PhotoCairo 2003, Dec. 18, 2003-Jan. 10, 2005, at the
Townhouse Gallery, 10 Nabrawy Street (off Champollion Street),
the city of the thousand minarets, the Cairo biennial creaked
open its musty doors on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003. At the
opening, Egyptian government officials ambled through the
installation of works by 220 artists sent by 56 governments
(notably, the Arab world, former Soviet bloc states and
Western Europe). The overall quality was something like a
sidewalk crafts fair -- nearly everything was alarmingly
provincial, academic or derivative. In the days following the
opening, attendance dropped off substantially.
Yet this biennale, however flawed, provides a place for a
sorely needed dialogue, especially now when violent
misunderstandings tear apart troubled cultures.
As it happens, to taste the kind of international fare such
a festival should be offering, you have to detour downtown to
a noisy, bazaar-like alley. There is found the
Townhouse Gallery, the home site of "PhotoCairo 2003," a
show of installations by eight young Egyptians distributed
among several buildings, including a former paper factory and
a seedy Internet cafe.
During the last biennial, Townhouse's enterprising founder,
William Wells, spearheaded a fringe festival titled Al Nitaq.
The show so threatened the city's establishment that the
17-year Cairo resident was attacked in the press, where he was
accused of being funded by nefarious sources to plant
subversive ideas poisoning the "purity" of Egyptian identity.
This year, Wells is lying relatively low.
He made his point when he grabbed this reporter's arm,
staring with very blue eyes, and exclaimed, "I'm not trying to
be political in any way."
But the actual festival, the 9th Cairo International
Biennale, the Arab world's largest international art fair,
could use a little subversion. Words can barely describe the
astonishing mishmash of old-fashioned styles -- "modern"
sculptures a la 1950, the kind of paintings with lively colors
you'd see in your dentist's office and message-heavy examples
of installation art, many of them featuring floors of sand or
One example is the prize-winning (it was dubbed one of the
best five works) Inside the Bar Code by Gamal Meleka, a
protégé of the biennial's commissioner. Inside a white
building whose exterior is painted as a bar code is a dark
room where an occasional simple digit flashes, accompanied by
a bleating beep.
Another example is the jury-panel prize-winner, The
Look: The Myth of Consumption Society by the Italian
artist Elizabetta Catano, a group of metal wall reliefs shaped
like geometrically stylized shirts with design-y
configurations of nails jutting out.
My favorite bad piece, though not a prize-winner, was
Nathan Doss' Cosmic Vagina, a depressing vestibule of
menacing-looking pods and dripping stalactites, made of brown
ceramic but resembling rusty metal. The uterus as torture
chamber. The installation also included a poem.
And then there was the performance piece, a woman artist
with "God Bless America" spelled out in sequins on her burkha,
who was singing Britney Spears'. . . no, no, stop me here!
Denizens of Cairo's alternative scene insist the biennial
in no way represents contemporary Egyptian art. "You have to
understand that in Arabic culture, there is a kind of official
art," fumes the artist and critic Ashraf Ibrahin, who was more
than a little angry that visiting U.S. critics arrived
clueless about the nuances of the local art world, including
the well known inadequacies of the official fest.
"I'm also a civil servant," he adds, "and haven't been
paid. Do you realize how outrageous it is to see 360,000
Egyptian pounds going for prize money?"
The U.S. State Department is apparently unaware of the
event's inadequacies, for it takes this festival extremely
seriously. After the Venice Biennale, Cairo represents the
most significant direct investment of art-event money it
Around $100,000 (funds raised in conjunction with the NEA
and private foundations) was spent showcasing this year's
representative, Paul Pfeiffer. A meditative two-room
installation of looped, digitally manipulated video clips was
arranged by "commissioners" Holly Block from Art in General in
New York and M.I.T. curator Jane Farver. "I was horrified,"
said Farver, when she saw the amateurish context in which this
representative of the international avant-garde was going to
Many of Pfeiffer's enigmatic, looped video clips of found
footage -- exploring fame and race -- feature sports stars,
like boxer Muhammed Ali and New York Knicks forward Larry
Johnson. Presumably, someone thought that these works would
appeal to the young, male demographic here, where more than 50
percent of the population is under age 25.
However, the well-funded effort to ensure Pfeiffer's
high-tech installation went smoothly -- in a city where a taxi
ride is 90 cents -- inadvertently suggested a bit of the Ugly
American complex. First, a technical team was imported to
assemble a white-box room to cover the gallery's stucco walls,
and then Pfeiffer's own technician installed his four LCD
micro monitors displaying teeny images, one on each wall, and
an overhead projector that produced a wall-sized image of
sunrise and sunset, but with the blazing sun staying in place,
only the horizon line moving.
"At first, people were baffled," Pfeiffer remarked, of
viewer reactions in a festival that few of the more
cosmopolitan artists visit, and where video art was only
allowed in for the first time two years ago. (In this
conservative Islamic society, one can only wonder about the
reaction to Pfeiffer's Risky Business clip of Tom
Cruise in his underwear, repeatedly humping a couch.)
Of course, political tensions lurk beneath everything.
Egyptians themselves are polite and non-confrontational, but
in a few situations, this critic heard frustrations vented
openly, and a mind-boggling cultural divide yawned. At a
biennial symposium, for instance, a middle-aged artist in the
audience began with a discussion of Plato's Cave and suddenly
switched to fuming that globalism was an American plot and
that violence had been invented by the West.
Global politics could be found in the works in the
biennial, too. A rough-hewn wood case by Argentinean artist
Ricardo Eduardo Longhini hangs open on the wall displaying a
row of pods of crushed olive trees and seeds, an image
designed to evoke, according to the artist, Palestinian trees
rooted out by the Israeli army and sheep bones to portray the
slaughter of innocents. (According to cairolive.com,
the plan to have an American on the biennial's jury panel was
scuttled in 2002 to show displeasure with U.S. support of
In Pakistani Rashid Rana's jury-prize-winning color Xerox,
This Picture Is Not At Rest, TV news images of battle
scenes are collaged into a tranquil mountain valley vista
somewhere resembling Switzerland to make it seem as if tiny
soldiers are fancifully raiding bourgeois residences -- the
only work besides Pfeiffer's, which also garnered a jury
award, that actually seemed worthy of winning something.
The Opera House complex, in which the main Palace of Art
venue is located, is set in the leafy, green Gezira district,
which is illuminated at night and evokes the Tales of the
Arabian Nights. But there's nothing romantic about the
biennial's mediocrity, which, according to observers, results
from the fact that for many years it has been in the grip of
Commissar-General Ahmed Fouad Selim. With wavy grey hair,
sporting an artiste-like kerchief, he himself is an artist
(and winner of the Third Biennale's premiere Grand Nile
prize). He and other organizers form an interlocking network
of art academics and galleries who, while suspicious of the
West, are invested in an "Egyptian" idea of art stemming from
such Arabic influences as Picasso and Max Ernst.
Luckily, other voices are beginning to emerge in the Middle
East. The United Arab Emirates Sharjah Bienniale scored a
surprise success this spring when one of the local shiek's
daughters, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, a 23-year-old London art
student, co-organized a surprisingly cosmopolitan biennial in
conjunction with one of her instructors at Goldsmith's