The joy of the sale
In the 1990s, state financial policies continued to liberalize so as to integrate Egypt into the new world market, and Egypt signed many partnership agreements with the European Union. These agreements included articles explicitly referencing cultural cooperation; a number of foreign cultural institutions became active in Egypt. Initially, these institutions were viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and were boycotted by art critics: most prominently Osama Afifi, who understood the activities of foreign cultural and arts organizations to represent a form of interference with Egypt's natural course and part of a larger plan to destabilize Egyptian national identity. From the Ford Foundation to the Townhouse gallery (to borrow Afifi’s examples), the arts organizations that played an important role in supporting contemporary artistic practices were subjected to attacks of treason and suspicion, to the extent that art critic Sobhi el-Sharoni described the role of these organizations as malicious in his book Encyclopedia of Egyptian Fine Arts in the Twentieth Century.
This model of arts organization does not rely on selling art but, rather, approaches art within a developmental framework, operating according to different economic rules. Despite various drawbacks, this approach proved to be an effective stimulus for contemporary art practices and provided young artists with the space to branch out and experiment with installation and video art. These media are difficult to sell, and works in this vein have not been well-received historically by government arts institutions; the 1990s generation of artists was marginalized and alienated from official institutions that continued to show and display art that was considered more representative of “Egyptian identity.”
In the midst of this struggle and the changes taking place in the art world, Karim Francis was attempting to create a third model, closer to that espoused by Stefania Angarano, the director of Mashrabia Gallery, who refused to work with artists teaching in arts academies or exhibit the paintings of deceased artists, preferring to focus instead on contemporary Egyptian art. Francis declined the opportunity to convert the gallery into an establishment that relied on outside funding and preferred to pursue his own path. He made this choice not because he believed that accepting funding would make him a “traitor,” as per the widespread accusations against institutions that relied on these sources, but for other reasons, which Francis enumerates as follows:
First, I'm not convinced by the idea of organizations that fund the arts. Personally, if I was given money, I wouldn't work and struggle so hard to show and sell art. Also, the issue of "selling" in itself is the job of a gallery owner, not only for the sake of material gain but also because it lends the work an added sense of value. I feel a real joy when I sell a work of art. Second, the work model of funding organizations turns the artist and the gallery owner into employees who receive monthly funds. Selling art grants you a greater freedom. Third, working with these organizations is demanding, there is a lot of paperwork, routine procedures, and funding applications to fill out that contain questions that are, in my opinion, meaningless, yet you're forced to answer them and say what the funders want to hear, or to clothe what you're doing in their concepts and development terms. In a private gallery all you need is a license and commercial registration.
At the same time, Francis does accept funding from these organizations for the work of certain artists, especially for costly video art which cannot be sold afterwards.
The Karim Francis Gallery was one of the first places that opened its doors to the 1990s generation, many members of whom have now become internationally celebrated artists and whose works can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Francis mentions that, in the 1990s, he showed a work of Ghada Amer priced at LE5,000, and no one was interested in buying it. Now the same work sells for US$165,000. He laughs, remembering the surprise on the faces of gallery visitors when they encountered works of installation art: "There were very few sales. So I thought, why don't we open things up to new experiments and practices? The visitors did not understand what was going on and I was showing these experiments and works in an attempt to understand and absorb and to create a dialog around these new ideas."
In this period, Karim Francis Gallery, Mashrabia Gallery and Townhouse played a vital role in posing alternatives and new paths for art practice. In 2000, the three locations collaborated to put on the Nitaq Festival; a second festival was held the following year and was designed to correspond with the launch of the Cairo Biennale. Negar Azimi (a former employee of the Townhouse) describes this event in an article as: "the most palpable sign that the Egyptian art scene as we knew it had been shaken up." According to Azimi, the festival was significant for:
the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale's opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an 'off' version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.
The event would come to represent a landmark in the history of contemporary art in Egypt: signaling the entrance of a new coterie of artists and institutions, and, with them, new practices and understandings of art. At the same time, the market horizons for this work were expanding.
Auctioneers in the cities of the desert and bourgeois gold
In a recent interview, Sultan al-Qassemi noted the absence of a healthy demand for Egyptian art in the 1990s: "There was art, even in the 90s, but there wasn't a market for art in Egypt, and there was a near total absence of Egyptian art outside of Egypt. Collectors of Egyptian art could be counted on one hand, most prominently Mohammed Said Al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and the emir of Qatar, Hassan bin Mohamed Al Thani." Nevertheless, with the beginning of a new century, cities in the Gulf were rapidly acquiring international status, and the skyscrapers rising in Doha competed with those of Dubai. The entrance of auction houses at this particular moment would have a significant effect on the market for works from Egypt and the region.
Francis relates that at the start of the new millennium, he began to receive invitations and friendly advice to go to Dubai, where the art market was already strong and expanding as a result of the rapid growth of the real estate market. After ten years of involvement in the art world, he had made a name for himself both locally and internationally. During this period, Francis met a European interior designer working in Dubai and she began working with him in selecting art for her projects. In 2005, he was visited by members of a delegation from Christie's auction house who sought to familiarize themselves with Egyptian and Arab art and art markets. Francis accompanied them to a number of studios, including those of the prominent artists Adel el-Siwi, Mohamed Abla, and Adam Henein. The auctioneers were undertaking their first exploratory visits of the Arab art market by visiting a number of Arab cities in preparation for the inauguration of branches in Dubai and the wider Gulf region.
In a 2012 study of the Middle Eastern art market, The Rise of the Middle Eastern Art Market Since 2006, author Taymour Grahne quotes Philipp Hoffmann, executive director of the Fine Art Fund Group, as setting the total value of the Middle Eastern art market at US$10 billion; this value was expected to triple in coming years. By the end of 2005, Christie's had opened its first branch in the Middle East. Sotheby's and Bonhams followed suite. The establishment of these auction houses had a transformative effect on the status of Arab art. Qassemi describes some of these changes:
These houses employed art scholars and experts to study and appraise Egyptian art and did reports to verify the proposed numbers. Sometimes, we'd hear about works selling for outrageous amounts but we had no way to verify these numbers; the houses worked to verify them. The auction houses reduced the number of fakes threatening the Arab art market, due to the passing off and sale of art forgeries without verifying their authenticity or history. The houses produced authenticated catalogs of Egyptian artists. There is a catalogue raisonné documenting all of the works of Mahmoud Said, Ramses Younan, and other greats, which became essential references for their work."
When I asked Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke recently why people in Dubai, the Gulf and Cairo buy art at these prices, he replied, “everything the bourgeoisie touches turns to gold” — attributing the statement to Karl Marx. If auction houses aim primarily to generate more and more “gold,” a law governing the art market must first be established for pricing works of art. In a market where opinions and critical judgments are up for debate, the auction is one of the few institutions that leaves the task of determining the price of a work of art to the free market. On this basis, the work of a particular artist is assigned a monetary value that becomes, as Mohamed Talaat says, a reference point for future sales.
At the same time, Talaat explains that the art market and its main site of exchange in the Gulf-based auction houses possess blind spots which leave them open to manipulation. He tells of how some galleries might offer the works of young artists they represent to auction houses, only to turn around and purchase the same works for a high price at auction through an agent. As a result, the value of an artist's work increases and art collectors are encouraged to seek them out. After prices have multiplied, the gallery re-exhibits and resells the artist’s work. However, Qassemi takes a different view regarding the manipulation of auction bidding to increase the price of an artist's work: "This might have occurred at the beginning, but now it would be difficult for such a thing to happen because the market is very narrow, and if a gallery did such a thing it would be discovered immediately, because the market is small and we all know what's out there."
While warning against the misuse of the auction system, Talaat also complains of national biases perpetuated by gallerists in the region, claiming:
Iranian businessmen and millionaires mostly reside in Dubai, therefore, they buy works by Iranian artists, who have come to represent a large portion of the art market shared by Arab art. And the Iranians aren't satisfied with just acquiring art; they also support projects promoting Iranian art in Dubai and the Arab countries. Galleries in Syria and Lebanon also have a clear bias against Egyptian art, to the degree that the director of a Syrian gallery announced a while ago in an interview that the only artists on the market are Syrian artists. On the other hand, there are galleries in Egypt that do not coordinate with each other at all.
Francis holds a different opinion, stating that he has held shows for Egyptian artists in Lebanon and Syria. He adds, "galleries might collaborate on a given project, but we can't work together or coordinate with each other because, frankly, we're competitors in the same market." Whether at the auction house or in the gallery, the value assigned to works of art is often determined by a system that rewards the self-interest of those with a profit to make from the sale of work.
Ultimately, the market is supported by art collectors who invest heavily in particular names, acquiring the works of these artists with the goal of building savings and investing in property, as a painting that is worth “ten” today might reach a hundred in a few years. Such individuals seek to protect the market and enforce the rules governing it, so as to guard the value of their investments. The collapse of the market or any fundamental change in the laws of appraisal and pricing that regulating it, translates into a loss in the assets of art collectors and a collapse of their investments.
Modern art in the museum
Outside interest in acquiring modern Egyptian art originated in the 1960s, as students from Gulf states moved to Egypt to pursue advanced education or for various other reasons, and were exposed to the works of modern and contemporary artists. As Qassemi recounts, there were four major art collectors in the Arab Gulf as early as the 1980s. The most significant of these belonged to Mohammed Said al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and owner of the largest collection of works by modern Egyptian artists. The private art collection of Qatar’s Sheikh Hassan Al Thani would serve as the seed of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Currently, he claims, the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art still possesses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the region comprised of some 12,000 pieces. At the same time, the museum operates within an extremely limited annual budget of LE 2 million. While the National Public Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Algiers (MAMA) stands in second place with a collection of some 8,000 works, Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is quickly closing in from behind.
Talaat graduated from Cairo’s College of Fine Arts in 1999. In addition to his work as an artist, he took an interest in organizing exhibitions. In 2005, he was appointed director of the Arts Palace at the Cairo Opera House, where he worked with the artist Mohsen Shaalan who was serving at the time as the head of the Fine Arts Sector in the Ministry of Culture. Talaat relates that in the period in which he served as director of the Arts Palace there was something of a boom in the art market in that a new breed of collector interested in young artists appeared on the scene and new Arab markets opened up, while state institutions continued to lag behind.
Gradually, however, the state began opening its doors to the so-called 1990s generation, which had been excluded from exhibiting their work at national venues in the years prior. This move represented a point of contention for artists of previous generations. The latter understood the works of these artists as alienated from the national identity of Egyptian art. In other instances, younger artists were accused of crossing red lines. Thus, for example, a number of artists and art critics demanded that Khaled Hafez and Wael Shawky be investigated for tatbia, or normalization of relations with Israel, as well as insulting national values.
The state’s newfound interest in these artists stemmed, in part, from the esteem their works enjoyed abroad, and was fueled by an attempt to recover its original position of influence in the arts sphere. Galleries such as the Townhouse served as international authorities on contemporary Egyptian art and were called upon regularly to nominate artists to participate in initiatives outside of Egypt: a role historically monopolized by the Ministry of Culture. However, despite breakthroughs and attempts at change initiated by Shaalan, the Fine Arts Sector's performance in this regard was limited by its restricted budget, and continued to weaken after 2010, Talaat claims. Eventually, Talaat grew discouraged with the rejection of many of his project proposals. His experience in the state arts’ administration qualified him to pursue work as an art consultant: developing collections for a number of real estate and tourism companies. He also launched plans to open his own space.
While the Egyptian government sector was scaling down its involvement in the arts, Gulf-state governments, and, in particular, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, were becoming increasingly active players in the field and initiating construction on various museum projects. Yet, in doing so, they have pursued distinct aims and cultivated varying approaches. Thus, each state in the region pursues a different policy in acquiring art. According to Qassemi:
In the UAE, the government purchases and acquires works of art through a museums authority, which has a board of specialists who study paintings and determine what to purchase. There are regulations governing acquisitions, and certain museums don't buy art from auction houses. In Qatar, the decision to purchase a work is instantaneous and is made quickly depending upon the market and what is on offer. Qatar also buys from auction houses. The most significant purchase it made at an auction was the painting Les Chadoufs by Mahmoudd Said, which sold for more than US $2.4 million.
Likewise, in a study titled Re-Inventing the Museum in Abu Dhabi and Qatar?, Laura Damême explains how these particular governments have used museums to achieve various objectives. In both Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the number of foreign workers and residents in 2010-2011 stood at over 80 percent of the total population. In Abu Dhabi, Damême claims, the government uses museums to present itself as a global capital offering international-brand museums such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in choosing to build the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf, Qatar approaches museums as a means of asserting the cultural specificity and Muslim-Arab identity of its citizens, which account for no more than 15 percent of the total population.
Qassemi adds another possible explanation for the considerable investments made by Gulf countries in the art market: Building museums carries a clear political message. The erection of important new centers of cultural and artistic preservation and display projects an image of these governments as capable of meeting the needs of their citizens, in addition to bolstering the terms of national and cultural identity.
The art market in the Arab world: At the intersection of real estate and oil money
Wealth in the Middle East is concentrated primarily within two markets: real estate and oil. Those familiar with the contemporary history of the arts and the art market in the region can see clearly how the money pouring in from these sources has played a key role in shaping and altering the market. The relationship of art to real estate originated in an understanding of art as an element of interior design. The separation of art from interior design required gallery owners to take significant risks on less conventional works of art. Art’s autonomy from the realm of décor also relied on the subsequent development of a greater appreciation amongst many buyers for the immaterial, as well as the material value of art. With the expansion of the real estate market and urban sprawl in the satellite cities popping up outside of Cairo, the interest of the Egyptian economic elite in acquiring works of art steadily increased. Art, and the acquisition of art, became important markers of social status amongst the upper and upper middle classes.
The relationship of art to real estate became salient again when art was taken up as a vehicle for re-branding the city of Dubai. In the past decade, art has played a central role in the formulation of the image of Gulf countries, which compete to acquire art collections in a race to establish museums that reflect a progressive image of these states, while also converting art into material assets, or a form of investment and savings.
However, despite the surge occasioned by this outside interest in the Egyptian art market, exhibition halls in Cairo have tended to privilege modern art over work by contemporary artists. Moreover, local cultural and social mores inform the processes of selling and appraising art. Works with sexual, religious or politically sensitive content are particularly likely to be excluded from the market. Nevertheless, the market’s relative upswing is related to the appearance of young art collectors who no longer possess the same inhibitions as their predecessors and who are more receptive to purchasing contemporary works of art that reflect some of the spirit of the present moment.
**This project was carried out in the framework of MHWLN, a research and writing group dedicated to the history of contemporary art in Egypt. MHWLN's website features this piece in its entirety in both Arabic and English with relevent images. Translation courtesy Michelle Henjum.