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Power and spectacle at the Biennale

The Venice Biennale has always been a political event, at which government institutions select artworks to “represent” them through national pavilions.

The case of Egypt is no different. The new government after the 1952 revolution purchased a piece of land to house the Egyptian pavilion in the oldest and most prestigious biennale in the world. At the time, the pavilion was but one symbol of the Egyptian state’s modernization and power, both on the local and international scenes.

This vision has long been reflected in Egypt’s choice of artwork to exhibit in Venice. The works were intended to evoke an “Egyptian essence” that often encompassed symbols of its pharaonic past, Nasser’s dream of Pan Arabism and folkloric motifs.

This year, the 25 January revolution was added to the criteria of what constitutes “Egyptian art”. Hence, selecting the work of killed artist Ahmed Basiony, who has been active on the local art scene for over a decade, made perfect sense to the state’s Fine Arts Sector.

From the onset, the sector accepted artist Shady al-Noshokaty’s proposal to exhibit Basiony’s work in Venice as a tribute to the “martyred artist”, explains Magdi Mostafa, Basiony’s friend and member of the exhibition team.

The team’s decision to exhibit his last work “30 Days of Running in the Space” with documentary footage shot by Basiony during the early days of the protests was based on conceptual notions of performance and action.

“We were discussing the best way to reflect the transitional period Egypt is currently undergoing,” explains Aida Eltorie, curator of the 2011 Egyptian pavilion, adding, “Basiony was a contemporary social voice. He was a young artist working in new media who died in the square for his political beliefs.”

The Western art world is repeatedly blamed for “objectifying artists” from the region and approaching their works as if they were “cultural ambassadors”. In the case of the 2011 Venice experience, it should not take all the blame.

Despite the exhibition team’s efforts to present Basiony as a worthy artist, the state played on the easy assimilation of the exhibition to legitimize itself in revolutionary times.

In the press conference held last week at the Plastic Arts Syndicate, Ashraf Reda – Head of the Fine Arts Sector – praised the pavilion and how well the international audience received it.

“The whole world wanted to see what kind of art Egyptian youth would present; the same youth they watched incessantly on news broadcasts from Tahrir Square,” he told the audience in a celebratory tone.

State art institutions are often ideologically linked to promoting certain privileged identities, and in this case, they pushed it all the way. They spoke of honoring the martyr and printed postcards bearing Basiony’s picture at Tahrir Square for distribution at the Biennale.

The recent disputes about the removal of Basiony’s name from the cover of the pavilion’s cover might have been overblown. Yet, they allow a closer look into existing power rivalries.

The pavilion’s team of four (Aida Eltorie, Shady al-Noshokaty, Magdi Mostafa and Hossam Hodhod) was offered little support on the ground. Basic responsibilities of the Ministry of Culture should include facilitating the issuance of travel visas, as well as covering lodging expenses and per diems for the team. Yet such support was not provided.

When faced with criticism in public, the Fine Arts Sector responded with the same old tactics of moralistic critiques and foreign influence – two accusations that are very popular on both the local art scene and the political one.

Noshokaty was accused of using the legacy of the “martyred Basiony” to promote himself in the media and take money from the American University in Cairo (AUC), an institution often seen as a symbol of American imperialism in the region.

According to Noshokaty, Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi approved using technical equipment offered by the AUC. At the press conference, Hamdy Abu al-Maaty – the newly elected head of the Plastic Arts Syndicate – comforted attendees that “the sector did not take money.” It also said that “if Noshokaty took funds from the AUC, he would be investigated.”

This pattern of discrediting oppositional forces is common and is meant to validate the state’s position as the sole credible patron of Egyptian art. This was perhaps best exemplified in Abu al-Maaty’s response to one reporter’s question about the criticisms people had leveled at the sector in a number of Facebook discussions.

“I do not care about discussions on the local scene happening outside of these walls. This [the premises of the Plastic Artists’ Syndicate] is the real place for supporting Egyptian artists.”

Eltorie got her share of bashing as well, although not from the ministry. Recurring tensions within the art scene only reflect existing polarities between the state institutions and the “independents”. Eltorie was criticized for her poor Arabic and for having previously worked with the Townhouse Gallery – a private art institution that has, since its establishment in 1998, been perceived by the official establishment as a threat to “Egyptian art” and accused of involvement with foreign artistic practices and "agendas".

Amid this ongoing jockeying for power, the artistic value of Basiony’s work is overlooked. The ongoing discussions do not critically engage with it, but simply reinforce a practice of conspiracy theories and defamation used by the Mubarak regime, a practice that unfortunately continues in Egypt’s cultural scene.

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