“The Self … The Land”: A Mystic Journey by Salah Botros

“This is the result of 22 years of hard work” exclaims Moataz Nasr, founder of Darb1718, a new space for contemporary Arts where the exhibition of Salah Boutros entitled “The Self… the Land” took place from the 1st till the 30th of May. It demands a “Vision” to see beyond the work, to put all the pieces together and to create a consistent exhibition, which reflects the curating problem in Egypt according to Moataz, artist and curator. Showing these thirty something pieces of sculpture is not tempting for the other galleries and Arts spaces owners in Cairo, “they are only interested in the modern art works , installations, video arts; no one cares anymore about this traditional form of Art: Sculpture”, he explains.

With pieces entitled “Facing Death”, “Jacob’s Stairs”, “The Death of Jesus” and “Adam and Eve” , Salah Botros, explores his mysticism and sophism : “I’m a Coptic Egyptian: this is a different combination, I have a whole legacy of Christian and ancient Egyptian mysticism to express” explains Salah. This 45 years old, low-profile sculptor, held only two exhibitions over his 22 years of practicing Arts. “Exhibiting was never a target for me, through these years I was hardly satisfied about my work, and I demolished many art works until I discovered the target and the value behind it”.

Double Identité

Written as part of my participation in The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C

Thrilled and intrigued, queuing a long line to the wooden gate, it seems to me that I crossed the country just to be there waiting my turn to see the big mystery revealed. I bet this was exactly the feeling that Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) wanted to arouse in his spectator. In a low lighted small room in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, the “Etant Donnés : La Chutte D’eau, Le Gas d’Eclairage” (given in English), of Duchamp was installed.

It took me two days to get there, my introduction to the Duchamp world started one day early, in the National Portrait Gallery, where a large exhibition is dedicated just for Duchamp. The exhibition showcases approximately 100 portraits and self-portraits of Duchamp, including works by his contemporaries Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Francis Picabia and Florine Stettheimer as well as portraits by a more recent generation of artists, such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Sturtevant, Yasumasa Morimura, David Hammons, Beatrice Wood and Douglas Gordon. “His contemporaries didn’t understand him, by portraying him, every one of them was trying to picture him from one side, all together were trying to get the whole picture of Duchamp” points out Anne Collins Goodyear, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.

Duchamp, French artist, self-claimed American, broke down the boundaries in his time between works of art and everyday objects. In 1915, he landed for the first time in the United States. Forty years later he became an American citizen. Duchamp returned to France in 1923, making occasional trips back to the United States, where he settled permanently in 1942 till he died in 1968. Provocateur, intriguer, he bet in the future, he left the generation to come to recreate, reinterpret his art work.

Pressing my two hands against the wooden gates, I bend my head to look through the eye-level small holes, only way to see the last art work of Duchamp. From a certain distance from the gates, a wall from bricks broken in the middle, to reveal- but not fully – the most unexpected scene: A totally exposed nude woman laying on the grass, legs apart, head hidden behind the wall, holding a lamp in her hand, a water fall is shining in the background.

In 1923, after his well-known The Large Glass, Duchamp let it be known that he had stopped making art in order to devote himself to his favorite pastime, chess. After Duchamp’s death in 1968, it was revealed that he had actually spent the last two decades (from 1946 to 1966) of his life working secretly to accomplish his final project. Nobody knows till now what he meant by his disturbing piece: are these the gates the access to his own inner self?, an access to this profound unrevealed world? Is this exposed naked woman the mirror of his self: exposed but unidentified? Water fall, abundant nature and naked body, the femininity is omnipresent in the piece.

It was in 1920, that Duchamp invented his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, who emerged in a series of photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed as a woman. Sélavy was one of his many pseudonyms, which can be transcript phonetically in French “Eros, C’est la vie” (Eros , That’s life). Eros was the Greek god of love and lust, who hid his angelic features from his love and wife Psyche. When the seduced wife tried to reveal the secret of her husband, she lost him forever.

Is that what Duchamp intended to tell though all his artworks, completed with his last piece, that the human being is complex and dual? Duchamp elaborated the duality that he lived psychologically and socially. He kept his dual nationality and identity, which makes him, from my point of view a pure American, Don’t all Americans have this tangled identity?

Voices of the Minorities in the United States

Written as part of my participation in The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C

From the open doors of the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, it’s hard to identify the sculpture material, it’s only while approaching that the big colorful form is revealed: a ball of Bras! Thousands of bras stretched, rolled and attached to form a huge multicolored ball. “ this ball made by women contributions, they come and give us their bras, each one has a story, a women story. Some of these have a happy story, like this is the one I wore when I have been kissed for the first time, and some others have a bad one, like this is the one that I wore when I got raped, etc.” , I still remember Rebecca A. Hoffberger, founder and director of the museum, saying.

This ball kept haunting my thoughts many days after our visit to the museum. It aroused strong feelings on me as a symbol of solidarity, sympathy and compassion between women. But is this artwork can be considered as “Feminist” one?! And what is a feminist artwork by the way? And what feminist artists represent now after almost four decades from the start of the feminism’ movement in the United States? This is a question that Dr Elizabeth Sackler didn’t find any difficulty answering: a feminism art is an art which create a dialogue about feminism issues, which stands for equality, quality and justice. Dr Sackler, feminist activist, won’t find any problem to identify herself with the feminism ideology, an ideology that many of her generation embraced, yet many of the 21st century generation is questioning.

It was by late 90’s that she thought to establish a center for feminism art, which took place in the Brooklyn Museum, to which she donated Judy Chicago’“The Dinner Party” as a permanent exhibition since 2007. The impressive “Dinner Party” is an installation artwork exalting the accomplishments of thirty nine feminine figures. It was produced from 1974 to 1979 as collaboration and was first exhibited in 1979. Thirty nine guests of honor, thirty nine place setting featuring a table runner embroidered with each woman’s name and images or symbols relating to her accomplishments, with a napkin, utensils, a glass or goblet, and a plate. Thirty nine Porcelain plates featuring, more or less, different forms of a vagina? Why reducing the women accomplishments to a vagina?. This is a controversial discussion raised between critics at that time and still does.

My confusion is aroused from a totally different point: why not considering the art work realized by a woman is just an art work? Why isolating and categorizing the women creativity? Are these just some naïve questions raised by a “post feminist” young woman like myself? This is how a journalist friend categorizes me. A “Post Feminist”, I’m relieved at last I belong to a “category”! I’m this young woman who belongs to the generation taking women rights as granted. Although, coming from Egypt, a conservative, patriarchal judged society, I still don’t understand why women still need to distinguish their arts from the rest of the American art scene?. “ 70% of students of Arts Schools are women, only 15% of them are showed in galleries and arts spaces”, explains Dr Sackler. But are the women are the only marginalized segment of the American arts society?

“You will be surprised, how the art scene in America is not that liberal!”, insists Greg Tale, journalist and curator of the exhibition “Négritude” at Exit Art Gallery, an alternative art space in New York. In a large star shaped pool, with land and cane planted, the visitor has to navigate his paper ship. And in further pool of sugar with black background, he has to write his name to know How much black in his name!

Exit art gallery claims as mission to “Represent all the underrepresented artists who are not enough recognized”. What kind of Arts can be underrepresented in America, the symbol of freedom to the oriental and conservative societies? There are many segments of the American society are still need to distinguish themselves, reclaim more exposure and freedom. The American art scene is controlled by the Anglo-Saxon communities, explains the curator.

If coming to the states to assist to the International Arts Journalism Institute Visual Arts Institute held in the American University, was supposed to answer some of my questions and to clear up my confusion about the American identity, culture and arts, it did nothing but increasing the confusion and the questions.

With 24 Americans and international journalists, we made the tour of 34 museum, arts space and galley in two weeks. We did it as we said back home when we describe something fast and superficial, we did it “by the American way”, a very judgmental and naïve perception regarding the American culture. May be fast, but nothing is superficial about this culture. Rich and complicated, will be also a naïve and superficial impression to have after the intense experience of the institute. Breaking the stereo-types and the clichés, I would say, it would be a good start to deep analysis to a very varied and controversial culture like the American one

Curating … The Passion of Displaying

Written as part of my participation of The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C

Three different exhibitions, three different arts spaces in Washington DC, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating …

“WE ARE THE EVIDENCE”, with this fleshing sentence and its big white characters printed in a black wall, Paul Chaat Smith, curator and Art critic, starts the exhibition of “Our peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories”.
The black wall impressively ornamented with all the names of the disappearing peoples, installed in an intimate and indirectly lighted room, leave a strong impact on the visitor.
The entire exhibition does not display any art pieces; it displays an idea passionately and creatively illustrated. The exhibition is one of three exhibitions—“Our Universes,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Lives”— held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, offering the visitors a unique perspective on lives of Native peoples.

P.C. Smith addresses the controversial untold history of the Indigenous American Indians by an image of words. Since he joined the Museum curating team since 2001, Paul Chaat managed and maintained the Museum collections. Although belonging to Indian tribe himself, he insists that “… curating has nothing to do with Identity. It has to have relation with knowledge and experience”.

Bending her head to one side, her two hands joined in front of her chest, with her closed eyes and her little dreamy voice, Mary ends up her story by “… and everybody lived happily ever after”. In front of the eager group of audience, She finds a real pleasure to tell the story behind every painting in the Kelly’s house, lovingly and passionately displayed. Touring the house, the visitor will have enjoyable glimpses from many famous original works from the early days of America’s great illustrators: a collection that, the curator Richard Kelly started to collect by early 1990. Three hundred and thirty pieces represent the American popular culture and the “Golden Age of American Illustration”. Big names of the movement can be recognized: Howard Pyle, Joseph Clement Coll, Dean Cornwell, Jessie Willcox Smith, Mead Schaeffer and others. With stuffed pets, Pokémons and other toys thrown in corners, family pictures displayed in every room, the house is far from being a cold art museum, this is a place where people do live. Every piece of painting is well organized and integrating with the family house. Paintings of famous illustrators are hung side by side with the babyish drawing of the Kelly’s kids.

On dark purple walls, the seven paintings of William Tryon (1849-1925) are displayed in the Freer Gallery of Art. The paintings (the decorations) as Tryon called them were made specially to decorate the interior of the house of Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit. Although some of the paintings were occasionally exhibited separately, Freer and Tryon always regarded them as an “ensemble.” They were conceived to be matched with the whole interior, but even their periodical absence was calculated, the space behind the picture was paneled in oak so, as the artist explained to Freer, that when the pictures are removed (for exhibition and other uses) the room will appear complete.

Freer was not just an art collector and patron, chaperoning the artists of his time. He didn’t just buy the pieces of Art to decorate his main hall, he created for these pieces the space and the environment where they can be shown and appreciated. This explains the distinctive large frames of the pieces, made by Stanford White. White designed the large golden frames with their exotic motifs to be part of the whole decoration, architecture and furniture of the room. An interior that curators knew about through the correspondence between Freer and the artists, which give the running project of designing a digital tour of the house, valuable dimension.
Three different exhibitions, three different places, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating. Curation has not to be limited to displaying arts piece in a certain space, it’s the passion and the vision behind the art of creation.

The concept behind curation (having a managing person arranging arts works in a certain way to communicate the artist’s ideas and inspirations) is something relatively new, not really developed nor needed in the historically rich Egypt with arts works, crafts and monuments dated back to more than 7000 years BC. In the stuffed with valuable pieces, not well lighted or ventilated National Egyptian Museum, the curator role is remarkably missing. Although, this art is raising and expending in small arts space and galleries spread in Down Town Cairo and Alexandria.