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Gallery Misr offers unfulfilled promises with ‘Selections’

Mohammed Talaat, founder of the recently opened Gallery Misr, has a vision that extends far beyond this small commercial gallery in Zamalek, but his vision seems more ambitious than defined.

“I am starting [new projects] now, but much remains unclear as events unfold,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Talaat has been active on the Cairo art scene for over a decade and until recently, was the director of the state-run Palace of the Arts. He quit his job at the Ministry of Culture to start up his own projects. Talaat said he felt the need to work outside of the government establishment, particularly when his exhibition, “Why Not? Contemporary Art from Egypt,” shown at the Palace of the Arts in 2010, drew criticism from the ministry for addressing issues like poverty and hunger.

“I need to make independent work,” Talaat explained, “I don’t want to have any limits on what I can do.”

Misr Gallery was one means of achieving that. Talaat had planned to open it earlier, but like many other projects, his plans were put on hold due to the revolution. Despite some trepidation, he hopes the gallery will do well.

“We need to send a message of support to the arts sector,” he said.

Though it remains to be seen what will come out of Talaat’s more nebulous plans for the future, the gallery’s first exhibition “Selections”, which opened last Sunday, does not present a departure from familiar themes and symbols.

“Selections” shows paintings and sculptures by nine Egyptian artists represented by Gallery Misr. There are bronze sculptures from Salah Hammad and Mohammed al-Fayomy, and large-scale representations of women by Essam Maarouf and Ibrahim al-Dessouky. Several paintings employ collage and painted pastiche, sometimes mixing photographs and paint, as in the case of Atef Ahmed, whose work combines a photograph of a Sufi Dervish with a painted background.

Although “Selections” does not have a theme, Egypt is the subject of most of the works on display. The imagery employed wouldn’t surprise anyone even slightly familiar with Egyptian history and culture. Reda Abdel Rahman cites pharaonic icons and motifs in his painting titled “al-Haris,” while Adel al-Siwy’s triptych mixes abstract streaks of paint with familiar and often commercial Egyptian symbols like the logos of Downtown Cairo’s once opulent Groppi cafe, the ubiquitous Stella beer, and the popular cigarette brand, Cleopatra.

Among these familiar symbols were some of Egypt’s newest revolutionary icons. In “Crossing the Red Line,” Huda Lutfi attaches the faces of the young Alexandrian Khaled Saeed — who was tortured to death by police forces last June — and visual artist Ahmed Basiouny — who was martyred on 28 January — to the bodies of police officers walking along a line of red tape. Lutfi’s work frequently employs found objects and re-contextualizes familiar cultural symbols –and in this respect, the piece is consistent. It, however, lacks reflection — a drawback likely to happen when artists feel they are expected to quickly respond to such overwhelming and still-evolving events. Lutfi’s is the only work in “Selections” to directly take on the revolution. Exhibiting it among Egyptian icons like Om Kalthoum, the pharoahs, and Groppi cafe, gives the impression that the 25 January revolution has already taken its place in the pantheon of established Egyptian iconography, like a thing of the past.

Although Talaat passionately speaks about Misr Gallery’s mission of supporting young artists, “Selections” seems to be mostly exhibiting established ones.

Nevertheless, Talaat is quick to emphasize that the new gallery is only the beginning of what he hopes will be an array of projects that extend past typical commercial fare.

“We need to go to the street,” he said, and at least in part he means it literally. Talaat hopes to organize performances and public installations outside of the gallery space. He is also planning exhibitions of video art and photography — forms that rarely make their way into Cairo’s commercial galleries.

Most of these projects need further articulation as Talaat admits, “I have so many projects, but  maybe by October or November, I'd be able to see what the artists really need."

Selections can be seen until 15 June at Gallery Misr

4 A Ibn Zanki Street, off Hassan Sabry Street, Zamalek, Cairo

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