We've led with our share of oddities, from satellite sphinxes to mazes of synthetic grass and cute VR.
The Venice Art Biennale isn't just a gathering of the world's most pretentious humans and art elite, it's the veritable Olympics of the art world, as it's often been called. This year, the main exhibition's theme is May You Live In Interesting Times, with the 58th edition of the international art spectacular hosting of exhibits around the city with 90 national pavilions.
Egypt has had a regular presence at the Venice Biennale since 1952, when Switzerland vacated the building and hopped off to another venue, leaving to us the 1932 pavilion built by Italian architect Brenno Del Giudice as part of 'il padiglione Venezia.' The letters “RAE,” prominently carved into the facade above the arched entrance, stand for Repubblica Araba d’Egitto.
Not only was Egypt the first Arab country to establish its own pavilion, it's also been one of the most consistent participants. So as each country flexes its contributions this year, we're taking a look back at the past 10 years of Egyptian artistry at the biennale.
This year’s Egyptian pavilion - curated by Ahmed Chiha - is Khnum Across Times Witness. For the artists, the exhibition might be a seamless (or intentionally unsettled) blend of the ancient and modern, a commentary on continued-versus-disrupted memory and civilisation. We can't get over the thought of replacing the actual sphinx's head with a gigantic satellite dish. "Why," you might ask? "Why not," we would say. And then "off with his head" or however comically despotic pharaohs used to end conversations.
Egypt’s was the only Arab contribution to the Biennale in 2017 and came in the form of atist Moataz Nasr’s 12-minute Upper Egypt fable-turned-film The Mountain. Nasr refashioned the modernist building and made the interior similar to that of a low-income Upper Egyptian home, because he “[wanted] people to feel as if they are entering Egypt. They smell it. They touch it. They feel the humidity of the houses. They feel the air and the dust.”
Nasr was so thorough that he actually shipped straw from Egypt, because Italian straw simply would not do. We get it.
In 2015, artists Ahmed Abdel Fatah, Gamal El Kheshen, Maher Dawoud’s exhibition Can You See? was a floating pathway of astroturf - replete with cliffs - in the middle of the room. From above, the synthetic grass spelled ‘PEACE’ in both Arabic and Latin script.
Strewn about the room were also a collection of Samsung tablets with a basic VR module loaded on and the simple choice: press the + sign and good things appear (butterflies and flowers, and bunnies); press the - and bad things happen (cockroaches and tarantulas and flames). As one art critic put it: “Cute.”
Artists Mohamed Banawy and Khaled Zaki answered 2013’s theme of The Encyclopedic Palace, with Treasuries of Knowledge, an exhibition that blended both of their styles - Banawy’s panoramic puzzles and Zaki’s sculptural silhouettes - into a critically acclaimed collection.
The installation was composed of several bronze sculptures, steel and granite by Zaki and two large mosaics by Banawy made of clay and glass paste. Explaining his bird's eye view panoramas, Banawy said: "During my traveling, these shots and scenes that I used to watch from a plane are stuck into my head. Every unit is in fact a person, a car, a house or a factory.”
In 2011, Egypt’s representative to the Venice Biennale had died in the clashes of January 28. Curated by Aida Eltorie and Shady El Noshokaty, the installation Ahmed Basiony: 30 Days of Running in the Space, juxtaposed a previous installation Basiony had made - the artist was wearing a sensor-fused plastic suit he had designed, calculating his vitals, the data then wirelessly transferred on a large screen displaying a grid of colors - with documentary footage from Cairo’s streets that the late professor, artist, and musician had taken during the last 3 days of his life.
Sculptor Ahmed Askalany’s exhibition Lightly Monumental for Egypt’s 2009 pavilion was one of our more understated contributions. The sculpture is produced with simple braiding techniques, with natural colored palm leaves. The work aims to captivate the essential gestures and shapes of a humanity free from aggressiveness and a dark side, according to the artist.