The Youth Salon: Bold, ambitious, too big

The yearly Youth Salon, showing in and around the Palace of Arts in Cairo’s Opera House complex, opened in November and runs until December 30. Here artists Sama Waly, Taha Belal and Jenifer Evans talk about what they saw.

Jenifer Evans: So what do we know about this year’s salon?

Taha Belal: Well, it was curated by Khaled Hafez, he was “chief commissaire.” And there was a jury committee — the only member I recognized was Hazem al-Mistikawy.

JE: Both Hafez and Mistikawy were in the show that was on just before, the salon’s 25th anniversary celebration.

TB: We also found out from the catalog that there are 310 artists in this Youth Salon. There are also a lot of prizes. It said the biggest was LE20,000, the Grand Prize.

Sama Waly: So I guess the Ministry of Culture funded. And there were a bunch of other prizes that were also —

TB: About LE10,000. That was the next step down, and there were at least five.

SW: The idea that there’s prizes and a jury — you’d assume that the works that got the best prizes would be those that are the most interesting, but from what I saw I don’t think that’s so. I’m wondering to what extent there was politics involved.

TB: I thought about that when I saw how many artists and artworks there are in the exhibition. I kept wondering why there can’t be a more rigorous selection process.

JE: It doesn’t work to anyone’s advantage to have so many artists. For the viewer, by the time you’re halfway though it’s difficult to keep concentrating, you feel oversaturated.

TB: Also some artworks could have benefited from more space.

JE: One painting was hanging half over a doorframe, a nice touch.

SW: I guess this has to do with understanding what a salon is, as opposed to an exhibition. Compared to the other exhibition we saw today, the idea of having a trajectory, and really thinking about what works you need to be close to and what you need to look at from a distance, how you place yourself in relation to the art — it doesn’t seem like these are things the Youth Salon team really think about.

JE: You feel like the function of a salon is to be more like an index of works rather than an actual spatial experience?

SW: Although a lot of works were installations.

JE: Right, but sort of shoved into a corner or —

SW: Exactly — one of the winning works was right behind the stairs.

TB: There was also vinyl texts stuck the walls, museum-like: The show was divided into sections, with a wall text for each one talking about symbolism and so on. I think they were all titled “Cartographies of” something. “Cartography of the Body and Sensuality” and “Cartography of Word and Letter.”

SW: Generally, I think the works that tried to be more sophisticated in terms of technology and gadgets were the least interesting.

JE: Yeah. It also didn’t help that many of them weren’t actually functioning, so we just saw blank computer screens.

SW: Although there seems to be in general a development in experimenting with materials, with sensors and technology, which is promising in a way.

TB: There clearly were a lot of works that were ambitious, whether in regards to technology, or size, or materials — there were a lot of different materials.

JE: I think that’s true. In fact, I’d go as far as to say this is the best Youth Salon I’ve seen since I started going to them in 2010. And I saw some paintings that I thought had better technique than before. Ahmed Sabry’s large rat painting stood out, and Nada Baraka’s painting.


SW: It caught my attention that a lot of the works of higher quality, a label said they’re part of the CIB bank collection. But does that mean that CIB funded the work from the beginning, or just bought it afterwards?

JE: Maybe the CIB jury, whoever they are, are just attracted to expensive-looking stuff.

One thing I find in the salons is that some works overly rely on a concept: There’s a very clear idea, or an analogy the artist wants to draw between a psychological state and something that occurs in nature or some such. Quite a few works that feel like a one-liner.

TB: One example would be the one with the live rats — also the one with the kinetic head movement by Mahmoud Marey.

JE: Very symbolic, and not very exciting. I also definitely felt there were works that were trying to be shocking or bold, trying to push the boundaries ethically. There were live pet rats in an artwork. They didn’t look very happy at all. They were in a plastic transparent box, and there were other boxes that had barbed wire in, and there were also some fake rats. It definitely felt like it was trying to be shocking.


TB: Marey’s one, with the motion sensor that moves the head of what appears to be a shrouded dead body, is meant to surprise people. It rears its head. Creepy.

JE: One work I quite liked had a cactus coming out of a toilet, by Asmaa Abdel Moneim. I thought there was something possibly a bit daring about having a toilet in the Ministry of Culture. I liked that gesture. I also thought technically is was quite well done, it looked like a real bathroom.


SW: It looked like it was in a showroom, in Ceramica Cleopatra. It seems like they just displaced it and put it in the gallery space.

JE: So you didn’t like that piece?

SW: It didn’t strike me much. The paintings next to it, by Hady Boraey, were more interesting. The style reminded me of modernist Egyptian artworks, but developed in a different way, using techniques that are more graphics-based.


TB: Flatter.

SW: Flatter, though it does recognize that it’s painting so the shadows are there, but it’s moving away from traditional painting techniques.

JE: I felt like there was a lot of care put into it — there were no pencil marks or rough outlines. A level of attention that often isn’t there in Youth Salon paintings.

SW: But what you said about it conceptually, in terms of trying to convey a message — I can understand having reservations with that piece.


JE: It felt quite heavily symbolic, I guess, although I was also impressed by the painting. Did you feel there’s a particular message the whole thing is giving, or did you see it as individual pieces hung together? I couldn’t tell if it was a set.

SW: The style was very similar and some of the characters were the same, but I didn’t try to understand a message or anything.

JE: When you said modernist artists I thought of Abdel Hadi al-Gazzar — is that the kind of painting you’re thinking of?

SW: Yes. Although if we talk about Gazzar and that group, the Contemporary Art Group, we talk about bolder themes and bolder symbols, which this painting doesn’t reflect. So it’s not risky, it’s very safe, it’s pretty. And this one is in the CIB collection.

JE: Interesting.

SW: I keep going back to that but I think it is very interesting that the salon is organized by the state-run institutions, and a bank will come and buy these works. These factors really do reflect the situation. It seems like some artists are trying to take risks, are trying to shock you, but within the boundaries.

JE: Yes. I was quite surprised by those paintings with the female body parts, by Shaimaa Sobhy Gamaa, breasts with eyes —


SW: And one of them looked like two girls were having sex. I really enjoyed that.

JE: I did too. It was definitely pushing at something.

SW: Taha, you said something about technique in those paintings.

TB: The paintings really drew you in — you wanted to get closer because they looked quite nicely made, but some parts were a bit disappointing when you got close. But it was still a very good start.

JE: One thing that’s a constant in the Youth Salons is that there’s an emphasis on the female body generally — there are nude and semi-nude women in every salon. Those paintings felt different because they’re more sexual, but there’s never anything about men being in that position — I feel like if that had been men’s body parts, that would have been too shocking.

TB: There was what looked like a nude male figure upstairs — his torso was in shadow, but I thought it was interesting that there was actually a male nude.

SW: On that same floor there was also a projection, by Maryan Fahmy — images projected onto a mesh screen. Ghostly figures. I thought that was a good start too — playing with materials.


JE: And it was simple, it wasn’t overdoing it.

SW: Although it doesn’t seem that the artists or whoever puts up the show gives too much attention to detail — even there, there were a few things in the room that could distract you from the work.

JE: The speakers and amp, and the projector being very low down.

TB: But it was an example of using the space in a good way, not trying to do too much but at the same time taking advantage of the space she was given. Nearby, in a space of a similar size it seemed that the artists were more interested in filling the space. It was called Log Out.

JE: There were a lot of people making painting as installation, which I thought was an interesting trend. Installations with paintings inside or behind them.

TB: Or paintings with a video in or on them.

JE: Also paintings that had cut-out photos or photocopies stuck on them. You’d have whole figures stuck on to painted backgrounds. Were there any other works that stood out to either of you?

SW: The balloons, by Marwa Aly Mohamed.


JE: Oh, the ceramic balloons!

TB: They seemed fun, and more formal. I liked that there were balloons in different shapes, some blown-up and some that were not, some that were in an in-between state, like they’d lost some air.

SW: It seemed to me that the artist spent time playing around, time researching the piece without making it try to symbolize anything — it was very direct.

JE: I agree, I liked that.


SW: From then on, it did seem like the show went downhill. You had so many more artworks stacked together, and it seemed that even the curators realized that, yeah…

TB: By that point art fatigue had really set in. We had seen three or four major halls of art.

SW: What’s art fatigue?

TB: It’s seeing so much —

JE: That you can’t take it in any more. Also I think the works got less good. It was a combination of art fatigue and coming across artworks you feel you’ve seen before, like those Fayoum-style portraits made with watermelon seeds and matchsticks. And sculptures of the human body made out of chicken wire.

SW: But when you say the work is bad, could we define that? Is it in terms of aesthetics?

JE: For me, one of the first things is the feeling that I’ve seen it before, that it just fits a template of work I tend to see in the salon, that the person making it is not trying to do anything new or different particularly, they’re just fitting themselves into a mold. You get different types of stuff, the ancient Egypt stuff, the Fayoum portrait stuff, the —

SW: You’ve seen it before in Egypt, or — ?

JE: In Egypt, in that particular space even. Another factor is when things are sloppily made, for example you’ve got a painting and one corner is sticking out off the wall because it’s warped. Or it looks like there wasn’t much attention given to the work, you know, it was done in a distracted or vague way. The series you mentioned at the beginning stood out because of the level of care that went into every centimeter of the canvas.

So familiarity and sloppiness are both major factors that make me feel like a work is bad. Then there are works that are trying to say something very obvious, these one-liner works.

SW: Like the Log Out piece.

JE: The Log Out piece, by Nada Abdel Rahim Abdallah and Sara Youssef Adel Aal, is a good example of the one liner. It consisted of human figures made of chicken wire, and in the middle there was a blob made out of chicken wire —

SW: And there were lines hand drawn with a black marker.

JE: There was a soundtrack and lights.

TB: The soundtrack was the sounds of all the electronic devices that you hear, a Skype call, a message on a Nokia phone, an iPhone ringtone.


JE: So each of these life-size chicken-wire figures were attached to the blob with marker lines, and coming from the blob were lights and sounds. The suggestion was that you can’t escape technology. What was it called?

TB: You Can’t Log Out.

SW: What bothered me the most was the symbolic aspect of it. The idea is interesting — yes you can’t log out, you have all these different sounds you hear, but the artist didn’t take the time to take the concept further and create something that’s more real, less imposed.

TB: Its seems very much an illustration of this one idea, and it’s taken to the end for this artist. They executed this thing, you go in, you grasp what it’s about, you leave — there’s no need to hang around, there’s nothing left in your mind to wonder about.

On the other hand you have those balloons, or even those pencil drawings we saw made with a compass and just pinned to the wall. Or those little drawings you liked, Jenifer, that had glass on top of them screwed to the wall, by Israa al-Fiqqy

JE: Oh yes! They were in a corner — they were just collage-type pieces, quite small, hung maybe five in one row and then five underneath. I thought they had potential. Each one seemed to have this horned or antlered figure in it doing something a bit naughty or scary, or you couldn’t really tell — and there were little crowds of people.


SW: And they were collages?

TB: It seemed like a mix, like some parts were hand-drawn or painted, colored in. It was interesting even in that regard — you don’t know immediately what you’re looking at or how the image was made. But there was something going on.

JE: There was a mood about it. And it wasn’t trying to be too clear.

TB: There’s a sense that you’re not just executing something, or that if you’re just executing something, then something else is created through this execution — a certain mood or something that doesn’t close it off entirely.


SW: Does it bother you that there’s a lack of art historical references, that a lot of the work seems very naïve in that sense — not recognizing the art historical context, only the social or political context?

JE: I don’t mind that so much, to be honest.

TB: It can even be a good thing, I think — work can be so uninfluenced that something unfamiliar is created.

JE: But then you have the opposite too, you see something you’ve seen before and feel that the artist doesn’t know it was already made many years ago.

SW: It doesn’t bother me necessarily, but I think it’s more a question of aesthetics. This is a major issue I have with a lot of the works, which is also a question though: How do you judge aesthetics? The show seems to reflect a lot of the aesthetic references of the mass media and things that surround us these days, that surround a lot of Egyptians. Especially as this is the Youth Salon, so we’re talking about people who use the internet, can’t log out anymore, and so on.

But then it’s also about placing yourself, asking yourself what it means to be an artist in this context — what am I doing, basically. Who am I communicating to? Asking these questions does take you back into looking at history, at different movements that have happened. Having this in the back of your head, not necessarily letting it influence you, helps you situate the work in a framework. Rather than thinking, “I want to talk about the internet” and putting a bunch of stuff in a room and make the viewer listen to it, and that’s it.

JE: I see what you mean, it’s about this situating of the work —

SW: Of the artist, even, who creates the work. Asking yourself what that means. Especially if you’re under the age of 35 — probably still at the beginning of your career — being aware of the context where you work and looking at the history of your context tells you what you’re building on.

JE: Yeah! Or what you’re pushing against, or reacting to. I totally agree.

TB: That’s one reason why the overall impression with this Youth Salon, while there are good, exciting and ambitious things in it, is the same one I have every time that I go to a Youth Salon. Similar work, crowdedness, carelessness.

JE: It would be interesting to talk about how we can tell that there’s a lack of historical research.

TB: My impression is that with 70 percent of the artists, making art is a hobby and they identify it as such, and so none of these questions come up — they want to make a picture, exhibit this picture and to be able to say that they exhibit sometimes, and there’s nothing beyond that. Sure there’s a certain amount of effort and thinking that goes into deciding what to make, and with the Log Out piece there’s thinking about what can fit into a room, materials, making a figure and what size it should be, but nothing goes beyond that.

SW: And you don’t see the thinking, the process that goes into the creation of the work. In the work with the balloons you can see that it’s a process.

JE: Like a kind of practice?

SW: Yeah, where it’s not just, “I want to make a painting about this” and then that’s it. Because technically speaking there are a few works that are adequate, to say the least. But it’s a very big responsibility that we’re putting on these young artists — I say “these,” but all of us — to really think, meta-think, in terms of questioning ourselves, being able to critique our own work and our own process of working, in order to move forward.

JE: Yes, it seems like many are at the very first stage, of having an idea, starting a practice. It’s the zooming out that they haven’t been able to do, and which would push them.

SW: It has to do with the whole system of education, and the way that state institutions — or even on a wider scale, cultural institutions — how they form and address the artist, and how they ask the artist to address the audience and what framework they put the artist inside. Maybe if an artist is too critical they’re not going to be there. It’s also a selection, after all.

TB: The hope is that this is a starting point for some of them. Maybe it’s what we said in the beginning about this being a salon — it’s the first time a lot of these people have had the chance to do an exhibition or have a space to make something of, and this is the first step.

SW: They also said they’re selecting 10 artists to give solo shows in the nearby ministry-owned Al-Bab Gallery.

TB: So that will give them another chance to develop.

JE: Did it say who those artists were?

SW: No, but I’m guessing the ones who won…


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