I haven’t willingly been to a Zamalek art gallery in over two years. I do frequent art spaces, but there’s more than enough going on in the largely non-profit spaces in downtown Cairo that doesn’t require me to jump through the hoops of pretension often found in Zamalek’s stuffy commercial art world. At most, Zamalek galleries are known for their shiny openings, which overflow with hors d’oeuvres and society women who might talk about how Baghoury’s bleu is certain to make their art deco couches pop.
This happens all over the world. But in Berlin, New York and elsewhere, art markets spread beyond the hands of a few and manage to power some innovative, exciting work due to the seemingly infinite channels available for showing and monetizing art amid a wide spectrum of exhibitions spaces, from fairs and galleries to alternative and artist-run spaces to publishers and online platforms.
Fifteen years ago Townhouse was founded, the first non-profit addition to downtown Cairo’s commercial galleries such as Mashrabia and now-defunct fellow spaces like Espace Karim Francis and Cairo-Berlin. Non-profit spaces began showing works in more diverse media that included installation and video, made by younger and more innovative artists, but the commercial art spaces never really caught up, meaning that many of Egypt’s artists are isolated from the international art market and Egyptians are isolated from art that manages to be both contemporary and commercial. Zamalek’s commercial galleries are not alone in dealing almost exclusively with safe, unprovocative and non-experimental art.
Since the revolution various commercial spaces have opened up there in an attempt to propose alternatives to galleries such as Safer Khan and Picasso Gallery — like Art Talks, Galerie Misr, 6, and Anthropologie. While each fills a gap in the spectrum, the types of art they show and their models for selling have not differed dramatically from their predecessors.
This is why Aleya Hamza’s recently launched contemporary art space, Gypsum Gallery, on Baghat Ali Street in Zamalek, is such a welcome addition. Hamza is widely known for her work as a curator with non-profit contemporary art institutions such as Townhouse, the Contemporary Image Collective, and PhotoCairo’s third and fourth editions, as well as for various projects in different countries.
Gypsum Gallery opened its doors in October. It aims to present an international, cross-disciplinary program of solo and group exhibitions, publications, limited editions, and occasional off-site interventions. The gallery is representing eight artists who live and work across several different cities, including Alexandria, Amman, Basel, Beirut, Cairo and Berlin, and in various different media. They are Doa Aly, Mahmoud Khaled, Maha Maamoun, Basim Magdy, Mona Marzouk, Tamara al-Samerai, Setareh Shahbazi and Ala Younis.
“Gypsum was founded with the mission of forging longstanding relationships with local and international artists whose rigorous and singular art practice varies in medium, form and approach,” explains Hamza. “It’s not about nationalities or where they’re from — what I’m hoping to do is show contemporary art that is a bit more progressive and critical, but in a commercial context.”
The fact that Gypsum represents international artists has caused some excitement: many feel it may impact the market and the art scene as a whole. Another factor that is unique for Egypt is that Gypsum aims to participate in art fairs. According to Hamza, within only ten days of its launch, Gypsum was invited to participate in Art Rotterdam this coming year.
“One very important strategy of Gypsum is to participate in international art fairs because it is where our artists can truly gain critical recognition from the global art market,” explains Hamza. “I think success for the gallery and artists will come from tackling both the international market and the local one simultaneously.”
In an effort to encourage new art buyers, Gypsum has introduced an enticing series of limited editions. Hamza says that every six months the gallery will invite two or three artists to create an image, rather than an entire exhibition, and 30 editions of that work will be created and sold. The price of each edition starts off as very affordable, and then increases as more are sold.
“People here think collectors only buy paintings, rather than photography or prints, but that’s not entirely true — there just hasn’t been enough exposure around the idea, so I’m hoping the gallery and artists can shake up the scene a bit,” she adds.
Gypsum is already shaking things up with its inaugural exhibition, “Spectral Days,” by Iranian-German artist Setareh Shahbazi. Since opening two weeks ago, Shahbazi’s exhibition has already generated conversations and sold nine pieces.
Born in Tehran in 1978, Shahbazi and her family were forced to move to Germany in 1985 in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. She completed her studies in Scenography and Media Arts in 2003 and in 2005 she took on a residency with Townhouse, where she first met Hamza.
The idea for “Spectral Days” came about during the artist’s 2009 plunge into thousands of family photographs that she retrieved from her ancestral home in Tehran, after which she began scanning, cropping, layering, and manipulating the images.
For me, walking into Shahbazi’s show was something like a mini psychedelic trip. It is a strong aesthetic experience. I stood still for some time, scanning the well-lit, white-walled room and the striking colors that jump off dozens of images, of various sizes and placed at various heights either enclosed in wooden frames painted distinct hues, or hanging bare from bull-dog clips on tiny nails.
After zeroing in on a piece near the entrance, an 85 x 60 cm pixilated photograph of what looked to be chrysanthemum flowers, given a faded rose tint and graphically cut into four with differently shaded triangles, I started to feel a biting sense of nostalgia for memories that were not mine. Some images are haunting in their use of negative exposure, others burst with shapes and colors created through layers of sometimes almost indistinguishable figures and scenes, while others seem to be almost left alone, unmanipulated. There are portraits, landscape shots, vintage cars, and families.
The results don’t refer explicitly to Iran or to conflict, or even to herself. The photos are an intermediary between Shahbazi’s finished works and the memory of a land where she spent her childhood. A sense of searching for lost memories is evoked. Her subjects are altered to fit the image of her memory, or her perception of her memory. The last images in the series seem to dance off the walls with colorfully phosphoric possibility.
Shahbazi’s seductive show is a gentle introduction to contemporary art for the Zamalek art crowd and a promising start for what is arguably Egypt’s first contemporary commercial art gallery. Let’s watch this space.
“Spectral Days” is showing until November 29 at Gypsum Gallery, 5A Baghat Ali Street.