regions in the hope of 'promoting' their creative talents and exposing audiences to artists which have for so long been silenced. One need only look at the 5oth Venice Biennale, during which the Arsenale housed both an African and an Arab platform, amongst others, in a recognition of the under-representation of the regions in past years.(7) Or look at the London exhibition calendar for the coming season, which includes the Hayward Gallery's hosting of Africa Remix,(8) which coincides with Africa 2005 at the British Museum and the refurbishment of the Africa Centre. Or, even more recently, the Arab Art Workshop at the Barbican Centre.(9) While I hope to subject a number of these exhibitions to closer scrutiny, I mention them here merely to draw attention to the fact that they are becoming significant dates on the international arts calendar, occupying major spaces and crucial periods. From such events, it would seem that Western art institutions have conceded and acknowledged the right of multiple voices to exist. I would argue, however, that despite such 'token' gestures, the international contemporary art scene is as monotone as ever.

I would like here to discuss the dynamics which exist between the non-Western artist and the international (Western) art world, before returning to examples of specific exhibitions. Central to this relationship are three binaries which have long dictated the relationship of the 'Occident' with its 'Other,' and continue to operate within the contemporary art context: the subject vs. the object, the individual vs. the collective, and the modern vs. the authentic. Essentially Eurocentric constructs, the former component of each binary is ascribed to the Western artist, while the non-Western artist is confined to the latter, a situation which continues to prevail despite the 'inclusion' of non-'First World' or 'G7' artists in exhibitions.(10) This power dynamic depends first and foremost on the persisting disconnect between art theory and the site of artistic production, with the former being formulated in the West and the latter by artists in their indigenous spaces. The imposition of alien standards and criteria ensures that the contemporary art scene will continue to be Eurocentric, and that the non-Western artist's role will forever be confined to that of an object.

The objectification of the artist is clearly indicative of the way in which he is in effect viewed as a cultural commodity. The intense focus on the artist as a person, his childhood, his relationship with his country of origin, his religion, his political leanings, all distract attention from what should be the focal point: the work itself. Despite the artist's relentless efforts to redirect interest back to his work, despite a refusal to answer personal questions which are not immediately relevant, he fails 'in his efforts to displace the critic's gaze onto his work, to specify the latter as the rightful focus of contemplation.(11) His role has already been cast; if he wishes to appear on the pages of recognized publications he must play his assigned part. His most valuable asset is not his talent but his position as an 'Arab,' 'African,' 'Muslim,' or even better, all of the above. And of course a female artist, veiled if possible, is the most preferable of all. The representation of the non-Western artist must be on their terms not his, 'the questions [are] not intended to reveal the artist as a subject, but rather to display him as object, an object of exotic fascination.'(12) And so he becomes a commodity which is packaged by the Western curators to satisfy Western taste (a process which I shall discuss shortly), stripped of his agency. While seeming to give him a voice, the Western art world is in fact sentencing him to silence, ensuring that its position of authority and authorship is in no way challenged.

Through his objectification, the artist simultaneously loses his individuality and is viewed in a collective light, what had been referred to in the African context as the 'one tribe, one style' paradigm, and which is equally applicable across the Third world.(13) By focusing on the group rather than the individual, the Western critic is able to simplify an entire region, continent or religious group neatly into one unified entity, posing no challenge to his own preconceived ideas. So comes the assumption that there is one version of Islam, that being 'Arab' is viewed through the same prism across the Middle East — itself a European construct — and that an entire continent, Africa, can be unified under one banner and thus one exhibition. This oversimplification, this underplaying of specificity and individuality, disarms the non-Western artist, the 'Other,' rendering him one anonymous face amongst millions, a role which is tolerable, safe, static and unthreatening to the status quo. While the Western artist is considered as an individual, his art approached because of its exceptionality, his non-Western counterpart is selected to 'represent' a collective. And so the non-Western artist finds himself the mouthpiece of a much larger body, burdened by the expectations of both those who have assigned him that role and those whom he is forced to speak on behalf of.

Expectations on the part of the Western curators and critics are of course crucial in the construction of a non-Western contemporary-art scene. Armed with preconceived ideas and little real expertise in the areas they approach, it is they who designate the categories of 'modernity' and 'authenticity' — two notions which have essentially been conceptualised in the 'Occident' — as they see fit. The problematic of the modern vs. the authentic, and how to reconcile the two, is one that has long plagued post-colonial imagining, and continues to do, the essential predicament being how to articulate a modernity outside of the West, how to break a monopoly over the concept which continues to prevail. And so in the Egyptian case, the artist producing today finds himself subject to an outside criterion of what it means to be an African artist, an Arab artist, an Egyptian artist. There are certain issues which are deemed important, which should preoccupy the local artist, and which are of interest to the international community. Issues of religion, gender, the repression of the state, are all 'choice of the day.' They must be addressed, and they must be addressed in an ideological manner which is appropriate. Artists who are subversive, critical, aware of the 'backwardness' of their situation and the need for change, are scouted out; the agenda is curated in the international arena.

However, the criteria is not that simple; there is a fine line which must be walked between the 'modern' and the 'authentic'. An artist can easily find himself leaning too much towards one or the other and will quickly fall out of favour. In other words it is possible to be too 'modern,' to be too influenced by the West — either with regard to issues or medium — and to thus be dubbed 'un-authentic', not Egyptian enough, and therefore not a viable representative. On the other hand, one can be too authentic or traditional, and therefore dismissed as 'folkloric,' not befitting 'our' notion of contemporary art.(14) What is required is just the right balance: an aspiration towards or utilisation of so-called contemporary mediums, while focusing on issues which have been deemed authentic and important, so that the end result is one which reaffirms to Western audiences their preconceived ideas, satisfying their desire for the exotic, in a language they understand while relieving their guilt at having so long ignored the non-Western world. The introduction of an alternative visual language, one seeped in references which demand effort on the part of the audience, is threatening to the Western art world's sense of entitlement and domination; once a code exists which has been formulated outside the 'traditional' domain, the possibility of alternative scenes, governed by non-Western authorities, exists. It is much safer to reduce the complexity of the issue to a series of simplistic binary oppositions like the ones discussed above.

There is no denying the recognition on the part of non-Western artists, critics, and curators that these binaries must be exploded, allowing the complex realities in which the work is being produced to be fully explored. One must also acknowledge that much progress has been made in thinking and rethinking the relationship between the non-Western artist and the Western art institution. And if one were to go by the written work that has been produced, by the numerous exhibition catalogues and essays alone, one could argue that these issues are well on their way to being addressed, that an alternative form of representation is being made possible. I would propose, however, that these 'alternative' platforms simply reword the already existing discourse rather than challenging it.

Numerous factors play into maintaining the status quo in a more politically correct, less offensive guise. First and foremost, curators, art critics and artists are forced to operate within the system they hope to subvert if they are to have any success. Therefore the museum, the gallery space, the exhibition, the biennale, all Western structures, which have historically encouraged geographically based division, must be adopted before they are overturned. Bamako's Les Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine, DAK'ART Biennale of Contemporary African Art (note the reference to the continent in both titles), and the Cairo International Biennale have all been created as alternatives to existing Western structures. Or, one could suggest, as imitations. This is aside from the abundance of exhibitions in which marginalization is imbedded in the very title, as with Dis-ORIENTation,(15) Contemporary Arab Representation,(16) and Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscape, in which the curatorial logic is somewhat questionable. At least with regards to many of the Egyptian participants, it is difficult to identify a tangible link between them beyond that of nationality. All too often marginalization is being imposed from within, that is to say by a 'local' curator who wittingly, or unwittingly, reaffirms what the West has for so long dictated to be important. By curating an exhibition entitled VEIL(17) or Breaking the Veil,(18) are stereotypes of Middle Eastern women really being deconstructed or are they being catered to and reaffirmed? And perhaps most importantly, who is the audience in mind? One presumes a Western one, and if this is the case, it seems crucial to question whether we wish to become trapped in a cycle of the 'Empire writing back,' constantly looking to its former colonizer for validation and acceptance.

The fact that curatorial criteria are still being dictated from the West is apparent in the way in which expertise is measured. A strong command of English or French, and knowledge of the so-called international scene are deemed much more important skills than an awareness of the social, political and economic history and present reality of the people and places which the curators are supposedly interested in representing. Unfortunately superficial visits, short but oft repeated, limited by language barriers and inadequate exposure, continue to be the norm in Egypt, rarely extending beyond Cairo and Alexandria. Interested curators and critics fail to recognize the role of local politics in shaping their visit: the rift between the government and private spheres is significant, and the makeup of one's contacts radically alters the art scene one is exposed to.

Despite the criticisms and reservations many have about taking part in the geographically or regionally specific platform, the option of opting out is not a realistic one. On occasion Egyptian artists have refused to take part in exhibitions which would have meant a reading of their work far removed from their intentions. However, on the whole, when this is the only platform on offer, when this is the only entry point to the international area, the price of rejecting it is, for most, high. As for curators and critics, while many recognize the dangers of recreating or adhering to geographical definitions which have been prescribed, they too are faced with the dilemma of internalizing the rules in order to go on and break them, or choosing not to engage with the process at all, in which case their chances of having any influence is limited.(19) When I was considering whether or not to attend this conference, I faced a similar decision. Although rather uncomfortable with the circumstances of my invitation, I chose to accept it, recognizing that it afforded me the opportunity to address the very issues which caused my discomfort, and to highlight a growing consciousness of the need for an alternative to the 'alternative' means of representation which currently exist for Egyptian artists.

As I suggested in my introduction, there has a been a slow but steady increase in the number of independent initiatives being undertaken by local artists and curators in Egypt, in recognition of the need to reclaim agency. Such projects are concerned with overcoming the stigma of regional or ethnic representation, of relieving artists of the role of cultural ambassadors, and instead with enabling them to engage in the local and international scene from the center rather than from the periphery. Workshops, exchanges, and residencies including Wasla,(21) Open Studios,(22) and In a Furnished Flat in Cairo,(23) have all focused on moving Egyptian artists into contemporary art discourse not as Egyptians, but as artists whose work, while addressing concerns pertinent to their particular locality, also transcends national and ethnic boundaries. What is ultimately at issue is the dismantling of the binaries which I discussed above, recognizing them as defunct and limiting. The potential for a challenging and critical representation of Egypt, the region, or any art scene, lies in the deconstruction of the structures which have for so long dominated and monopolized. It is only in their absence that a multiplicity of discourses will have the opportunity to exist, and that any effective representation of non-Western artists can take place.


1. It is worth noting that there was some interest in the mid-1990s, with artists like Ghada Amer and Mona Hatoum exhibiting internationally, but nothing on the scale which we see today.
2. Gilane Tawadros, 'Curating the Middle East: From Napoleon to the Present Day,' in Universes in Universe, January 2004.
3. In his essay 'Orientalism Reconsidered,' in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), Edward Said discusses the construction of 'Orient" and 'Occident' as a means of confining the 'Orient' to a particular moment, treating it as a frozen object for Western consumption.
4. In 'Egyptian Rites,' also in Reflections, op. cit., an essay which coincided with the opening of the new Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Said analyses the film The Ten Commandments (1956) as a product of such an agenda, drawing particular attention to the date of its release, two years after the Egyptian revolution and six after the creation of the state of Israel.
5. This can be seen, for example, in the neo-Pharaonic architecture of many of the recent government buildings in Egypt.
6. Gilane Tawadros, 'The Revolution Stripped Bare,' in Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes (London: inIVA, 2003).
7. The African platform Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes was curated by Gilane Tawadros, first director of inIVA, and the Arab platform Contemporary Arab Representations by Catherine David.
8. Africa Remix is 'an ambitious anthology of contemporary African art, covering the entire continent, and focusing on work made within the past decade by internationally recognised and younger artists.' Curated by Simon Njami and traveling to Museum Kunst-Palast in Düsseldorf, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the exhibition brings together 88 artists from 25 countries.
9. 'The Workshop explores new perspectives on modern and contemporary Arab art and examines their interaction with the wider contemporary scene. This timely event adds to the debate underlying recent curatorial shifts in the representation of Arab art at exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (2003), Video Brasil (2003), Documenta XI (2002) and the São Paulo Biennale (2002).
10. A term used by Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe in their introduction to Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999) to collectively describe artists from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
11. In 'Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art,' in Reading the Contemporary, op. cit., Oguibe deconstructs an interview between Thomas McEvilley and Ouattara in which the frustration the latter feels at being unable to transcend the space which has been ascribed to him by the former reveals much of 'the hierarchical location of the white critical and artistic establishment over the African artist.'
12. Ibid.
13. Sidney Kasfir, 'One Tribe, One Style? Paradigms in the Historiography of African Art,' History in Africa, no. 11, 1984.
14. In his essay 'The Modernist Experience in African Art,' in Reading the Contemporary, op. cit., Salah Hassan refers to Jean Clair, the 1995 Venice Biennale's French artistic director 's comment regarding his decision not to include African artists based on the idea that ' their" notion of art is different from 'ours'.
15. DisORIENTation Contemporary Arab art production from the Near East- Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq was curated by Jack Perskian and exhibited in the Haus der Kulteren der Welt between March and May 2003. It included exhibitions, theatre productions, films, readings and podium discussions. I would like to draw attention the decision to capitalize the word 'Orient" in the title and suggestion that such an approach reinforces the focus on geographical confinements rather than dispels them.
16. Contemporary Arab Representations, curated by Catherine David, was part of the 5oth Venice Biennale 2003. It was part of a long-term project series which began in 2001 and includes Contemporary Arab Representations: Beirut/ Lebanon and Contemporary Arab Representations: Cairo.
17. Veil was an inIVA touring exhibition initiated by curated by David A. Bailey, Zineb Sedira and Gilane Tawadros.
18. Breaking the Veil: Women Artists from the Islamic World featured the work of 51 women artists from 21 Islamic countries.
19. It is also important to consider the issue of funding; more often than not funding for these 'alternative' platforms comes from Western organisations.
20. The Wasla Contemporary Art Workshop took place from March 21–April 4, 2003 in Nuweiba, South Sinai, Egypt. The workshop is an artist-run initiative coordinated by independent curator Mai Abu ElDahab.
21. In a Furnished Flat in Cairo, curated by Hala Elkoussy, brought together 7 artists (4 Egyptians and 3 Swiss) to share a furnished flat for one month.
22. Open Studios is an annual project run by the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, Egypt. It brings together 10 international artists and 10 Egyptian artists, and provides them with a studio space for a period of 10 days.