Egypt has long been viewed as one of the most ancient centres of civilisation, and associated with some of the earliest pieces of artwork known to mankind. From architectural wonders such as the pyramids at Giza, to mesmerising wall-scrawled hieroglyphics, this country has maintained its status as a mysterious mecca for art lovers all over the world throughout the generations.
Although ancient art is synonymous with the country, prospective visitors might be surprised to learn that its contemporary art scene is just as exciting.
In recent years, the cities of Cairo and Alexandria in particular have played host to a remarkable number of impressive and exciting art galleries. TheOpera Complexin the country’s capital is not just home to enthralling displays by orchestras – it is also the backdrop to the Egyptian Modern Art Museum. Visitors can expect to see contemporary classics by modern-day masters on a range of diverse themes. Highlights include works by Mohamed Owais and Zakana El Zieny, who focus on themes of hardship, employment and hunger throughout Egypt’s recent history, as well as Marguerite Nakhla’s invaluable contribution to the realm of female artwork.
Launched in 1998, The Townhouseis a non-profit gallery which was the first independent venue in the country. Its philanthropic aim is to support fledgling artists while simultaneously making their works accessible to a local, national and international audience. Another fairly recent addition to the gallery scene is the Picasso, which promotes works by Egyptian artists in ever more expressive and inventive ways.
Meanwhile, the Al Masar Gallery, which opened in 2008, is at the very forefront of modern Egyptian art, featuring innovative pieces from such names as Sami Aboul Azm and Kareem Al Qurity.
The recent political turmoil which saw the overthrowing of President Mubarak acted as the touch-flame to the bonfire of street art in Egypt. As a country which has been associated with scrawling messages on walls throughout the annals of time, the revival of graffiti is in keeping with Egyptian traditions. Now, whole areas of cities, such as Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, are devoted entirely to fascinating commentaries on social struggles in the country through the medium of street art.
During the height of the Mubarak protests, graffiti-artist and graphic designer Ganzeer engineered one of the most iconic and enduring images of that period with his depiction of a tank aiming its canon at a young boy bicycling home with a tray of bread atop his head. Alaa Awad has also contributed significantly to the graffiti scene, with his understated historical references to Egypt’s turbulence past and present.
Another jewel among Cairo’s myriad museums, the Karim Francis Galleryhelped to found the country’s first international arts festival Al-Nitaq. Film, music, theatre and poetry come together in this eclectic infusion of all things art-orientated on an annual basis.
Elsewhere, the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Centre (so named for the influential sculptor who died in 1934) hosts an astonishing number of cultural festivals, exhibitions and events throughout the year. The bi-annual Graffiti Festival is perhaps one of the most widely-attended functions on offer, when creative visitors can construct their own individual contribution to the Egyptian street art scene.
Fortunately for those looking to visit these artworks in person, it’s easy to get to Egypt (and if you’re hoping to, you can find two recommended travel guides, here and here). But though the contemporary art scene in Egypt has taken off in spectacular style in the last 20 years, it still faces fierce challenges on a number of levels.
Governmental censorship, foreign intervention from curators and a basic lack of funds from official sponsors mean that artists are hampered in their struggle to create. Supporting the artwork with personal donations, or even just spreading the word of the contemporary art explosion in Egypt over recent years, could help to alleviate the burdens on burgeoning artists.