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Egyptian art steps out of the pharaohs' shadow and onto the Web

New online galley promotes modern works with an eye toward attracting international collectors

Egyptian art is often reduced to ancient statues, sarcophagi and the wondrous riches that fill the Cairo Museum. Some 24 centuries after the decline of the pharaohs, modern and contemporary works may finally have found new legitimacy via the Web. To break the shackles of their country's artistic heritage and circumvent a state system which experts say has stifled creativity, three artists have launched Egypt's first online art gallery.

"Egypt is known all over the world for the great civilization and artistic marvels of its ancient pharaonic past. However, we feel that its present artistic talents are somewhat overlooked," explains the Web site, www.egy-art.com.

Carina Maamoun and two of her friends, Ezmeralda Saikali and Sabry Nashed, created the Web site in November in a bid to promote contemporary artists in Egypt and abroad.

The online gallery, which features paintings, sculptures, drawings and mosaics by some 30 prominent artists, was launched with the utmost discretion.

"We wanted to see the Internet users' reaction," Maamoun explains. Since then thousands of art buffs from the United States, Europe, Australia and Arab states have visited the site.

"This encouraged us to pursue our efforts and improve the site, which will be officially launched in March," says Saikali, 56, a painter.

All the works exhibited on Egy-Art are for sale and come with a certificate signed by the artist to guarantee their authenticity. The prices have not been set yet but some of the works could fetch hefty sums as the list of artists featured on the site is a who's who of Egyptian contemporary art.

The selection spans most of the 20th century and includes works from Egypt's greatest modern sculptor Adam Henein and Georges Bahgoury, a celebrated cartoonist who is also one of Egypt's most sought after painters.

But Saikali says the site's main goal is to provide modern Egyptian art with the home it has never had.

"Beyond the commercial aspect, we want to disseminate contemporary Egyptian art ... The French, for example, know more about pharaonic art than any Egyptian but they are not aware that artists are still producing marvelous works in Egypt today," she says.

The Museum of Egyptian Modern Art was recently renovated but it has been much criticized for its poor museology.

Over the past five to ten years, the critical contemporary art scene in Egypt has carved out a strong niche for itself through such venues as the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art, Mashrabiya, Espace Karim Francis and the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, a new space by painter Mona Marzouk and others that opened recently in Alexandria.

But these venues, all of which specialize in experimentation and critical thinking, remain relatively unknown to the general population.

Hani Anan, a wealthy businessman who collects and sponsors Egyptian art, is enthused by the Egy-Art project.

"It's an excellent initiative. It's up to the civil society to take action and promote real artists because there will be no help from the authorities when it comes to this issue," says Anan, who is also a founding member of the anti-regime Kefaya movement.

"The marginalization of creativity in Egypt is the result of state control of the media and the solid grip a tiny group of people have on the art market," he charges.

Prominent Egyptian sculptor Abdel Hadi al-Wishahi and painter Rasha Suleiman also welcome any new media that could break what they describe as the stranglehold of "official artists" on the Egyptian market.

"Moreover, the concept of an art dealer doesn't exist in Egypt so far. Yet, an artist cannot create and market his work at the same time," Suleiman explains.

Aware of the local market's poor reputation, the "creator-curators" of Egy-Art are going out of their way to reassure their international clientele.

"The buyer gets a certificate signed by the artist himself to guarantee that the work he is acquiring is an original," Saikali explains, adding that purchases can even be returned.

Beirut,03 06 2006
Redaction
The Daily Star
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