Online dealer slings contemporary/modern art in Egypt

Yesterday, I had the privilege of covering a very cool art exhibition for The Cairo Post: the Winter Exhibition.  Don’t let the .com fool you.  The event, which was held at one of the two Four Seasons in Cairo, featured some of Egypt’s best contemporary/modern art.  While I’m far from an art aficionado, I enjoy art, visit museums and exhibits frequently, and like to think that I have the ability to distinguish between what is good and bad (if such distinctions can be made).  In my opinion, the collections on display at the Arts-Mart event were, for the most part, good to excellent.

There were some decent-sized price tags, too.  Many of the paintings were in the 1,500 to 2,000 Egyptian pound range, which is approximately $200-300.  Not too bad for a quality, aesthetically pleasing  painting.  However, a large chunk, and typically the best, of the paintings were in the 6,000-30,000 EGP range.  Some of them broke 100k EGP, with the highest that I saw being 200k EGP or a little under 30k US dollars.  30k bucks is a decent chunk of change for a painting, especially a place like Egypt.  To put it in perspective, in my current full-time position, I make 60k Egyptian pounds a year, or less than a third of the most expensive painting.  (Do the math to see how little I make in USD.)

As we all know, you get what you pay for, and this was certainly the case at today’s exhibit. From acrylic to oil, abstract to impressionist, the one-day exhibition showcased over 200 pieces from some of Egypt’s best in contemporary art, including well-known artists such as Omar El Nagdi, Britt Boutros Ghali, Assem Abdel Fattah, and Ibrahim El Tanbouli, as well as lesser-known, up-and-coming artists such as Miriam Hathout.

“We’re trying to create a show that will give the viewer a complete reflection of the art scene in Egypt.  We want to show the masters – the really well established artists – side by side with the emerging artists – the younger people,” artist and one of Arts-Mart’s three partners, Lina Mowafy, told me.

The reflection cast by the exhibition was one of impressive diversity, with each set of works differing significantly from the rest.  “When you walk through the exhibition, you have a complete feel of the art scene in Egypt,” said Mowafy.

While there were oriental themes in a lot of the pieces, it wasn’t the typical dude sitting on a camel crap that you see throughout the Middle East.  Much of the art could have easily been in a European or American modern art museum.

As I was strolling through the exhibit, preparing for my interviews with the owners, putting on my best “oh, look-at-the-texture-of-this-one face,” scribbling notes in my more-than-appropriate Moleskine (reporter edition), I was asked by the owner of the PR firm that represents Arts-Mart if I wanted to speak with Ibrahim El Tanbouli.  El Tanbouli was one of the most prominent artists on display at the exhibition.  I approached him and asked him about his impressions of the contemporary art scene in Egypt.  I was expecting a “oh, things are really coming along.  I’m excited about the future.”  I didn’t get that.

“In Egypt, there is a problem marketing and selling our artwork.  We are more successful when we exhibit our work outside of Egypt,” renowned Egyptian artist, Ibrahim El Tanbouli, told me.  “The art is changing, but the Egyptian people are not.  They continue to like oriental and imperial art,” he added.

He also said that Egyptians weren’t cultured or educated enough to appreciate contemporary such as his and the other artists on display.  I left this out of the article that I wrote for The Cairo Post.  A+ for bluntness, though.

Arts-Mart partner, Hatem Zaazou, noted (more diplomatically) that, “People in Egypt are afraid of art.”  By “art,” Zaazou was referring to the contemporary/modern variety.

Because of this apparent Egyptian aversion to contemporary art, Lina Mowafy, Dina Shaaban, and Hatem Zaazou founded in November 2012.  The site basically tries to make buying quality contemporary art so easy, stress free, painless, and idiot proof, that people will be more willing to make the plunge.

“We felt that the art audience has been alienated for quite some time now, and this is why we pushed accessibility.  We want to bring art inside your home.  If you won’t go down to the gallery, if you won’t chase the art, we’ll bring it to you,” Mowafy said.

In addition to providing collectors with easy access to contemporary Egyptian art, also serves as a platform for up-and-coming artists to get exposed and sell their work.  “We found a gap in the market for Egyptian artists.  The artists in the rural areas, for example, nobody knows about them,” Zaazou said.  “We’re opening a channel for people to sell their art.”

Arts-Mart,com is, for the most part, an exclusively online gallery.  However, the year-old gallery hosts a biannual exhibition in the summer and winter seasons to compliment its online retailing.  Physical events such as Saturday’s Winter Exhibition play a key role in Arts-Mart’s growth and development as an art dealer.  Potential buyers come to the exhibitions and see that the gallery is serious and trust worthy, then they become increasingly more comfortable making purchases on the website.

Such hesitation makes sense.  Aside from the clear financial impediments that prevent me from being an art collector, I would have a hard time buying a 5,000 dollar piece of art from a website without physically seeing it.

“The online business is picking up.  The more physical events we do, the more we sell online,” Zaazou said.

To me, it appears that Arts-Mart is on to something.  There is a lot of money at the top of Egypt’s socio-economic ladder and certainly plenty of bad art that needs replacing.


***Excerpts from this blog entry appeared in this article for The Cairo Post:


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