The 2nd Egyptian Scenography Exhibition and the shadow of the state
Artwork by Marwa Ouda

It was completely dark as I passed the beeping security scanner at the Hanager Arts Center. The fact that the scanner was working meant there was power, but for some reason the staff had opted to switch off all the lights in the foyer and leave no receptionists or ushers to direct visitors.

I made my way in the dark to the nearest lit space and was fortunate enough to find it the exhibition itself. The hall was a medium-sized space, well lit, with no brochures or flyers or any signage explaining who organized the exhibition or how it was laid out.

This was the second exhibition by the Egyptian Scenographers and Theater Technicians Center (ESTTC) — the first was in 2012, also at Hanager Theater. The shows are part of their efforts to gain full membership of OISTAT (Organisation Internationale des Scenographes Techniciens et Architectes de Theatre), based in Prague, and thus represent it in Egypt. OISTAT represents stage scenographers, technicians and architects of theater worldwide, and is an offshoot of the ITI (International Theatre Institute), which was founded in 1968. Although ESTTC is listed as a member, it is still “under foundation” as an organization. The center does not have a webpage or headquarters, but it does have a “closed group” on Facebook.

Hazem Shebl

The exhibition opened at the same time as the National Theater Festival, also taking place at the grounds of the Opera House and in the Hanager Theater. This year the festival honored veteran costume designer Naeema Agamia, whose work is on display in the exhibition.

The show boasts documentation — photos, drawings and digital sketches — of works by 32 scenographers, costume designers and light designers, but its scope is not clear and the distinction between each field is not properly articulated in the display. A significant challenge in following the works of the artists is the absence of any biographical material, background information on the work presented, or even an indication of whether the work presented represents the latest production of each artist, or is a former work.

Some displays felt more like retrospectives, showing works going back to 1999. Others only showed one production dated no earlier than 2013. The lack of any curatorial arrangement or logic can be justified by the fact that this is a “showcase” rather than a curated exhibition. Yet even for a showcase, navigating through the space was a bit trying.

Marwa Ouda

From artist to artist, there were significant discrepancies in labeling, quality of documentation and chronology. Even the choice of material to display was not in the least bit uniform. Every artist chose to display her work in one format or other without considering how it would all fit together visually or conceptually, or how it would be perceived by the audience. The main vehicle for displaying the works were large boards, with a small sign on the side indicating the name of the artist. Some boards, all displaying the work of costume designers (such as Nermine Said, Agamia, Skeena Mohamed Aly, Maisa Mohamed), aimed to show the working method, so displayed sketches, studies for characters and fabric samples. As for the actual scenography displays, there was very little on the artist’s process or method. And any distinction between set design and light design was all but absent.

Perhaps what was most fascinating about the exhibition is what it revealed in terms of theatrical production in public-sector theater. It was a rare chance for the general public to get a glimpse of the repertoires of the Taleea Theater, Balloon Theater, Hanager, the National Theater, the Cairo Opera House and many other establishments that are little known and little used outside those affiliated with the public sector. The repertoire has not changed from the usual or the expected: Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Dame), Shakespeare (Macbeth), some contemporary Egyptian writers such as Mahfouz Abdel Rahman (Balqeis), and even a nod to former avant-gardism in the staging of From Where do I get the People (1975), by the late enfant terrible of the Egyptian left Naguib Sorour, a play based on the popular folktale of Hassan and Naima.

Mahmoud Sami

There were only two non-state theater productions represented in the exhibition. One was the American University in Cairo’s production of Tawfik al-Hakim’s The Thief, at the Malak Gabr Theater in the university’s new campus. The other was by Future University, and, believe it or not, the production was called Egypt as Big as the World, and was presented, naturally, at the Air Force Stadium.

What might come as a shock, or be a bit problematic, is the several “variety shows” produced by the Egyptian Armed Forces Department of Morale Affairs. According to some artists, these productions cost millions. How and why the Department of Morale Affairs became a cultural producer and how the artists who worked on those productions were selected is not clear.

The actual naming of the Department of Morale Affairs as the producer was a bit unusual too. Since former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time, the military has been heavily involved in all matters of culture (one need only remember the scores of men and women in uniform in the iconic 1960 operetta The Greatest Homeland), but it was always done under a “civilian” guise. Former military officers were appointed ministers of culture (the mastermind Tharwat Okasha, for example) and media and press directors and managers (such as the former Colonel Abdel Qader Hatem, minister of national guidance and information), yet the actual departments of the Armed Forces itself never produced or commissioned theatrical or artistic productions as such.

This leaves one wondering if the current regime is asserting the presence of the military not just by controlling the media and the press, but even through some niche practices such as scenography. Or perhaps those artists involved in such state-sponsored “pageants” are forcing this themselves as way to prove their allegiance?

The 2nd Egyptian Scenography Exhibition ran from August 10 to 25 at the Hanager Arts Center, Cairo.


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