Protocol of a Visit to the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art: Cairo, November 25, 2021
A text by
Ahmed Shawky Hassan
Part I: The Road to the Museum
I was very happy to see the entry gate for individuals open.
This is the main gate of the Cairo Opera House courtyard, leading to Qasr El-Nil Bridge, so I continued heading towards it. Suddenly someone appeared out of nowhere, objecting my way, saying:
—No entry, sir.
—I'm heading to the Museum of Modern Art.
—The other gate.
—I am telling you, I am heading to that museum.
The man repeated his words, in a timid pose and a bare look, with eyes that seemed to be frozen:
—The second gate, sir.
—Where is the second gate?
—Continue on the same side, and you will find it a hundred meters away.
Without getting into any further discussions, I hurried towards the entrance of the Fine Arts Syndicate - the building next to the museum on the side of Qasr El-Nil Bridge. When I reached the gate, I found it closed as I expected, and no one seemed to be working there.
I have no choice now but to enter through the Hanager Gate, which is the furthest away. I was in a rush, as I was afraid I would run out of time and I wouldn’t finish my museum tour before 4:00 pm (the museum’s closing time). Anyway, it was my mistake to come this late, a three-hour tour would definitely not be enough for a museum of this size, its history, and the number of artworks it holds.
I entered from the Hanager Gate and through it I headed back towards Qasr El-Nil Bridge, so that the museum is now in front of me on the left. A few meters ahead, a temporary wooden fence that is being painted by workers became the only thing blocking me from the building. It was erected on the occasion of the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival, which I was just informed that its opening ceremony will take place tomorrow, Friday, 26 November 2021. I learnt by asking one of the workers that the fence was erected in the past few days with the aim of blocking the museum and its audience from the red carpet ceremonies and events. This also applies to The Fountain Theater, which was built in the vast space in front of the museum, to host concerts during the 30th edition of the Arab Music Festival.
Before entering the museum, I decided to wait for a few minutes in its front yard and contemplate the architecture of the building. It has a rectangular facade and a hybrid of two architectural styles: Islamic and Art Deco (the most famous modern architecture in France at the time), and how it turned into a Museum of Modern Art in Egypt1?
Part II: Meeting the Museum Director
I met with Ms. Iman Nabil, the museum director, who generously took me on a tour. We had several discussions, the main points of which were as follows:
A.S. Hassan: At the beginning of our tour, are we going to follow a path based on the architecture of the building, or the arrangement of exhibited works according to a specific method of presentation?
I. Nabil: To begin with, regarding the architecture of the museum, it did not originally have a second floor, that was only built after it became a museum. It’s a cutout from the ground floor, and the same can be said about the marble part in the center of the space. The artworks on the ground floor are arranged according to the date of birth of the leading modernist artists in Egypt, from Georges Sabbagh (1887-1951), who is the oldest artist whose work is shown in the museum, to Tahia Halim (1919-2003).
During the recent reopening of the museum, the arrangement of works was handled in a largely flexible manner. I mean, some of the works broke the chronology due to the diversity of the experience and the longevity of the artist, but taking into account the maximum which is three works per artist. This is limited by the size of the museum because it contains more than 700 artists and 900 artworks on display.
There were other considerations within the chronological order of the works. It was not a purely ascending order, but rather works that juxtaposed according to the relationship between their colours, sizes and themes. Others, on the other hand are displayed according to the relationship between the artists or taking part in one artistic movement, or they share a personal connection
that resulted in a noticeable impact on the artistic production.
We were compelled to move around a marble structure dedicated to display sculpture and ceramics. The outer limits of this structure share the walls of the ground floor to form a passageway where the visitors can pass through. At the same time, this structure has an overwhelming presence that is difficult to fully perceive from the ground floor. I believe that its full dimensions can only be realized when overlooked from the balcony on the third floor. It is surrounded by a group of wide benches fitted with the Galala marble. When I wandered inside it, I was compelled again to follow a path that seemed for a moment to be inspired by the Islamic geometric pattern that characterizes the interior of the building. But that was actually not the case!
A.S. Hassan: I want to inquire about why this structure is there, and to what extent is it necessary or not for the curation of the works?
I. Nabil: It was said that when the museum moved to this building, Dr. Ahmed Nawar (the former head of the Fine Arts Sector) designed it himself according to his own vision to display sculpture and ceramic works, or it has been used for this purpose since then.
A.S. Hassan: I noticed that most of the artworks displayed in the museum are only from Egyptian artists, except for some Armenian names. This is contrary to what I know about the history of why the museum was established, which began with the acquisition of a group of works by Egyptian and foreign artists exhibiting at the Cairo Salon organized by the Fine Arts Lovers Society. Why are there no works by foreign artists while there are some works by Armenian artists?
I. Nabil: Yes, we have here in the museum works by five Armenian artists: Simon Samsonian (1915-2003), Hakob Hakobian (1923-2013), Simon Shahrakian (1911-1989), Lombardi (date of birth and death unknown), Ashud Azourian (1905-1970). And these artists either hold the Egyptian citizenship or stayed in Egypt and did not leave.
But historically, no we do not only have works by foreign artists exhibiting in Egypt, but also part of the collection is from foreign artists outside Egypt. For example, we had a sculpture from the French artist Rodin (1840-1917). But during the nationalist movement of the 70s, works were separated and this museum was then dedicated only for modern Egyptian art.
After that, the works by foreign artists were moved to the Gezira Museum (formerly called the Museum of Civilization, the Planetarium, or the Fuad I Museum) located in the garage area of the Opera Square. This museum is currently under development and is expected to reopen soon.
During our tour of the ground floor, I was captivated by the juxtaposition of two paintings by Hassan Mohamed Hassan (1906-1990) and Ramses Younan (1913-1966). The difference between both of them is very noticable in terms of style, way of thinking and production history.
A.S. Hassan: Why are these two paintings next to each other? This makes me want to know more about the methodology through which the collection was curated, arranged and displayed? What is the extent of your responsibility as the museum director in implementing this?
I. Nabil: I want to clarify a point, It wasn’t my own responsibility...
The idea of this chronological display was a decision made by the Descriptive Committee for Artworks2, which is a committee formed by the head of the Fine Arts Sector who invites members from different art schools. When the museum reopened in November 2020, this same committee selected the works currently on display.
I wasn't here when that happened. I came at a later stage in the committee's work as the museum's representative for technical equipment and exhibition affairs. Artistic direction was my main responsibility. Artist Tarek Maamoun (former director of the museum) and I then worked together in curating the final display based on a process of discussions and direct practical experiments.
A. S. Hassan: Alright, while on the topic, I would like to know more from you about the nature of the curator’s role and what is the extent of his/her responsibilities here in the museum?
I. Nabil: The word curator does not apply here in the way you would imagine, we are essentially only missing the research part of it. What I mean is that the job of the curator is distributed among six trustees, including two secretaries (for display affairs and trustees affairs). The trustees are all responsible for preserving and reviewing artworks, whether on show or in storage. This is not an easy job by any means, since this museum at this very moment has 12,000 artworks, of which 900 are on display and the rest are in storage. In addition to that, there are about 5,000 works on loan which other administrative staff from the museum are responsible for.
A. S. Hassan: Ever since I became a full-time artist, I noticed that there is a general interest amongst young artists in Egypt to have an opportunity to show their artwork here. This is common all over the world but it is especially appealing in this case since the museum has a space for temporary exhibitions. What is the nature of the shows presented in this gallery? Is there a possibility for showing contemporary art practices, for example? And if it is possible, are there suggested guidelines or proposals that artists should follow to get the opportunity to exhibit in this gallery?
I. Nabil: There are indeed temporary shows that take place at the museum. They are either thematic exhibitions with a specific topic, where a group of artworks are taken out of storage to be presented. The other example is solo exhibitions or retrospectives for an individual artist; for example on his/her birthday or a death anniversary. The final example is when exhibitions are curated in relation to the context of the museum. If I was to prepare an exhibition, it would make most sense for the artworks displayed to be from the museum's collection, because otherwise what would be the reason to take out the museum display in order to host a biennial, for example? It would make this building an exhibition space rather than a museum. Museums have different goals, they are archives that display art, preserve heritage, re-present it, and constantly pose questions all the time. This is the role of the museum as an educational institution, and not as a temporary exhibition space that has a policy and goals that are completely different from the context of the museum. In addition to that, artworks from the collection are usually more delicate and fragile in comparison to newly produced works. This in turn directly affects how the works are installed and reinstalled, and we unfortunately do not have the appropriate means for that. Anyway, the continuation of activities in Abaad Gallery (the temporary exhibition space in the museum) is not guaranteed, as we might host the Inji Aflatoun Museum because they currently have a problem.
The response to my question was rather surprising. I expected an answer that would have possible future plans that might include methodologies to hold exhibitions for artists of all ages. So before hearing the answer, more detailed questions came to mind regarding possible ways in which artists could have their artwork shown in the museum.
A. S. Hassan: I think that the museum is considered the only one in Egypt that still acquires newly produced works by artists of all ages thus far. Therefore, There has and always been a renewed ambition amongst artists to have that opportunity for their work to be acquired by the museum. It means a lot for emerging artists, especially at a time when criticism and archiving is rare. Thus, I would like to understand more from you about the process of museum acquisition; how are the works selected? What is the selection criteria? Who is responsible for this process?
I. Nabil: The process of acquisition will take us back to the history of the establishment of the museum, which was based on a former invitation from Muhammad Mahmoud Khalil to acquire the works of artists from the Cairo Salon. This is how the core of the museum began to be formed until it turned into an internal list that belongs to the museum itself. This means that at least one hundred artworks are purchased with a renewable budget annually, and this list continues to this day. The matter has become more complicated now than back then, but I will try to explain it in a simple way.
There is currently a committee formed in the Supreme Council Of Culture called The Fine Arts Committee. The committee is divided into a group of sub-committees, one of which is called The Acquisitions Committee, which is directed by the head of the Fine Arts Sector. Since the amount allocated for the acquisition process comes from the budget of the Fine Arts Sector, there is an employee who attends the meetings of this committee from an administration in the sector called the Acquisitions Department. They are responsible for clearing the financial and administrative aspect of the acquisition process, in addition to receiving works submitted by artists wishing for the museum to acquire their works. Basically, any artist has the right to submit a CD that contains images of their artwork or exhibitions to the Acquisitions Department, which is then presented to the Acquisitions Committee in the Supreme Council of Culture, who makes the final call.
Another method of acquiring artworks is that some members of the committee themselves nominate specific works of art through visits to exhibitions and art events. We, as the museum administration, often ask the committee for recommendations of artists or artworks that are required in the context of museum display, of course whenever possible.
There is a point to make here regarding the work policy of the Acquisitions Committee, which is that artistic value is not the only criteria for acquisition. Part of the acquisition criteria comes from the responsibility to support the art scene by providing financial support and social solidarity to artists in order to contribute to their continuity.
A. S. Hassan: Ok, I have a more specific question. Does the Acquisitions Committee have a clear and declared approach to the selection process?
I. Nabil: No, this is due to the nature of each committee, because it changes every two years.
A. S. Hassan: Of course, this change is understandable, but what I want to understand more is are there any rules against acquiring specific artworks? For example, has the committee previously acquired artworks displayed in private galleries or independent institutions such as the (formerly) Townhouse Gallery, Contemporary Image Collective, Medrar for Contemporary Art, amongst others?
I. Nabil: The Committee does not deal with institutions, but rather with artists. It doesn’t matter to them where the work was displayed but rather what was on display. Meaning that the committee does not deal with intermediaries. There is also another important remark, the nature of the committee’s work is not limited to the capital only, but we are talking about all art exhibitions held throughout the country.
A. S. Hassan: Ok, what if you were told by The Acquisitions Committee that they had acquired a video works as a medium, video art I mean?
I. Nabil: This will never happen!
I personally spoke about this in 2012 when I was a member of the Fine Arts Committee at the Supreme Council of Culture. Which is, to take the initiative to purchase the rights to display this type of work, obtain copies of them, and then see the possibility of displaying them. The idea was that we would get artworks that would push us to establish a Museum of Contemporary Art. The response from Dr. Ahmed Nawar (Chairman of the Committee) at the time was that we can’t acquire works that we don’t have the means for their display, meaning that when we have a Museum of Contemporary Art, we would acquire them.
While we were in the midst of our conversation, we were interrupted by museum security informing us that the museum closes in 10 minutes, and so we had to leave. As I imagined, a three-hour tour is definitely not enough for the museum, it was really a mistake to come so late!
Footnotes1 The museum was formerly named Saray Building III or Grand Saray, and it was established in 1936 and commissioned by King Fuad I, with the aim of presenting cultural, artistic and museum activities. After the Revolution of 1925, it became dedicated to hosting industrial shows in this large square, which at that time was called the Fair Zone. This was before the museum moved and the building turned into the final headquarters after a great and arduous journey of moving between the buildings that exposed it to many changes. The first idea to establish a museum for modern art collections in Egypt began in 1925, initiated by Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil (1877-1953), head of the Fine Art Lovers Society, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. At that time, a hall was allocated for this purpose inside the Fine Arts Lovers Society in Saray Tigran, Ibrahim Pasha Street (present-day Al-Gomhoria) in the center of Cairo. The museum remained in this position until the Ministry of Education in 1928 established the Department of Fine Arts, which later planned for the museum to become an independent entity that is separate from the Fine Arts Lovers Society. In 1931, Saray Moussiri was rented at the intersection of 26th July Street and Emad El-Din Street to host the museum. For some reason, it was moved in 1936 to Saray Al-Bustan in Tahrir Square (the location of the current Arab League Building), then moved again between several temporary headquarters, such as the Count Zogheb Palace on Qasr El-Nil Street in 1949. Its doors remained open to the public until the museum was closed and its collections were stored in 1963, then the building was demolished the following year and a hotel was built in its place. Meanwhile, the collection of the museum was moved to Villa 18 on Ismail Abou El Fotouh Street in Veiny Square in Dokki as the last temporary destination, which served as a storage for artworks rather than a museum for display. It remained in this position until it was transferred in 1983 to its current location.
2 The Descriptive Committee for Artworks consists of Dr. Hamdy Abdallah (Chairman of the Committee) - Ahmed Abdel Aziz – Shawki Maarouf – Dr. Adel Haroun – Dr. Fatima Abdel Rahman – Ayman Lotfy – Tarek Maamoun (Former Director of the Museum) - and lastly a member of the Department of Restoration.
Sources︎ Interview with Iman Nabil, director of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, November 25, 2021.
︎ Kamal Al-Malakh, Rushdi Iskandar, Subhi Al-Sharouni, “80 Years of Art”, The General Association for Books, 1991.
︎ Biography website - Fine Arts Sector, www.fineart.gov.eg.
︎ Hamdy Abdallah (Chairman of the Higher Committee for the Museum), statement about the reopening of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, posted on the official Facebook page of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, December 16, 2020.
︎ Tarek Maamoun (former director of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art and curator of the Museum November 2020), the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art poses the question, posted on the official Facebook page of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, December 12, 2020.
︎ Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, “An Egyptian Museum for Painting: A Proposal to the Ministry of Education”, an article published in Al-Balagh newspaper on April 3, 1928, from Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad’s book “Rare Articles in Fine Arts”, collected and investigated by: Alaa Abdel Hamid, Egyptian General Book Organization, 2020.
Ahmed Shawky Hassan is an artist and writer, Born in 1989 in Ismailia, Egypt. His practice examines the affects and effects of current and historical narratives of the arts, through the investigation of their manifestations and proliferation in the current art sphere. Through text, objects, video and drawing he invites the viewer to explore these hidden and unofficial narratives in the gallery, studio and museum hall. While questioning the roles of the curator, artist, and the viewer as complicit in the preconceived assumptions around artwork and space. Shawky Hassan has recently published his first book “The Video Museum”. Shawky Hassan received his BA from the Faculty of Art Education at Cairo’s Helwan University in 2011. He worked as co-director of MHWLN (a research group devoted to researching and reflecting on the history of contemporary art in Egypt) in 2016 and 2017.