While questions of creative sovereignty (hurriyat al-ibda‛) tend to loom large in Egyptian academic writings, the artistic trajectory of the annual juried competition known as the Youth Salon has been marked, historically, by structural inertia. Established in 1989 by the Ministry of Culture, the exhibition was meant to encourage a new generation of Egyptian artists and increase their international visibility. Jessica Winegar has explored the Salon as a “tournament of values” that is part and parcel of struggles surrounding the “shared ideal of the patron state.” Indeed, if the space of the exhibition is understood, as Boris Groys argues, as the “symbolic property of the public,” then the debates surrounding the 2009 Salon illuminate the contested nature of artistic and curatorial sovereignty in the shadow of the legacy of state socialism and a purportedly democratic mass culture of artistic consumption and production. An exploration of the controversies that erupted around the selections of the jury committee, the curatorial strategies employed in the exhibit, and the political reverberations of specific aesthetic choices, can elucidate the ways in which artistic and curatorial sovereignty can be forged in a range of historical circumstances—postcolonial, postsocialist, and beyond.
Due in part to the intense pressures placed on Egyptian artists to perceive entry into the Salon as indexical of future success, in part to the historic entry of a sizeable numerical percentage of artists into the Salon, the extreme selectivity of this year’s competition was reported in the mainstream press, even before the official opening, as an affront to the democratic nature of the exhibit. This year’s jury, critics declared, had substantially narrowed the pool of artworks exhibited, rejected previous Salon winners, and subverted the expectation that an aesthetic of new media art would dominate the exhibit to the extent that the Salon would constitute a radical break from previous years. Critics of the Salon cited the original Paris Salon des Refusés of 1863, convened to allow public viewing of 3,000 rejected works of art, and referred to the March event in Cairo as a “crisis”—one that cast doubt on the ability of the judges to arbitrate artistic value.], Ruz al-Yusuf, April 12, 2009, 14.] Yet, even in the past, the inclusive gestures of the Salon have, according to its critics, concealed the way in which certain aesthetic choices, particularly those that conform to the contemporary international biennial style, have been promoted through the yearly Salons.
Rather than simply view the Salon as embodying conflicts between generations or around identity politics, I argue that the disputes surrounding the arbitration of aesthetic judgment were coded as a series of binaries: local–global, government sponsored–artist sponsored, authentic–contemporary, and nationalist–neo-liberal. Such binary representations seek to unequivocally categorize art, and mirror authoritative public discourse on art in Egypt, which seeks to delegitimize forms of artistic production that do not conform to the imperative to produce artistic work that is at once contemporary and nationalist, or at least identifiably “Egyptian.” Clearly, similar parallels may be found elsewhere in postcolonial and/or postsocialist contexts. Thus, Igor Zabel has discussed the Russian context and the curatorial constraints surrounding the presentation of works of art that cannot be seen solely as art, but must always be inflected by their locale (revealing a “Russian essence,” for example), while Western art alone is considered as icon of “contemporary art.” While all contemporary art is clearly “constitutively stained” by its location, only non-Western art is expected to have questions of identity function as a touchstone.
The adjudication of aesthetic value is, of course, connected to institutional structures. The Ministry of Culture, founded in 1958 and itself a legacy of state socialism, sponsors the yearly salons as well as a formidable infrastructure of national galleries, viewing itself as the official arbiter of artistic production and consumption in Egypt. The recent influx of privately owned or artist-run gallery spaces and initiatives (quite different from their historical predecessors in their international outreach) mirrors the surge of interest in artists from the region and has complicated the picture substantially. This has enabled an entire range of artistic practices that straddle the divide between the Ministry of Culture national art circuit and the less formal domain of privately owned gallery spaces. These practices range from the public to the informal and impromptu (for example, artistic interventions that take place in dynamic urban settings, such as kiosks or mechanic workshops) and exist alongside and in conjunction with the national art circuit, but are not necessarily embedded in the same sets of debates. Such artistic production need not be viewed in isolation of the state sanctioned public realm, since many artists operate within multiple spheres that often intersect and overlap.
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