Article. Pass me a balloon: Cairo Biennial 2003

Inserito da iopensa il Gio, 2004-01-01 12:00

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Pass me a balloon: Cairo Biennial 2003 by Iolanda Pensa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Original version (and version with mistakes) of The 9th International Cairo Biennial: pass me a balloon in “Contemporary Art from the islamic World” by universes-in-universe, n. 5, 01/2004 (article in English, German and French).A serious fifty-year-old man is walking around the Cairo International Biennial of contemporary art with a raincoat and a balloon in his hands. He dribbles past the same old pyramids, he smoothly slips on sand (spread here and there probably to evoke Oriental deserts) and puzzled he observes some images of horses hanging on the walls. Like a flag, the pink balloon – which is walking with him – carries a quotation from Anais Nin in Arabic “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Cominciamo bene.

Nine editions of the Cairo Biennial: amazing! So many editions in such difficult health conditions! The Cairo Biennial doesn’t feel very well, because it’s more interesting from a political and social point of view than from the artistic one (in particular as far as the Egyptian and Arab participation are concerned).

The best of the Biennial

Anyway, let’s start from the most interesting art works. Johanna Kandl’s balloons (Austrian pavilion) are without any doubt the best idea for this exhibition: they slide among the public, they slip into conspiracies and they lighten the atmosphere making people look ridiculous. On each balloon there is a quotation in Arabic, heavy enough to make you feel wise when you carry it and embarrassed when you can’t read it. Rashid Rana’s “This picture is not at Rest” (pavilion of Pakistan) is an image created from a reassuring and Swiss landscape poster, one of those you can buy in the street of Pakistan to decorate your living-room. The poster was digitally modified: from a distance you can enjoy the bright colours of those Alps meadows, but if you get closer you can notice some little artificial windows made of stills from TV news, traces of another contemporary world hidden amidst familiar and idyllic peace. Lisa Schiess (Swiss pavilion) explores and mixes in “Ma Bohème” music, sounds, poetry and images from Switzerland and Egypt, using videos, concerts, projections, texts and a CD; the work is interesting because it was created in Cairo, but the paradox is that the Federal Commission (the organisers of the Swiss pavilion) didn’t encourage or support it, they just decided to present it in the biennial since the artist was already in town. The American artist Paul Pfieffer in his site specific pavilion shows small and big videos in a sequence of baroque fragments, triumphs and defeats catch in the contemporary symbolic temples: sport halls and sofas, where everybody ends up sooner or later; at the bottom of the room there is the sun, ready to rise or to set, but still, like a lump in somebody’s the throat. In one of the exhibition basements, “Unstable Habitat” by Marcelo Salvioli and Federico Neder (Argentinean pavilion) looks like an authentic Biennial room, upside-down and in shambles: probably an unexpected result, but a really happy and appropriate one in this show.

How it works

I talked about “pavilions”, but probably the expression is not the clearest one. Cairo Biennial (born in 1984 and in 1986 open to participants not only from the Arab world) is structured on the Venice Biennial model: there are the national pavilions (organised by the different national representatives), guests of honour (selected by the higher committee) and special invitations (selected by the higher committee too); all those shows are presented in the three biennial exhibition buildings (Opera House, Akhnaton Gallery and Gezira Arts Centre), with some tags informing about the artists’ name, nationality and category (pavilion, guest of honour and special invitation). The consequence is that it’s very difficult to understand who has selected whom, whose is the merit and whose the fault. Probably this doesn’t bother the organisers (officially called “the higher committee”), since in any case all the artists and curators have to follow the Commissaire General Ahmed Fouad Selim manifesto (this year on mythology), since in any case every work needs to be submitted to the organisers’ judgement and can be removed at any time if it doesn’t reflect the biennial prestige or hurts religious sensitivity. The biennial regulation (on Cairo Biennial CD-ROM 2003 and source of my last words) can provide some useful hints to understand the political and social implications of this show. Article 3 reads “in accordance with the UN Charter, international law and the Arab League Charter, States that violate the sovereignty of other countries, occupy foreign territory by force, or tolerate and support violators and occupiers will not be allowed to take part in the Cairo International Biennial”. Because of this article Israel was never invited to the Biennial and from this article we may also understand why “The Biennial is an important venue for the dialogue between the U.S. and the Islamic World” – as the press communicate of the American Embassy in Cairo says (12/11/2003). The United States spend a lot of money to cut a good figure and they are the only country to actually have a pavilion, which is created by a team of technicians especially imported from the U.S: the pavilion can be outdoors (like for Judith Barry’s video projections in 2001) or indoors (like the room built inside a room for Paul Pfeiffer’s solo-show).
Another pavilion which deserves a look is the Italian one. The countries taking part in the biennial receive an official invitation from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and then they are asked to select and propose their artists. Austria for example has a commission of experts who choose a curator who will select the artist; the Fund for U.S. Artists calls some curators and institutions for proposals and then selects the American representative through its scientific committee, which takes into consideration also “the mutual understanding and respect between the U.S. and the host country” and which doesn’t allow proposals from commercial galleries, self proposals or personal links between the curators and the artists. Italy instead has Mr Carmine Siniscalco, who selects Italian artists for the Egyptian biennials and triennials, who organises exhibitions of Italian artists in Egypt and Egyptian artists in Italy, who is the director of Studio S commercial Gallery in Rome and who is the personal gallerist of the artist and Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni.

Who owns it

A documentary film presented on the official Cairo Biennial CD-ROM is a perfect mirror of this exhibition. The image shakes, totters, wobbles, rolls, but never loses touch with the real protagonists of this event: of course not the art works, but the Egyptian Minister of Culture and his eager court, among which the higher committee.
It seems that no-one has much to say on the Cairo Biennial organisation, since it has taken place for almost 20 years more or less in the same way. The Minister of Culture seems happy, the president of Egypt Mohammed Hosni Mubarak seems happy, as for the foreign art audience – even if it is not happy, who cares! – anyway it is not coming again, and the public… The public? The organisers are responsible for the communication and publicity of the event. “The Biennial is a secret” – says Moataz Nasr – “The organisers have the means to be the only voice and they tell us that we are the best. We live in a big lie”. The organisers of the Cairo Biennial are also more or less the same people who direct and sometimes participate in the exhibitions of the Egyptian pavilion at the Venice and San Paolo Biennials. The Egyptian and international artists selected for Cairo Biennial and those pavilions represent the taste, dynamics and limits of a group of people who is currently occupying the highest position in the Egyptian Cultural institutions, but in the country there is a lot more.

In Cairo there is a lot more than this

Looking at exhibitions and projects such as “Going Places” (until march 2004 and on http://www.cairobus.com/), “PhotoCairo” (Townhouse Gallery, Dec 14th, 2003 to Jan 1st, 2004), “Tabla Dubb” and “The Supreme Council” by Hassan Khan (two performances presented during “PhotoCairo”), “Two Days to Apocalypse” by Basim Magdi (a video projection organised by Aleya Hamza at the Falaki Gallery), the panel discussion on Cairo Biennial promoted by Moataz Nasr at the Cultural Centre Al Sawi (Dec 18-19, 2003) and “The Workshop 4” (a workshop on new media organised by Shady El Noshokaty for the students of the national Arts Faculty in Gezira), we easily understand that many Egyptian artists and curators are aware of the Cairo Biennial limits and faults; and they propose some alternatives. In 2001 Al Nitaq Festival (with its huge number of exhibitions) was a good demonstration of the richness and liveliness of the Cairo art scene, but this year it was not organised and was really missing. Our perception on contemporary art in Egypt does not deserve to be completely ruined by the low quality of its Biennial and at the same the contemporary artists in Egypt deserve the attention that normally biennials bring.


The International Cairo Biennial is at the Opera House in Gezira, Akhnaton Gallery and Gezira Arts Center until February 12th 2004.

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I read your article in universes in universe when it came out, thought it was very informative of what’s happening here and what the situation’s like, really liked it. The only point I disagreed on is that you wrote that as long as everyone in the government is happy then the international audience’s opinion is not of any importance. Although I have not worked with any government art institutions before but have rather been involved with private galleries and curators, I think I understand the institutional art scene’s ( that organizes the Biennale) stance! Most of the artists involved in this art scene are from the generation that produced work like what prevailed in the Biennale and still genuinly believe this is “art” and everything post that is just experimental and immature. Of course the idea is also that this is “Egyptian Art” and anything else is just “Western Art” that seeks to influence our cultural and artistic heritage and eventually leads to the loss of our cultural identity. I just think it’s much more complicated than everybody being happy, of course that matters but I don’t believe the ones in charge are just stubborn powerful officials, I like to think they believe in the aesthetic qualities of what they show at the Biennale and refuse any sort of openness because of issues related to self security among other things. The Biennale has so far detached itself from the art world because of the constant refusal of its organisers to communicate with the “other” or represent the “contemporary”.

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