May Mansour meets the founder and curator of one of the most unique gallery spaces in Egypt, and finds out how she's changing the scene and nurturing artists with every exhibition...
Gypsum Gallery is a contemporary art gallery established in Cairo in late 2013. Relocated from Zamalek to the residential neighborhood of Garden City, it features, as well as produces strictly innovative, if not ground-breaking, artistic works by diverse and international artists. Gypsum Gallery, run by Aleya Hamza, seeks to forge ahead and into global recognition, as they pivot between the local and international art scene all the while representing eight of the most promising contemporary artists in and beyond the region. Aleya Hamza graduated with an MA in History of Art at Goldsmiths College in 2001, and has worked as a curator in some of the most prominent arts organisations over the last 10 years including the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) and Townhouse Gallery. I had a chance to speak to the independent curator and get more familiar with her work and vision for Gypsum Gallery.
I heard through the grapevine that you are very cautious with the selection of artists you showcase at Gypsum gallery. What aspects or features do your choices depend on?
Since I started Gypsum Gallery in October 2013 I’ve done a lot of research to further understand where I want go with it, what’s missing in the scene, and a lot of the decisions that I made when I invited artists to work with me was very much shaped by my background as a curator for almost ten years now in Egypt. So I've already met and worked with lots of incredible artists, yet I discovered through my curatorial work that I always went back to the same essential artists over and over. So by the time I established Gypsum Gallery it was already clear to me who I want work with. They’re all very serious artists and extremely diligent in their art practice. Their vision is very singular and it really stands out from what everybody else is doing, they carved out their own particular space in the art scene and they have a voice. They’re also very innovative in the way in which they approach either a subject or a medium or a material, and they’re very conscious of everything they do, nothing is arbitrary or coincidental, and I like that about them very much.
So do they have to incorporate different art formats or mediums to gain your attention?
I wasn’t really looking for people who use new or various media, I was rather thinking of artists who use the best possible medium to deliver their message. Even if their background is in fine arts and they decide to do photography although they’re really good painters, for example. It’s just about being wise enough to choose the best means of expressing yourself. Also if it speaks to me intellectually, emotionally, and on all levels really, it will gain my attention. It can’t just be beautiful or skillful. Talent is not enough. That, as well as continuous and strong output by the artist, play a huge role in their success.
So it’s more about their attitude and how they decide to take on art rather than their level of expertise or type of art they work with?
Definitely that’s a part of it for sure! I would also like their work to be of international standards as I consider this an international gallery, even if it’s located in Cairo. The majority of the artists I work with aren’t even Egyptian or based here. Only two of my artists, Maha Maamoun and Doa Aly, are based in Cairo. Mahmoud Khaled is Alexandrian but he lives in Norway. Basim Magdy is from Asyut but he lives in Austira. Mona Marzouk is Alexandrian and lives between there and Greece. They all occupy this in-between space. Not just geographically, as they all have diverse backgrounds.
And do you work with any non-Egyptian foreigners?
Yes, Tamara Al-Samerai is a Lebanese/Kuwaiti artist I work with, among a few others.
You’ve taken part in and worked with mostly non-profit organisations in the past, what inspired you to shift to curating a commercial space?
When the independent art scene picked up say in the late 90s, early 2000s, the non-profit scene was massive. People were doing incredible things and all the really exciting works were within that spectrum. Artists were internationally recognized. Then a certain change happened in the recent years where commercial galleries also started taking up innovative works, and to the artists themselves, they come to a certain point in their career where it’s important for them to be represented by a gallery. It’s a very interesting relationship which can be really positive for both parties, as the gallery can really support the artist and help them advance their career and try to place them in good collections. You produce their work so I personally work as an agent, as a producer and as a friend. I think it was also really important to me that all the brilliant works happening here within nonprofit foundations or spaces are relocated to a commercial space.
So is it to elevate them to a more professional ground?
I wouldn’t say that because I think the majority of nonprofit galleries are doing a great job. I just think the works of commercial galleries are a lot more traditional. For starters they mostly sell to private collections, accordingly the only thing you’ll buy as a private collector is a sculpture, a painting, maximum a photograph law enty say3a awy. But a lot of those artists who became famous during that boom of independent art were doing mostly non-object based works, and you can’t sell them to individuals, so how do these artists survive? So to me, I thought my gallery would certainly be a platform to host and support these works and practices, and hopefully sell them to public collections, who actually are interested in non-object based artworks and buy videos, installations and the likes. They don’t care about the medium and they hardly even ever want paintings as it’s kind of a burden to them.
Who are some of the public collections that you've sold to?
I sold to the Whitney Museum in New York, the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, and to Kadist Art Foundation in Paris. Currently I’m negotiating deals with a few big museums but I’ll keep that to myself for now as these things take time. The one thing I do different from other galleries though is that I go to art fairs as it’s a great platform to propel artists to world fame and because that’s where all the collectors go to buy. Art fairs have a really tough and competitive process where galleries apply, then they have a selection committee or jury who decide on what galleries to select. It’s very hard to get in. But I was took in Art Dubai which is one of the most important art fairs in the region as it’s gaining quite the international attention, and The Armory show in New York. This year I’m planning on Art Dubai again as well as a couple more.
Would the position of non-profit artists be affected by commercial space?
It’s hard to say because I let the artists do whatever they want in their space and time with Gypsum Gallery. There’s tons of stuff here that hardly anyone would think of buying. Mostly artworks that are considered too conceptual in nature. But I’m here to do what best serves the interest of the concept and show, and I do it regardless of whether it’ll sell or not. At the same time you have to strike a balance; I mean if I don’t end up selling anything, I’ll shut down eventually! Plus I think it’s particularly important to sell artwork to serious collectors who are passionate about art and open to other people viewing and appreciating it. Even if the artwork goes to a home, it is meant to transcend to another life and space after being exhibited in a gallery, instead of it being buried, stored away and left unnoticed.
So do you host uprising artists as well as established ones at Gypsum Gallery?
Yeah of course. Artists I work with are mostly between their 30s and 40s, some of them are not that established but their careers are solid.
What are some of the more significant or more meaningful exhibitions held here?
I honestly think every show holds a special place in my heart. I mean I only run five exhibitions a year so I work for a really, really long time on every show. This one running right now by Shady El Noshokaty took a year to develop. The first exhibition I ever ran though, back when my gallery was still in Zamalek, was particularly memorable. With artist Setareh Shahbazi who was very pregnant at the time. At first it was meant to be held in September then Rabaa happened and it was a seriously turbulent time, politically. We weren’t sure of what to do, and Setareh was really frustrated as she was worried about not making it if we postpone, which we did, and she made it nonetheless. It was a great success.
Do you have any particularly favourite artwork formats?
Back in the day painting was my favourite medium, then I worked with CIC for three years. The initiative focuses on photo based media, photography, video and all that. So after a while I got really into them.
What do you feel lacks in the Egyptian art industry and what do you aspire to achieve through Gypsum Gallery in that respect?
Everything lacks in the art scene. We don’t have enough material or infrastructure for the arts. Say if you want to print a photograph, you’ll have a hard time locating the best print house to do so, you can’t mount it with any material or find acid-free material, it’s a nightmare. At the same time, and because of that, you kind of end up doing things guerrilla-style. You get stuff done by extremely innovative, creative and crazy means so that becomes very interesting. Otherwise there aren’t enough art programs or galleries, there aren’t really enough resources for anything arts-related. For me, if Gypsum becomes a model for other younger galleries that work in this formula, that represent contemporary artists and have a relatively international outlook, that would be really cool!
What about the government, how much involvement should they really have in the art scene?
The government have a huge budget for the fine art sector but I don’t think it’s being spent wisely or used efficiently. They should be doing a lot more but what happened is that all of the non-profit institutions stepped in to basically do the government’s work. They started doing workshops, educational programs and produce work for artists. Commercial galleries though, historically and anywhere in the world, are not linked to the government or public sector. I think the scene should be diverse everyone should be doing their own thing and you pick and choose what you want to do in order for there to be a healthy competition between everyone.
Do you believe art should be funded?
Yeah I believe some art should be funded. There are a lot of projects that artists can’t produce on their own. Of course they need money and support. Especially younger artists who aren’t well known, who are not selling their work yet and don’t have the budget to continue to create. How are they supposed to survive as artists within the community? So yeah I’m definitely pro art funding. I also believe artists should be supported by people buying their work. It gives them the financial support and motivation to continue.
Do you have any advice to give to artists looking to exhibit their work?
I think a good starting point for young uprising artists is to join workshops, group exhibitions and competitions. Also I advise them to expose themselves to loads of art, go to galleries, go to every single show in every single gallery. The more you see, read and think these things through, the more it’ll help you as an artist, and of course produce, produce, produce…
What’s up next at Gypsum Gallery?
We’re running a group show, of drawings and paintings. I haven’t done that before actually, it’s only my second group show ever with two gallery artists including Basim Magdy who’s one of the bigger names, and the rest of the artists I haven’t worked with before at Gypsum including Nada Baraka, a Central Saint Martin’s graduate who’s also the youngest artist showcasing her work at the exhibition. So it’s all really exciting as I really want us to start branching out. Exhibition begins early December.
Main Image Copyright: Bilo Hussein