With the cultural awakening, Egypt is about to enchant the world again

CAIRO: Egypt, land of Tutankhamun, Cleopatra, Naguib Mahfouz and Ahmed Zewail, is experiencing a renaissance of its artistic and cultural scene. A few weeks ago, the 4,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Pyramids of Giza was transformed into a contemporary art platform at “Forever Is Now”.

The exhibition, organized by Art of Egypt, presented for the first time the work of 10 international artists in the historical setting.

The renewal movement is supported by the government, institutional actors, independent patrons, artists and curators who are pushing the cultural scene in two directions: The rebirth of a prolific past and the celebration of a promising future.

Installation by JR “Greetings from Giza” – Credit: Hesham El Sayfi – Courtesy of Art from Egypt. (Provided)

Nadine Abdel-Ghaffar, founder of the arts and heritage consulting firm Art of Egypt, said: “The world knows about Egypt’s artistic and cultural past. However, they are not aware of the present, of the contemporary. We aim to educate, raise awareness and provide opportunities to these places by activating spaces and involving the surrounding community.

“Forever Is Now” featured art installations set against the backdrop of pyramids and featured Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn and French artist JR – the latter accompanied by his friend and supporter of American record producer and singer Pharrell Williams.

The exhibition sought to establish a dialogue between the ancient past and the present, and to “question time as a continuum that separates and unites civilizations”.

Abdel-Ghaffar told Arab News that the exhibition, which ended on November 8, “has succeeded in its mission of democratizing art by making it accessible in public spaces, attracting 20,000 visitors a day to schools, universities and people from all walks of life. ”


Contemporary art displayed in old downtown Cairo. (Mai Barbier)

In April of this year, the world watched in wonder the “Golden Parade” of 22 mummies (18 kings and four queens) traveling in decorated horse-drawn carriages through the streets of Cairo from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to their new home. of the National Museum. of Egyptian civilization.

The NMEC now features selections of artifacts from ancient Egyptian pharaohs, highlighting their contributions, such as the invention of writing and mummification.

Royal mummies carefully displayed in temperature-controlled display cases include Ramses II, known as Ramses the Great; Thutmose III, once described as the Napoleon of Egypt; and Queen Hatsheput, one of the few women to rule ancient Egypt.

Preserving the past is central to today’s flourishing Egyptian cultural scene and lends itself to architectural restoration. Al-Ismaelia, an Egyptian real estate investment company, has partnered with partners in efforts to restore the capital’s 150-year-old architectural heritage established by Khedive Ismail in the 19th century.


Egyptian guide Hiba leads a tour inside the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. (Mai Barbier)

“Bringing life into the magic of design”, the company set out to preserve iconic buildings such as La Viennoise, a 125-year-old monument built in 1896 by the English architect La Viennoise, and the Cinema Radio Complex, built in 1932 as the center of the city of Cairo. theater and performing arts scene. The center has hosted performances ranging from Umm Kulthum in the 1920s to recent acts by Bassem Youssef and Abla Fahita.

“In the pursuit of reviving a neighborhood and building a community, some opt for politics and others opt for football. We have opted for art and culture, ”Eman Hussein, deputy general manager of Al-Ismaelia, told Arab News.

Aiming to transform the city center into an inclusive neighborhood, Al-Ismaelia has combined restoration projects with a range of art and culture exhibitions.

“When you elevate one aspect of the community, the whole ecosystem is elevated,” Hussein said.


A close exchange between the French artist JR and his friend the musician Pharell in Giza. (Mai Barbier)

Today, the company owns 25 properties in downtown Cairo, many of which have been transformed into coworking spaces, rental housing, retail stores and offices.

Al-Ismaelia’s plans were put on hold amid unrest surrounding the 2011 Egyptian uprising before projects resumed in collaboration with the government.

“Restoration comes with challenges at every step,” Hussein said. These range from acquiring the building from 90 different owners to licensing, infrastructure issues and operational limitations such as power supply.

However, she is pleased with the outcome and said the neighborhood enjoys an authentic revival of the past, contemporary flair, as well as strong support for local art, culture and concepts.


Views inside the museum of Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein. (Mai Barbier)

The movement to bring the past to life is accompanied by a strong contemporary cultural agenda. Today, the old historic quarter of Cairo is home to pop-up galleries and contemporary art exhibitions.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing showcases is Ai-Da, a three-legged robot who answers the Sphinx riddle with AI-generated messages and AI-based designs. Ai-Da’s arrival in Egypt sparked controversy after the robot was briefly detained by authorities who feared it was a spy device.

Cairo’s affluent Zamalek district is also home to some well-established contemporary art galleries, including Zamalek Art Gallery, Art Talk Gallery, and Ubuntu Art Gallery.

The three-story Adam Henein Museum in the Giza district includes a sculpture park owned by the late artist Adam Henein (formerly known as Samuel) and managed today by Inas Luca, who, as director of the Foundation Adam Henein, was entrusted with treasures, ”as she puts it.

Henein, who died in 2020, founded the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium. The museum is dedicated to the exhibition of his drawings, paintings and sculptures, including a collection previously exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1999-2000.


Sculpture “Ensemble” by Lorenzo Quinn at Forever Is Now – Credit: Hesham El Sayfi – Courtesy of Art from Egypt. (Provided)

What’s next for the Egyptian cultural scene? The country is patiently awaiting the results of the latest expeditions from Zahi Hawass, archaeologist, National Geographic explorer and former Minister of State for Antiquities

Hawass has teamed up with Netflix for a five-episode documentary series that will premiere next year and unravel the mystery of Tutankhamun’s death.

The world is also eagerly awaiting the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which promises to be another momentous occasion.

For a country of 105 million people and an ancient civilization that continues to influence literature, cinematographic architecture and fashion, it is evident that there is no shortage of human capital and intellectual wealth, and that Egypt is ready to enchant the world again.

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May Barber is an architect and brand management consultant focused on sustainability and goal-oriented projects.

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