The Arts-Mart: How Lina Mowafy's love for art helped unite artists in Cairo

We meet the Egyptian artist behind an exhibition designed to appeal to those who feel intimidated by galleries

The online organisation’s physical space. Courtesy The Arts-Mart
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Last month, the third instalment of The Summer Affordable Art Show opened its doors, an exhibition by The Arts-Mart Gallery [TAM] a leading force in the ­Egyptian visual arts scene. During the opening weekend, I made my way to TAM's warehouse-turned-­gallery to the west of Cairo to sit down with its co-­founder and chief executive Lina Mowafy.

While we discuss the particulars of the show – the curatorial vision of which embodies the central mission of TAM – Mowafy also speaks about democratising art, the gallery's desire to take the intimidation out of art and away from galleries, and her belief that the visual arts scene in Egypt is on the cusp of worldwide recognition.

The Arts-Mart Gallery’s The Summer Affordable Art Show in Cairo. Courtesy The Arts-Mart
The Arts-Mart Gallery’s The Summer Affordable Art Show in Cairo. Courtesy The Arts-Mart

Showcasing more than 60 artists and hundreds of artworks, the Affordable Show is not bound by a single theme. The selection is curated based on price in an effort to appeal to people who feel intimidated by art, who are keen to own artworks but who are often put off by hefty price tags, as well as people who buy art regularly and are looking to own something small and inexpensive. 

Works by Gamal Meleka and Deena Fadel are on display next to brand-new pieces by less familiar artists. For Mowafy, this show is like an unrestricted playground for established artists, a chance to dabble with smaller sizes and new, unexplored media. For younger artists, it's an opportunity to be shown. "It's a sweet show, an easy read," says Mowafy.

How it all started

She is warm, articulate and speaks with infectious optimism; an innovator with a gutsy willingness to keep discovering new spaces for action and a self-described serial entrepreneur. In the early days of 2011, Mowafy – who previously worked as a graphic designer in a booming advertising industry – decided to dedicate more time to painting. She had been painting for as long as she could remember and nurtured her talent only as a side project. She enrolled in courses in Florence and London, where she met a professor whose talent never awarded him a place among the big names of the art world.

"I realised that if I didn't embrace the audience, I would end up being the person who owned the record store, and nobody is going to ever hear my music," she says. To Mowafy, her professor was the record store owner; his talent known only to his students.

The scene in Cairo at the time was unwelcoming to young, talented artists. Gallerists were unwilling to take a chance on Mowafy, and those who did offered little in return. But she then had a sudden realisation. "Why were we only allowing one language to be spoken? Why can't we allow for more languages to appear and have each person decide what suits them?" 

With these questions in mind, and with the help of two friends, Mowafy launched TAM's online platform in 2012, during a time of high revolutionary fervour in the country. Their mission? To carve out a space for budding artists such as Mowafy who were producing heaps of work at the time. "You know when everything collapses and you start from scratch, psychologically?" she asks, explaining her intentions at the time.

She says the timing could not have been better. There were curfews in effect in Egypt and everybody was online. The debut collection included artworks by seven artists, including Mowafy. To her surprise, the online gallery sold 11 paintings on the first night and broke even by the second week.

The Arts-Mart co-founder Lina Mowafy. Courtesy The Arts-Mart
The Arts-Mart co-founder Lina Mowafy. Courtesy The Arts-Mart

The offline gallery came into being in 2015, after three successful shows in collaboration with the Four Seasons Hotel, where those who came to see artworks by established names such as Mohamed Abla and George Bahgoury were given a chance to see what younger artists had to offer. The series was a milestone for Mowafy. "Where else would a collector see the work of an unknown artist? Everybody got a fair chance and people were free to choose," she says.

From gallery to institute

Today, TAM's online store sells works by about 150 contemporary artists. Mowafy says she has worked with about 300 Egyptian artists to date, between the online shop, exhibitions and the company's art advisory service, which she says is at the heart of the next chapter of her journey.

For years now, there's been a movement among property companies to incorporate art in the spaces they build, partly because it raises the value of the properties. For Mowafy, this trend is in line with TAM's mission: bringing art to the everyday.

This overlapping space between art and architecture is creating a new economy for contemporary artists. Instead of waiting for their latest collection to sell out, for example, artists can now work on commission, on large-scale installations, on concepts and ideas that reach ­completely new audiences.

Arts-Mart is not a shop. It's a mission. It's a journey. I don't know where it's going and I am flexible enough to know that I don't know where this is going. I'm not attached to an outcome.

Mowafy says TAM receives hundreds of applications from eager, little-known artists almost every week, each of them keen to become part of the gallery's growing community. She says it is heart-warming because it meant she was not alone. "Arts-Mart is not a shop. It's a mission. It's a journey," she says. "I don't know where it's going and I am flexible enough to know that I don't know where this is going. I'm not attached to an outcome."

When I ask her what she thinks of the scene today, about seven years after she entered it as a business owner and an unknown artist shunned by the dominant gallerists of the time, she says the best is yet to come.

The Grand Egyptian Museum will soon open its doors, Mowafy explains, spurring global interest in Egyptian art. "You're up next and you need to be ready," she says. "When they shed that spotlight and you are centre stage, you need to be on two feet and able to say, 'Well, we've been away for so long, but look, this is what we've been doing, and it's worth looking at.'"

The Summer Affordable Art Show is at the Arts-Mart Gallery in Cairo until July 31