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Visions of Cairo

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Photo: Christopher Sturman

Nasr was born in Alexandria in 1961. He now has a little more gray in his beard than he did when I last saw him in 1998, but retains the same thoughtful manner. We meet at his new studio downtown and then go to a popular restaurant nearby called Felfela. In the entryway there is a large mural that he and Attia sold a decade ago for $800; by contrast, Nasr says his 2002 video installation Tabla—the one Angarano so disliked—recently sold for about $50,000, a price and a medium that would both have been inconceivable 10 years ago.

The change came in 1998, after Nasr held his first solo show of paintings, at the powerful government-run Akhnaton gallery in the Zamalek neighborhood. He then made extended art trips to Paris and London, where the work he saw in video and new media left him "totally confused," he recalls. "What I liked very much was the idea of conceptual art, art that is not just something beautiful but also has this kind of influence on the audience and makes them think. Especially in a country like Egypt, you should not just create art to hang on the walls, for the elite, but do it for the common people so that maybe—maybe—it can change something in the society."

Nasr’s embryonic interest in conceptual art led him, like so many others, from painting to video. Video is by no means a new medium for art, but in Egypt video equipment became widely available (and affordable) only recently. Shady El Noshokaty, a professor at the College of Art Education and an artist who has also migrated to video, says that until a few years ago, his students had to edit in the video camera—fast-forwarding to the right spot and then copying each section to another machine—because they had no proper editing machines. Nasr and others working in video were also accused of slavishly copying the West, one of the most radioactive charges in Egypt and also, to me, one of the strangest. As the once French district of downtown suggests, everything becomes Egyptian if it is in Egypt long enough. Indeed, visiting the newly reopened Museum of Egyptian Modern Art—which represents the cultural establishment’s official narrative—it becomes clear that the story of art in Egypt for the past century has been the arrival of new ideas and trends from the West being adapted by Egyptian artists to represent local subjects and address local issues.

In any case, technique was never Nasr’s strength, even as a painter. But watching some of his video works, I realized that the new form has liberated the power of his mind from the limitations of his hand. In his split-screen video The Echo, for example, he addresses a century of political disappointment by showing a moving speech from a well-known Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine called El Ard (The Land, made in 1969 and set in the 1930’s), in which a man lectures his fellow villagers on their emasculation and berates them for failing to resist the British occupiers; juxtaposed with this scene is the same speech being recited in 2003 by a female storyteller to a group of men seated passively in a café. This powerful, arresting work made me think—about the cycles of hope and despair in Egyptian politics, about the longing for change and the powerlessness to bring it about—just the effect Nasr hoped to achieve.

Later, I saw Tabla at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as part of the traveling "Africa Remix" exhibition, and understood why Angarano had criticized it as "a typical example of what foreign curators want to see." The video showed a man playing an ornate, mother-of-pearl–inlaid hand drum (tabla); the image was like something out of a tourist brochure depicting a particularly folkloric and stereotypical Egypt. It seemed fitting that it should be part of a hodgepodge group show of contemporary African artists who appear to share nothing except a continent. But "Africa Remix" is an important show, offering a lot of exposure for Egyptian artists; it was natural for Nasr to want to be part of it. And the reality is that many foreign curators who come to Cairo to make selections for international exhibitions look for work that is ostentatiously rooted in Egypt.

That foreign curators are coming to Egypt at all is due in part to the September 11 attacks, which prompted the United States and Europe to pay closer attention to contemporary Arab life—and, almost incidentally, Arab art—than they had before. But many of these curators know more about art than they do about Egypt, and they come here to fill shows on themes they think American or European audiences will find resonant—Islam, women, and the veil being popular subjects. "It’s funny," artist Amal Kenawy says. "We receive these invitations for international exhibitions that all have the same titles: ’Scheherazade,’ or ’A Call for a Woman.’" There are important political and gender issues in Egypt—Kenawy addresses some of them in her art, as does Nasr—but few Egyptian artists want this to be the defining prism through which their pieces are viewed. But as long as foreign curators have the money, produce the big shows, and provide an avenue to the important collectors, it will be tempting to adapt to their tastes. Even the artists who try not to cater to a Western audience can find the heliotropic effect of curator approval bending their work toward certain themes.

One of the most unbending artists is Sabah Naim, who describes herself as "an ordinary Egyptian girl who listens to her mother and father." Naim suggests we meet in the garden of the Cairo Atelier, a kind of ramshackle social club located on a cul-de-sac not far from Maarouf that is frequented mostly by an older generation of artists. We sit outside on white plastic chairs, in a garden without vegetation and hemmed in by buildings.

Naim was born in 1967 and lives in a shaabi district, which Egyptians alternately call a "popular quarter" or "middle class," but which most foreigners, who aren’t as attuned to Cairo’s fine class distinctions, would mistake for poor. It is an area of narrow streets and close, concrete-framed buildings whose foundations sometimes rest uncertainly on the ground, a legacy of corners cut in construction. Yet it is a community of long standing, with the tight social bonds that make so many parts of Cairo feel smaller and more human than one would imagine possible in a city its size.

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