Cairo Biennale returns after nine-year hiatus with focus on diversity and culture

Political upheaval and financial woes put the festival on hold for the best part of a decade, but this year it's back and as eclectic as ever

'Camilo Arias in front of his piece Unity of Diversity'.  Courtesy of the artist
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It was once a highlight on Egypt's cultural calendar, but after a nine-year absence, the Cairo Biennale's return has largely flown under the radar.

Political upheaval in the past decade and financial troubles for the country meant that many of Cairo's important cultural events either did not take place or did not have the budget and organisation to run at full capacity.

But despite Cairo Biennale's lack of marketing this year – few advertisements can be seen around the city and its social media presence is small – the event has returned to feature an eclectic curation of artworks from 50 countries.

Eighty artists are having their work exhibited until August 10 in three venues on the island of Zamalek in central Cairo – at the Palace of Arts, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art and Aisha Fahmy Palace.

The theme of the 13th biennale – Eyes East Bound – draws attention away from Egypt's often highly politicised rhetoric and towards the intricate and complex cultural tapestry of the country.

Cairo Biennale. Courtesy Walt Curnow

The number of artists from outside the region has expanded that scope even further. Biennale artistic director Ehab Ellaban says the event was supposed to return much earlier, but proved to be difficult to pull together again.

“We started organising this in 2012 but because the situation in Egypt was difficult we had to stop many, many times and start over again. In the end, we prepared for this biennale from between six and eight months ago,” he says.

"I selected the artists myself directly for the biennale by following events that have been going on globally since 2012. In the past we would contact embassies directly but we thought we would have better results this way."

About the lack of visible marketing, Ellaban says the Biennale team tried to drum up support, but it was difficult in the current climate. They emailed each of Egypt's newspapers, marketed the event on social media and on their website, and informed all the artists six months ago. Camilo Arias, a Colombian artist who has lived in Cairo for three years, originally prepared an artwork based on the theme, but the curators chose another piece he had completed earlier.

Cairo Biennale. Courtesy xx

His piece, Unity in Diversity, being exhibited in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, is a colourful meditation on how violent conflict in the world occurs because of perceived cultural differences. It shows white doves – the international symbol of peace – flying through a pyramid-shaped universe and becoming transformed into parrots and other birds from every continent on Earth.

Arias felt white doves did not adequately reflect the richness in diversity. "There are so many different colours around the world, we have so many different cultures, so many different behaviours, that I think that it should be represented in the colours of life," Arias tells The National. "We need to understand that we are different and that's not wrong ... it actually makes us rich.

"I think that it matches with the concept of the biennale because there are conflicts all around the world and there has been a lot of conflict in this region."  

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Courtesy of the artist

The two-part installation of Sadik Alfraji – an Iraqi artist who lives in Amersfoort in the Netherlands doesn't directly focus on politics or war, but they are themes lingering below the surface of his work. One part is a video of the marshes in southern Iraq, while the other is an animation.

He says his current project is based on personal experiences of the complications of migration. Alfraji's installation is part of a larger project, The River that was in the South, which he hasn't completed yet.

It revolves around his grandfather's need to move from the marsh region of southern Iraq to Baghdad, the country's capital, because of the feudal system in place at the time. His family's own history of migration continued with him having to leave Iraq and move to the Netherlands. "I'm talking about migration and how it affected the identity of the migrants. Immigration makes a kind of black hole in the bottom of the identity," he says.

The animation aspect of Alfraji's art is hauntingly beautiful and its continuous motion reflects that constant in-flux state he wishes to convey about the notion of migration.

Alfraji says the overall organisation of the Cairo Biennale was good this year, but believes that sideshows, talks and screenings could have markedly enhanced the festival. "All big events, biennales and so on should have activities around it. And most of this is art conversations," he says.

Organisers say that they did try to pull some of these smaller aspects of the festival together. Some, however, were not organised for specific reasons. Regarding criticism that there were not enough side events, Ellaban says: "We didn't make events for art critics because people can write what they like on Facebook now. But six or seven art galleries held events related to the biennale between June 9 and 11. Maybe we will do more things next time but we stopped for nine years, so it was difficult." Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian artist who has spent more than 15 years outside of Egypt, living in both Paris and New York, says he was happy to be exhibited at Cairo Biennale for the first time after finding success abroad. His work, which is inspired by his own experiences of constant travel, covers the whole top floor of Aisha Fahmy Palace. He takes black and white portrait photographs of subjects – as well as self-portraits – and then paints over them in colour.

Cairo Biennale. Courtesy xx

"The idea is that you can play roles in front of the camera and photograph that and create something that is purely from your imagination," he says. He was inspired by Egyptian cinema and its portrayal of belly dancers. "My love and admiration of this art form, which I've always loved since I was a kid and watching them [belly dancers] in these movies and being inspired by them, how glamorous and fabulous they were. They were very elegant. Our society respected them."

Arias believes the exposure that comes from exhibiting at the biennale will be very beneficial for him. "I think modern art is in a crisis and many ideas are superficial. Because of the internet and social media, everyone can see what other artists are doing. The biennale is very important because it is open and we can see new kinds of art."

Of the awards handed out as part of the event, in a ceremony last week, Belgian artist Joris Van de Moortel scooped the grand prix, the Greater Nile Prize. Five other awards were up for grabs. These went to Egyptian artist Ahmed El-Badry, Iraqi Sadiq Alfraji, South Korean Kim Heecheon, Austrian Brigitte Kowanz and Jordanian Ayman Yosri.

The Cairo Biennale runs until August 10