Contemporary art in Egypt is a term used to refer to visual art, including installations, videos, paintings, or sculptures, developed in the Egyptian art scene. While the contemporary art scene is mainly concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria, it is developing fast with the emergence of spaces for artists, and support from the public or from abroad. Many Egyptian artists use the Egyptian contemporary art scene as a ramp toward the international art scenes.
While Egyptian contemporary art has always centered around national political and social aspects, there has clearly been some phases that accentuated other aspects present in Egyptian artists' work.
This era was the establishing stage of the contemporary art in Egypt. Most of the intellectual in the first part of the 20th century were going to foreign school, whether located in Egypt or abroad (mostly Europe), and pioneers were routed in a European tradition. While it emerged late, mainly because of the Islamic ban on pictorial art, Egyptian contemporary art strongly focused on the national aspect. Through history, traditions and national culture, contemporary artists were emerging mainly in Cairo and in Alexandria.
It is during those decades that Egyptian modern art, institutionalized by the creation of the Prince Youssef Kamel Art School in 1908, began to shift toward a more contemporary composant, giving birth to Egyptian contemporary art.
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This period is characterized by several events. First, the creation of Israel in 1948, followed by the war, has marked the spirits of Egyptians artists. Nasser's accession to the presidency also played a role in the transformation of the contemporary art scene in Egypt.
The first consequence is the dissociation from the West for many Egyptian artists. This is caused by the support from the West during the creation of the state of Israel. The contemporary art hence took its influence from the rising Palestinian cause.
The presidency of Nasser also had a strong impact. In addition to more and more engaged art, contemporary artists started to express through their work the panarabism Nasser was trying to implement. The main theme of this era was the Arab unity, not only after the Palestinian cause, but also by the expansion of contemporary art through the Arab world. The aspects of contemporary art at this period have shifted from Western influence to common Arab culture.
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Anwar Sadat accessed the presidency in 1970, and in order to counteract the nasserists left wing, allowed the coming back of Islamism. At the same period, contemporary art has seen the emergence of Islamic aspects in the works, sometimes even stronger than social and political aspects, through the introduction of calligraphy, or through works depicting Islamic historic events.
The regional aspect was also stronger, where regional Arab culture was a source of inspiration for artists. The emergence of Islamic aspects also played a role in reinforcing the pan-arabism feeling.
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In 1998, the Townhouse Gallery was launched. This marks the beginning of a new era in Egyptian contemporary Art toward the will to democratize the art to any audience. New mediums of art emerging, such as video or installations, and the number of open and free art spaces is rising mainly in Cairo and Alexandria.
However, this development of the Egyptian contemporary art is still facing censorship from the government, the lack of funding from official sources, and the influence of foreign curators on the work exposed.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution and the fall of former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, ushered a new era of arts that reflects new social and political environment. "The revolution triggered a new public culture" From the beginning of the revolution, artists played a significant role in the protests. Likewise, many genres of arts emerged such as street art, music and what so called 'electro sha'bi' or 'Techno sha'bi'. Artists used arts to document and capture the essence of the revolution. They also distribute their arts through on- line and social networks. Graffiti and political song are among the most powerful tools in the new public culture.
Graffiti comes from the Greek word "Graphien", which means "to write". Graffiti today has been defined as "the act of inscribing or drawing on walls for the purpose of communicating a message to the general public". In Egypt, graffiti is dating back to the Pharonic period when the Egyptians used to document their daily life on the temple walls. In modern-day Egypt, and during Mubarak era, graffiti was illegal and classified as a "misdemeanor".
Before 2011 revolution, graffiti served as a channel to promote the reclamation of public space, via positive cultural and social exchange. The graffiti were mostly featuring religious, advertisements or romantic declarations, even though a couple of urban artists were already active. The birth of "revolutionary graffiti" in Egypt took place during the first days of the revolution when Egyptians protesters convey uncensored political messages against Mubarak's regime. Since the toppling of Mubarak, graffiti has become an alternative media channel, documenting different political events that taking place in the country and paying homage to activists who died. Some streets inside and outside Cairo turned into graffiti hubs such as Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo and Al Gomhuria in Assiut.
Meanwhile, graffiti reflects the controversial political debate in Egypt post revolution and during Muslim Brotherhood ruling era. On one hand, the streets around Tahrir square have become a graffiti gallery of opposing the current regime of Mohamed Morsi who is accused of failing to reform post-revolution Egypt while consolidating power in the hands of his Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, in some districts inside Cairo and Assiut, only pro- Morsi graffiti exist in streets' walls.
Egyptian graffiti artists are also raising awareness on socio-political subjects as diverse as corruption, poverty, media brainwashing or sexual harassment. Moreover, they use graffiti as a tool to beautify slum areas in Cairo, restoring a sense of ownership, pride and hope to its residents.
Contemporary Egyptian graffiti are complex cultural products of an urban self-aware society that finds itself at a crossroad. The revolution, as Ursula Lindsey points out "has accelerated the valorization of Egypt's burgeoning youth culture and its "underground" and "independent" artists". These artists are committed to freely expressing themselves, engaging in a civic dialog with the society, re-appropriating in this way a public space from which the previous authoritarian regime deprived the Egyptians. The large corpus of graffiti available shows a high incidence of national and gender related imagery highlighting the political and social themes that engage different sides of the Egyptian society. Through graffiti and its predominant imagery we can catch a glimpse of how the Egyptians reconstruct national symbols and how events of the revolution are memorialized not only preventing them from oblivion but transforming them into symbols of national identity. As Susan Philips indicates "if graffiti is a window into a culture (...) then it is the same window that people use to look in on themselves as they actively construct the guidelines and concerns of their lives". What Cairene graffiti show us is that the Egyptian (post-) revolutionary society valorizes its recent and remote past and cultural heritage to which its identity is tributary. Nonetheless, as witnesses of important social and political change, the walls of Cairo contribute to transforming the actors of the revolution into symbols of cohesion and mobilization while keeping their memory alive and promoting the social and political causes they stand for.
The purpose of political songs is to move and unify the crowds in a state that 'Durkheim has called "collective effervescence". Egyptian political song is always playing a crucial role at provoking the public to be politically active. For example, the song Patriotic Port Said by El Tanbura refers to the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel, France and the United Kingdom invaded Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. El Tanbura is a collective of musicians from the city of Port Said on the Suez Canal, formed by Zakariyya Ahmad in 1978. They also performed other nationalist songs in various political and time phases.
It is impossible to discuss Egyptian political songs after the 25th of January Revolution without recalling the role played by pioneer musician Sheikh Imam in politics in the 1970s and 1980s. "Sheikh Imam is a major pillar of the Arabic political song which motivated thousands of workers and intellectuals rebellious against decadent times and ambitious for better tomorrow." When Sheikh Imam met the poet Ahmed Fouad Negm in 1962, the two formed an influential duo and developed the popular political song. The 1967 War brought the duo to reflect the impact of f Arab defeat in their revolutionary songs Misr Ya Bahia [Pretty Egypt], Shayid Kussurak [Build Your Palaces], Ghifara [Che Ghivara], El Fallahin [the Peasants] and Mur El Kalam [Bitter Talk] "The music of Sheikh Imam was marked by a form of totality that made his political song travel beyond the geographical location of its origin." Many other popular Egyptian singers contribute in political song such as Um Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Abdel Wahab who composed "Al watan Al Akbar" The Greatest Homeland in 1960 and it was produced to celebrate the union of Egypt & Syria into the United Arab Republic.
In 2011, Egypt witnesses a new and distinguished wave of political songs, in which unknown young singers and underground bands played a significant role to keep the protesters' spirit high during 18 days revolution. Singers such as Ramy Esam, Amir Eid and Hani Adel, Rami Donjewan and other bands like Eskenderella used to rock Tahrir square with their political lyrics and influential music. These singers continue to tackle Egyptian social and political issues in their songs.
Another important and emergent genre of contemporary Egyptian music is Mahragan (مهرجان) ("festival") or Mahraganat (مهرجانات) (pl. "festivals"), which originated in working-class neighborhoods and in particular from the 'ashwa'iyyat (shanty towns) on the peripheries of Cairo and Alexandria. This genre, which started to appear on YouTube in 2007, has gained immense popularity among the youngest generations of Egyptians. Additionally, in the last several years the genre has gained international traction through numerous international tours and various collaborations with European Electronic artists. The music has also been called techno-sha'bi or electro-sha'bi, which refers to the older genre of sha'bi (شعبي) ("folk") music. However, many Mahragan artists have resisted this designation, as they see their music as something completely new. Some artists, such as Okka and Ortega, have argued that Mahragan is more closely aligned with American Rap/Hip-Hop than with other Egyptian musical forms. Mahragan, usually recorded in makeshift home studios and traded via YouTube and USB sticks, is a mix of either sung (often with auto-tune) or rapped vocals over sampled beats that provide a heavy, energetic, and fast-paced musical soundtrack. Some of the most popular mahragan performers are Figo, Sadat, Alaa' Fifty Cent, DJ Amr Haha (often stylized as 7a7a), Islam Fanta, Weza, Okka and Ortega.
Artists took their inspiration in Egyptian pharaonic heritage, which is omnipresent in Egypt, through paintings, architecture or sculptures. The main occurring symbol is the pyramid, repeatedly used by artists, as a way of expressing the Egyptian national identity.
Mostafa Abdel Moity's work, the Pyramid motif is strongly present in most of his sculptures. He often represents the three Great Pyramids of Gizeh. This is a way a reaffirming the strong influence of Egyptian ancient history.
The Nile is also a very recurring aspect of Egyptian culture and beliefs, a sign of fertility, but also in Egyptian contemporary art. Mythological stories from Ancient Egypt often use the Nile as the center of the story, and so do Egyptian contemporary artists.
The religious aspect is also repeatedly used in Egyptian contemporary Art either through the form of calligraphy or the description of Islamic events . Classical calligraphy is a source of inspiration for a lot of artworks, and its evolution through the centuries has made it a rich theme in Egyptian contemporary art. In works by Taha Hussein, the aesthetic aspect of the calligraphy is studied by the artist, mostly superposition of letters written in unreadable calligraphy.
Women are also a frequent theme in Egyptian contemporary art. Inji Efflatoun, in her paintings often depicts women in different positions. This represent the burden Egyptian women are carrying since their birth because of their gender. Injy Efflatoun was well known to be a feminist, fighting for women rights through her work. Gazbia Sirry is another beloved Egyptian artist whose depictions of women made her one of the most pivotal activists for women's rights in the region.
The number of commercial galleries is constantly rising. Here are a few examples :
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