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Visions of Cairo

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Photo: Christopher Sturman

This is the life that Naim records in her photographs, painting on them to add or subtract elements and emphasize people or places or expressions. They show a side of Cairo that is neither wealthy and modern nor impoverished and traditional, but, rather, something in between: just people making their way in the city, lost in their own thoughts. Naim also makes collages, from folded newspapers or magazines, which she often arranges in abstract patterns reminiscent of water currents. In "Africa Remix," she had a 15-panel piece called Cairo Noises that combined photographs and collage on canvas; in a show that spanned a continent, her work was the most engaging.

Naim speaks very little English and she wears the head scarf called a hijab, two facts that roughly balance each other in terms of her appeal to foreign curators. The new emphasis in Egypt on the conceptual component of art places a premium on the ability to talk about the ideas that drive the concept, and with foreign curators and writers it helps to be able to do it in English or French. I met with a number of artists who feel part of a lost generation—primarily because they speak only Arabic and so can’t communicate directly with most curators and critics from outside. Naim shows widely—"I’m rich," she tells me, completely without affectation, when I ask how her art is selling—and somehow manages to engage the international art community on her own terms, at least as far as language is concerned. With the head scarf, it’s harder. "I totally refuse to be exhibited as a veiled Muslim woman," she says. "I am not a feminist. I am an artist from Egypt, like any other man or woman who is an artist from Africa or Europe."

In most parts of the world, "issues of representation" are the type of thing academics debate in esoteric journals, but in Egypt almost everyone has a strongly held opinion on the subject. I will often be politely stopped from taking a photograph by a passerby and given a lecture—usually a very long, detailed, and by turns insightful and paranoid lecture—on how I am taking this photograph out of context and can use it to misrepresent Egypt or Egyptians. European travelers have been taking photographs of Egypt almost from the day the camera was invented, and that long history has left many Egyptians feeling powerless to control the way their country is perceived by the world. I understand their frustration: the Egypt I read about in American newspapers or hear debated on talk shows seems almost unrelated to the country I lived in for three years. It must be a strange and difficult thing to create art in a culture that foreigners are convinced has "gone wrong," as the scholar Bernard Lewis put it in the title of his best seller about Islam. But for Egyptian artists, the need to work within the context foreigners delineate for them may just be an awkward intermediate stage in a longer process.

At least I hope it is, and what gives me hope is that I have seen this cycle play out once before. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 1990’s, before moving to Cairo, and watched as the world discovered mainland Chinese art—in particular, the pop art of the post-Tiananmen Square generation. This work, too, was first regarded as an improbable novelty; later, it came to be seen as an act of political defiance in the face of dictatorship, even when it dealt with apolitical subjects. At that time, though, the West’s interest in China itself was primarily political, so that became the lens through which many Western curators, collectors, and critics saw Chinese art. But that has now faded: Chinese artists have established themselves on the international art scene and are now judged on their work rather than on their nationality.

Egyptian artists today are probably somewhere between the novelty and political stages, which is why so many feel boxed in by expectations and misrepresented. Egypt will always be known first for its antiquity: 5,000 years of history cast an inescapably long shadow. But while the dynasty that built the pyramids has long since died out, and the medieval bazaar now has more tourists than merchants, the contemporary art scene has never been more alive. As Nasr says, "This is the peak. Someone should document this moment, now, because I don’t know what will happen after."


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