Egypt's Forever is Now show revealed hunger for more focus on contemporary art

A webinar on the country's art scene emphasised a desire from the public to drive creative conversations

An installation titled 'Greetings From Giza' by French artist and photographer Jean Rene, better known as JR, at the ancient Giza Necropolis on October 23, 2021. AFP; Art D'Egypte
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Forever is Now, an exhibition held recently at Egypt’s Giza Pyramids, received half a million visitors in only three weeks – an “unprecedented” outcome, according to its organiser, Art D’Egypte’s founder and curator Nadine Abdel Ghaffar. Massive installations and monumental artworks by local and international artists, such as French photographer JR, were erected in and around the ancient site, with the show’s star-studded opening attended by high-profile names and celebrities including Isabelle Adjani and Pharrell Williams.

Art D’Egypte, which creates exhibitions and community programming throughout the country, aims to rejuvenate historical spaces in Egypt – a country teeming with a rich and complex history – with modern and contemporary art, bridging the old and the new and making this art as accessible as possible to the public.

The organisation’s goals stem from a disconnect between the ancient art and archaeology of the country – present in public spaces that are seen more as relics than part of public life – and the large amounts of art being produced right now by emerging and established creatives. The two are not in conversation with each other enough and are also both at a distance from the Egyptian people.

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from the Forever Is Now exhibition:

“We want to revitalise historical spaces and revive heritage by merging them with contemporary art, which makes us function a bit like a social enterprise,” Ghaffar said during a webinar on Sunday hosted by The Art Circle, a non-profit organisation of female international art collectors and practitioners founded in 2018 in Abu Dhabi. It was the second in a series of three talks focusing on the Middle East’s arts scenes, with this one on Egypt. The first, held over the summer, was on the UAE, and the last, on Saudi Arabia, will take place next year.

“We work on tangible spaces on-site but also the intangible through community programmes that engage with young people,” Ghaffar said. “The whole idea is to democratise art and make it accessible to all.”

Following on from Art D’Egypte’s previous shows at Manial Palace, the Egyptian Museum and various other Unesco World Heritage Sites, Forever is Now’s immense success – from the thousands of visits to expansive press and media coverage – revealed a hunger in Egypt to interact more with art. The show also served as a model for how the arts scene can engage practitioners and the public with success; it demonstrated how you can activate the past and animate the present simultaneously in order to strengthen Egypt’s cultural landscape, especially since it was held in conjunction with programmes involving the local community through volunteering opportunities and public art education lectures.

We need more galleries, institutions and museums so they can also make more acquisitions and support artists
Bahia Shehab, artist, designer and historian

The feedback was overwhelming. After the exhibition, one of the participating artists, Moataz Nasr, who has previously exhibited at major shows such the Venice Biennale, received thousands of messages from Egyptians who had gone to see the Pyramids. After years of visiting the site with their families, they were overjoyed to re-experience it anew. “It was incredible,” said Nasr during The Art Circle’s discussion. “I realised I had missed something happening here over the years.”

What Nasr had missed was that desire for the public to engage with the art world. Earlier in his career, Nasr had felt unfulfilled exhibiting in his home country and left to work in more international spaces, where he had greater success. “Most of the time, I’ve shown my work outside of Egypt because I had this idea that people won’t really understand what I’m doing,” he said. “However, deep inside me, I wanted to meet and interact with my people. But at the shows here, the audience always numbered to no more than 1,000, which made interactions with the audience minimal.”

Visitors were also often the same niche people from the art world. While public interest is certainly changing now, as seen with Forever Is Now, there is still much to be done in terms of infrastructure to nurture it, he said. “We’re just missing a lot of things.”

Multidisciplinary artist, designer and historian Bahia Shehab, who also participated in the talk on Sunday, cited the Jameel network and its work both at London's Victoria & Albert Museum and in the UAE as a helpful parallel to look up to in terms of what healthy models of a country’s art ecosystem can look like, and what is currently lacking in Egypt. While Egypt has plenty of artists, most of whom are self-taught, the huge population simply does not have enough art schools to produce not only more artists but also curators and other kinds of cultural practitioners. "We need more galleries, institutions and museums so they can also make more acquisitions and support artists.”

The country also lacks enough writers, critics, journalists and publications to cover what is happening in the scene. “There is not enough documentation and this is important because that goes to the historians which then put it into books,” said Shehab. “And the books go back to the art schools and then the whole model is richer and more expansive. Books are important because they record memory."

Egypt has a well-documented ancient past, but its contemporary output also needs to be talked about, especially for the benefit of emerging creatives and educating the wider public.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 6:44 AM