11th Cairo Biennale, which took place December 20, 2008 to February 20, 2009. The theme of the Biennale was "The Other," which means Those is no one other than myself in this society, but the Biennale challenged artists to overlook that, and practice "diversity and tolerance." The president of the Biennale was Mohsen Shaalon, and the commassaire was Ehab El-Labban. Included were 86 artists from 45 countries, including one from the United States. The Cairo Biennale is one of the largest, most prestigious art shows in the Middle East. Organized in 1984, artists from around the world participate in this biannual event held in several venues throughout Cairo.
It is an honor to participate in the Cairo Biennale, because it is organized by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's Sector of Fine Art, who organize and maintain the strict rules and regulations affecting artists who show their work in the Biennale. An artist writes, "Every work must be submitted to the organizers' judgment and may be removed at any time should it not reflect the prestige of the Biennial or hurt religious sensitivity" (Elkoussy 4). The Biennale is held in three different exhibition halls, the Art's Palace, the El-Gezira Arts Center, and the Horizon One, and thousands of visitors line up to see the artwork during the Biennale.
The history of the Biennale is relatively short in the art world. It began in 1984, but it was only open to the Arab world that first year. It did not open up to the rest of the world until 1986. A participating Middle Eastern artist notes how the idea of the Biennale came to be. She writes, it "is modelled on the Venice Biennial: there are national pavilions (organized by the different national representatives), honorary guests (selected by the higher committee), and special invitations (also selected by the higher committee)" (Elkoussy 4). This year, the format and structure of the Biennale changed, to help it grow with the times. A critic notes, "For its 11th installment, the organizational process and the artwork selection were restructured in an attempt to better reflect the diversity and complexity of contemporary art" (Shaked). Each Biennale uses a different theme for artists to explore, with their works, and they encourage innovation and new techniques as part of the process.
The Biennale is extremely important because it has become a leader in Middle Eastern art, it brings artists together, and it introduces modern art to the Egyptians, who do not seem to have a real appreciation for commercial modern art. The German artist continues, "In Cairo sadly, there is no art market as is understood internationally. There are dealings in antique paintings and in some key works by established Egyptian artists. Young artists cannot rely on selling work to earn any kind of decent living" (Elkoussy 5). There are some private galleries, and there is some support of young artists by the government and by charitable organizations in the area, but the Biennale has become the showcase for young Middle Eastern artists hoping to showcase their works and gain international attention.
Several internationally known artists included their works in the 2009 Biennale. An interesting multimedia project by Spanish artist Anja Krakowski included moving soundtracks and given and appropriated images to interpret her ideas about "The Other." She writes, "That is [the] reason why I have chosen to base my work on appropriated materials in order to let the others speak (for me)" (Krakowski). Another artist well-known to the Biennale is Lara Baladi, who exhibited her "Borg El Amal" (Tower of Hope, 2008) during the exhibition. A critic writes it was "An ephemeral construction and sound installation placed, like a tarantula on a birthday cake, in the manicured gardens of the city's opera house. A red-brick structure mimicking half-finished Cairo residential housing, it rose nine ruinous metres in spite of itself" (Larsen). This indicates there are both indoor and outdoor pieces on view for the Biennale, taking art to the streets of Cairo as well as the galleries.
Of course, the Biennale would not be an art show without awards. Each Biennale offers a "Best in Show" award, but there are many other awards given out. In the 2009 Biennale, an American artist, Jennifer Steinkamp exhibited two video productions, "Dervish" and "Dervish Cairo." She was the only American exhibiting at the Biennale, and The Fund for U.S. Artists funded her appearance. Kader Attia, a Parisian artist, photographer, and filmmaker won the 2008 Cairo Prize of the Biennale for video projection "Oil and Sugar (2007)." A reviewer notes, "In a tightly composed shot, sugar cubes arranged into a neat cube on a tray slowly topple when black crude oil is poured over the top and seeps through the cracks" (Shaked). Attia also offered a video of a male belly dancer that offended some viewers. Of his winning entry, Shaked continues, "The texture, shine and scale of the image create a mesmerizing effect that resembles footage of natural disasters or buildings being demolished, reminding the viewer that a mediated spectacle may elsewhere be a tragic reality" (Shaked). Many of the exhibits were not so serious, using humor as an art form to help get their message across.
Many people questioned the meaning of the theme of the "The Other," and the Biennale committee explained their choice this way, "The other becomes then both the self and the surrounding others. Our other can also be seen as a subtraction of a local culture, with all its specificities, from the universal culture that contains numerous cultures in cumulative patterns" (Editors). The stressing of universal culture is important, because it indicates a global approach to art that is becoming more common and popular. However, not all Egyptian artists feel the Biennale is right for them. Artist "Some artists are choosing to opt out. They do not take part in shows that put them under an umbrella of a defined identity" (Elkoussy 10). They feel they are still marginalized in many group shows, and so they choose to go it alone, often in another country, where their artwork is more recognized and accepted. As a critic notes, "Something similar holds true for biennials: they need to take the long way home in terms of curatorial effort, in order to become something more than official solutions to political needs. It's a fact that the Cairo Biennale seems to be waking up to" (Larsen). There have been critics who complain about the politics and cronyism of the exhibit, and wish that a government ministry would hand over the management to an arts organization (Elkoussy 4).
For the most part, the exhibition is looked at favorably throughout the international community. One American art professor and critic notes, "Perhaps more so than any other biennale host, Cairo cradles the art in its immensity and history, demanding multiple interpretations and providing endless instances of questioning. Many of the artworks on view encourage a critical approach to the process of visiting and looking" (Shaked). Professor Shaked felt the new changes in organization made the show "uneven" at times, but they worked overall. He continues, "Yet its significance and interest were concentrated in a selection of several very strong works, and the promise that the new format holds in the rapidly growing art world of the region" (Shaked). Other critics had similar thoughts about the Biennale. He writes, "These new commissions related either directly or allusively to Cairo, and were amongst the contributions that ensured the Biennale didn't simply land in the city like an UFO of cultural prestige" (Larsen). It is interesting to note another aspect of the Biennale that is important globally. The participants come from all over the world, but the reviewers, critics, and art lovers are a global group, too. Many countries and their art magazines cover the Biennale every two years, and support their artists attending the event, too.
The Biennale seems to have been a success, its theme was widely well regarded, and the winning art pieces seemed to take the theme and make it their own. It seems to be an integral part of Egyptian history, which has produced diverse works of art for thousands of years. From the decoration, hieroglyphics, and pieces that adorned the pharaoh's tombs, to the Pyramids and the Sphinx, Egypt has long been known as a leader in the art world. The Biennale just continues that long-standing tradition, and builds on it, urging new artists to enter into the Egyptian art scene. It also recognizes there is a well-defined global art scene that uses contemporary techniques to tell their stories, and that tolerance and diversity are necessary for the world to survive and thrive. Their art exhibition celebrates this diversity, as the theme for the 11th Cairo Biennale clearly indicates. Artist Elkoussy notes, "As a result of the globalization processes, demographics and decolonization, the recent past witnessed a growing interest on the part of the art centres of the world in the art produced on the periphery" (Elkoussy…