by Sarah Rifky

February 5, 2014

Dispatch: Gypsum Gallery opens in Cairo

The limelight on political struggle, uprisings, and Egypt’s “revolutions” over the last three years has eclipsed the otherwise unprecedented number of recent art initiatives surging in Cairo amidst the tumult. However, for many years, the capital’s growing art milieu has lacked a serious commercial gallery to introduce artists to markets, and potential patrons to contemporary art and artists. The long-standing rumor that Cairo-based curator Aleya Hamza would be launching a commercial space was confirmed this past October with the opening of Gypsum Gallery, her well-conceived venture in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Zamalek.

A dazzlingly colorful display, the first show entitled “Spectral Days” was a solo exhibition of photo-based works by Iranian, Berlin-based artist Setareh Shahbazi, which ran from October 29–November 29, 2013. Hamza presented a whopping selection of forty new works by Shahbazi—heavily reworked photographs from the artist’s family album, which were originally shot in Tehran before the Iranian Revolution. Amounting to an assemblage of close-packed walls of works of various sizes, the installation beguiled the young, new collectors who gathered at the opening and made selections from a vivid collection of works packed with innumerable stories. The opening itself was marked by a bustle of gleaming cars, signaling the arrival of visitors hailing from the city’s more affluent corners (some likely for the first time), who were keen to partake of Cairo’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. However, the vibe around the gallery, nestled within a twentieth-century residential building on Bahgat Ali Street, is quite set apart from other such happenings in the city. An immaculately renovated apartment space, the gallery is a chic, by-the-book white cube complete with requisite ceiling cornices, bright lighting, and polished wooden floors. It is comprised of two open rooms, one of which overlooks an iconic church ensconced within the immediate environment.

Parallel to the gallery’s second show, Doa Aly’s “The House of Sleep,” which took place from December 12, 2013–January 7, 2014, the au courant office also featured a selection of Shahbazi’s work, and an adjacent viewing room presented new limited editions from both Cairo-based and gallery artists. Over the course of the evening exhibition previews, a separate bar serving local cocktails (think vodka with fresh pomegranate juice) was appreciated by all. In keeping with their steady calendar of exhibitions and consistent mode of presentation (so far most of the installations have featured work easily hung on walls), the gallery’s current show “Make Room for Me,” which opened on January 21 and stays on view until February 18, 2014, features Kuwaiti, Beirut-based artist Tamara Al-Samerai’s drawings and paintings loosely inspired by Mark Twain’s 1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The central theme of the previous exhibition, Doa Aly’s “The House of Sleep,” was the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx, two separated lovers from Ovid’s ancient epic Metamorphoses. As we learn in the handout text, Aly has encrypted the following story in the work: Zeus, in an exasperated wrath, drowns Ceyx at sea, and Alcyone attempts to take her own life only to immediately be transformed into a halcyon bird; when Ceyx is transformed just the same, the feathered pair soar away happily ever after. Hung in a far corner of the gallery’s main space, nine drawings (all works 2013) illustrate the amorous epic. Precise in their formal and figurative intensity, eight of the drawings are inscribed with a textual fragment from Ovid’s epic (made in careful lettering with fine pencil), an edifying reminder of the essence of the artist’s interests. The text beneath one drawing reads, “but Alcyone, meanwhile, unaware,” and in another, “she prays on behalf of her poor spouse, no longer in existence, that he would be kept safe and would return and would not find another woman.” Vaguely psychological, the drawings recall Surrealist automatism and Rorschach tests, evoking a romanticized, almost religious, sense of love and devotion that is starkly absent from the world surrounding them. Representative of Aly’s signature deployment of lines and forms, a hint of geometrical figuration introduces a new topographic quality to these pencil-on-paper works of anatomical structures of disfigured bone, reflecting a neurotic physicality as well as the steady tension of the artist’s hand. When placed together, the single-frame illustrations are not unlike cliffhangers from a film serial, each drawing revealing the artist’s exploration of classical mythology’s world of intrigue, something to which Cairo’s audiences may not be ordinarily exposed.

As the exhibition’s handout unmistakably announces, this show marks the artist’s return to painting after seven years. A previous chapter of Aly’s project premiered last May at Townhouse, Cairo’s fifteen-year-old, independent nonprofit space, which showcased Metamorphoses: The Sequences (2010–13), a series of four videos featuring a single, non-professional dancer as he performs a constricted choreography against a patterned backdrop. This recent exhibition at Gypsum Gallery, which included four paintings, was decidedly staid by comparison to the inaugural show, and was imbued with an air of classic modernism (undoubtedly palatable to reticent new collectors). Fairly symptomatic of the way in which contemporary art and its institutions operate in Cairo, extensive background information about the works on view implores viewers to take a leap of imagination between what they see and what they are told to see, and they have no choice but to second-guess their initial impressions. The abstract paintings—including a diptych made with light-hued oil on canvas and two dusky paintings rendered in an inverse color palette, each occupying its own wall—overtly echo the drawings’ organic shards and debris of shapes and forms. Aly’s subtle mastery of color reveals her classical fine art training at Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, the pedagogical methods of which, now nearly a century old, have become increasingly derelict with age.

It is in this fashion that Gypsum Gallery approaches the “new art” fad with caution. Since the potential discrepancies between form and content are familiar to art aficionados across the world (and even in Cairo), they do not detract from the otherwise refreshing experience of seeing solo exhibitions by local and international artists in a proper commercial gallery context. Although Gypsum’s relatively conservative exhibitions may strike some as insipid or unnecessarily risk-averse, the restriction of works to conventional media in “The House of Sleep”—as well as the gallery’s other exhibitions thus far—does increase their likelihood of finding a buyer and a home. However, one cannot help but wonder if a good cocktail in an upscale environment remains the only way to convert upper-class audiences into avid patrons of the arts. Starting any commercial enterprise within the current economic climate does not come without some risk, so the development of a solid client base will undoubtedly take time. Nevertheless, the gallery’s developing program, which stakes out new territory, demonstrates that there is an increased interest in cultivating Cairo’s contemporary art scene—with private advocacy standing in for a lack of public support for art and artists.

Sarah Rifky is a curator and writer based in Cairo. She is co-director of Beirut.

View from Gypsum Gallery showing Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Cairo, 2013.

1View from Gypsum Gallery showing Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Cairo, 2013.

View of Bahgat Ali Street in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, home to the recently founded Gypsum Gallery.

2View of Bahgat Ali Street in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, home to the recently founded Gypsum Gallery.

View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

3View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

4View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

Setareh Shahbazi, Spectral Days, 2012.

5Setareh Shahbazi, Spectral Days, 2012.

Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

6Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

View of Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

7View of Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

View of Gypsum Gallery office with works from Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

8View of Gypsum Gallery office with works from Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013.

Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

9Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

10Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013.

  • 1View from Gypsum Gallery showing Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Cairo, 2013. Photo by Sarah Rifky.
  • 2View of Bahgat Ali Street in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, home to the recently founded Gypsum Gallery. Photo by Sarah Rifky.
  • 3View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 4View of Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 5Setareh Shahbazi, Spectral Days, 2012. C-print, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 6Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013. Pencil on paper, 46 x 32.5 cm. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 7View of Doa Aly, “House of Sleep,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013. Photo by Sarah Rifky.
  • 8View of Gypsum Gallery office with works from Setareh Shahbazi, “Spectral Imprints,” Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, 2013. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 9Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013. Pencil on paper, 46 x 32.5 cm. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 10Doa Aly, Untitled, 2013. Pencil on paper, 46 x 32.5 cm. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
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