Modern art reveals a society to itself, laying bare the bones of fleshy discourse. Art never simply is— it asks of us questions we have to search within to answer. Since its inception in 1984, the Cairo Biennale has sought to explore contemporary art, inviting artists this year to shed more light on questions that would, perhaps, participate in extending limits of the current contemporary visual language and its diversity.
Fittingly, a question mark was the curious theme of the opening of the 12th Biennale at the Cairo Opera House on Sunday. In attendance was Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, who inaugurated the show along with Ehab El-Labban, the Biennale’s Commissaire-Generaland, and Mohammed Talaat, director of the Palace of Arts.
The winning pieces were exhibited at this venue, along with other selections, with the remainder being shown at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art.
In his treatise on the theme, Labban asks: “What makes a work of art today ‘contemporary’ in the sense of how it talks to us today in this time-space continuum? Has art become one of those directions that is eternally open-ended — by default as it tackles the visual — surmounting and undermining all verbal expression, defying all and every description? Are we at a position today to expect more questions than the classical?”
A total of 77 artists from 45 countries responded in varied interpretations, most reaching out to physically engage the senses of art patrons.
Egypt’s Amal Kenawy won the Grand Prize of LE 100,000 for her piece “The Silence of the Lambs.” Cooking fresh chicken pasta and serving visitors in a mirrored room decorated for Christmas, Kenawy’s work was a holistic sensory experience. Earlier this year, on Champollion Street, Downtown Cairo, Kenawy guided a group of local workers crawling on their knees across the street. The video footage played on a television in the room, inviting the public to view the artist interactively.
The three Biennale prizes, each worth LE 50,000, were awarded to Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg, Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai and Lebanese-American artist Annabel Daou. Chiurai and Daou were co-awarded the prize.
Both Djurberg and Fatmi used video installations to project their ideas. Fatmi challenges conceptions of civilization and colonialism in his adaptation of the French film “L’enfant Sauvage” (The Wild Child). The film is based on the real-life case history of Jean Itard, a professor of social psychology who adopted a child he found living like a wild animal, and subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ him into ‘civilized’ society. Fatmi’s piece raises questions of identity and belonging.
Djurberg is known for her use of stop-motion clay animation to depict the macabre depths of the human soul. There is a lack of moral consciousness in scenes of rape and instant sexual gratification, but her video dissects human behavior at its most visceral.
Chiurai’s art also examines human nature. Depicting ministers in glossy posters, there was wry humor and understanding in the interpretation. The Minister of Health wore a doctor’s coat with the stethoscope made of animal skins. The Minister of Enterprise was all blinged out. To any African, the references are clear.
Daou’s “From where to where?” asks: Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Her work resembles a large map, an abstract land, mind and audio-scape. Executed in Beirut and New York, Daou asked random strangers these questions; and says of her experience: “We feel the urge to ask these questions, but does it really matter where we come from? We can make a choice, we can decide it’s not a problem not to know.”
Egyptian-American Dahlia Elsayed explored the limitness and immeasurability of space in determining identity. “My work is very personal, a psychological pull on topographic space, but it’s also very universal,” explains Elsayed.
South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa paid homage to the construction workers of the World Cup stadia through stills of them at work, men otherwise forgotten. A video piece revealed the daily life of a township taxi rank, portraying individuals making an industrious living, not waiting for the government to help them.
The Biennale’s Guest of Honor is Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, famous for his anime pop art, which have earned him a cult following around the world.
The exhibition runs until Feb. 12. For more information, visit: www.cairobiennale.gov.eg