In 1989, Egyptian billionaire businessman Nassef Sawiris walked in to a trade fair at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Various luxury goods were exhibited alongside high-end furniture and expensive antiques. An exhibition of works by important artists of the period occupied one corner. The portraitist and still-life painter Sabry Ragheb was the most prominent member of that group. The exhibition organizers, Shahira Idris and Ghada Shahbandar, were venturing their first steps into the world of collecting, buying, and selling art; Ragheb had loaned them one of his favorite paintings as a gesture of appreciation.
Sawiris fell in love with the work, a still-life of a red rose, and as with any love at first sight, the world was no longer the same. He asked to buy the painting. Shahbandar and Idris responded that the work was not for sale, but Sawiris insisted. At his urging, Shahabandar contacted Ragheb, who was angered by the request and refused. Still, Sawiris persisted. In response, the artist demanded a then unheard of sum for the work, equivalent to three times the standard market price: LE 10,000. Sawris’s response was quick and decisive: “Agreed.”
The sale set a new benchmark. According to Shahbandar, Ragheb’s painting represented the most expensive painting sold at the time by a contemporary Egyptian artist. In this period the market was in flux and prices, which previously had settled in the hundreds of Egyptian pounds, reached into the thousands. Urban sprawl led to the establishment of new satellite cities outside of Cairo. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 edged the last remnants of an ideal of Arab unity toward collapse. Maps were changing, and the Arab art market was taking its first shaky steps.
The world before 1989
In the 1950s and 1960s, the state nationalized artistic life in Egypt; the cultural administration was restructured and most significant artistic initiatives and cultural spaces operated under state supervision. In the 1980s, only a handful of private galleries were operating in Cairo. Prior to the sale of Ragheb’s work in 1989, says Shahbandar, the maximum amount paid for a painting was no more than LE 3000. According to her, the Safar Khan Gallery and Tareq al-Marsafi’s Arabesque Gallery represented the most prominent art spaces at the time. The audience for art was limited primarily to a short list of names of collectors who confined their purchases to the works of already prominent, well-established artists. Nevertheless, economic liberalization policies were already having an effect and art’s relationship to the market was beginning to change, witnessing a gradual increase in prices and the emergence of a broader public interest in the arts.
In this period, the state largely withdrew from the cultural sphere. In partnership with her friend Shahira Idris, Shahbandar invested her energies in interior design and dealing antiques and paintings. The two also began visiting art shows and meeting with artists. At the time, many contemporary artists in Cairo had work spaces in Wikalat al-Ghoury, a caravanserai constructed in the early 16th century, or in one of the several other historic buildings the state had restored and lent to artists as studios. Visiting such places helped Shahbandar develop a wide network with artists of all generations.
Despite its many flaws, the state system worked well in many ways, and was comprehensive, providing artists with an overarching framework of support. In addition to offering studio spaces, the state sponsored galleries and ran an acquisitions committee, as well as juries that awarded prizes to artists. In the 1980s, however, Egypt was transitioning to a free market system, efforts were made to “re-organize” the public sector, and state spending was cut from all sides. As international corporations entered the Egyptian market, private exhibitions were held at Cairo’s five-star hotels for the country’s new economic elite. It was at these shows that Shahbandar and Idris displayed works by contemporary artists for the first time. Their exhibitions attracted the attention of a segment of the public, and the two branched out, organizing shows lasting just over a week in private residences, often in the empty apartment of an acquaintance. Their clientele grew as a result, as did the circle of artists they worked with.
Shahbandar and Idris exhibited works by artists who had come to prominence after 1952 including Salah Taher, Hussein Bicar, Gazbia Sirry, Maurice Farid and Nagy Basilios, as well as younger artists active in the period, some of whom went on to pursue high profile careers such as Samir Fouad, while others, such as Huda Khaled and Fatima Rifaat, remained relatively obscure. Other artists, such as Hassan Soliman, refused to work with the duo because he objected to exhibiting in makeshift gallery spaces. He did, however, recommend artist-colleagues with whom he thought Shahbandar and Idris might be interested in collaborating.
Shahbandar was active in the art world from 1986 through the mid-1990s, making a name for herself as one of the scene’s most prominent figures. Nevertheless, the material returns were modest, and she was unable to lease a place permanently and transform it into a fully equipped gallery. She continued to work on her own and began receiving various requests for consultancy services. The influx of international corporations to Egypt introduced new work habits and marketing strategies. These companies recognized art’s ability to serve as a foil for the identity of the company or corporation and as a long-term investment. The international corporations that had recently begun operating in Egypt, approached Shahbandar for assistance in selecting art for their offices. She chose works and arranged them in the local headquarters of several large companies including those of American Express and Carpet City. On occasion, she was asked to work on a smaller scale: for example, acquiring paintings for the office of a company executive or installing works on a single floor.
In 1990, Stefania Angarano arrived on an exploratory visit to found Mashrabia Gallery in downtown Cairo. Previously, she had worked at a number of Italian galleries specializing in contemporary art. Angarano recalls how, when she arrived in Cairo, some galleries were displaying and selling paintings paired with couches and other pieces of furniture. Her primary aim in coming to Cairo was to establish a space that presented art as an integrated whole, rather than as an element of interior design chosen to match the drapes.
Art enters the free market
The factors contributing to the transformation of the art market in the late 1980s were not limited to the entrance of international corporations. In this period, the government expanded construction projects and support for the capital’s new satellite cities, resulting in significant growth in the real-estate market, especially to the west and east of Cairo, with the construction of 6th of October City and areas around Nasr City and the Fifth Settlement. Within the city’s existing bounds, villas were being torn down to make way for apartment buildings, while on the margins, opulent mansions sprang up. An economic elite that had emerged on the back of the open-market, or infitah, policies introduced by President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s took to buying art as a means of generating (and flaunting) class distinctions; hanging original paintings and works of art in the home became a marker of social exclusivity. This was a period of great extravagance.
At the same time, many works by leading artists of the early 20th century, which had previously remained out of sight, became available during this period, including sculptures by Mahmoud Moukhtar and paintings by Mahmoud Said: perhaps the most celebrated of the “pioneer-generation” artists credited with founding a modern Egyptian art movement. In an emerging market lacking sufficient legislation and institutional oversight, counterfeits proliferated. Soon, Shahbandar found that in addition to her role as art dealer she was also compelled to act as an investigator: examining the authenticity of each painting. She tells the story of one incident in which she was asked to appraise a painting by Hussein Bicar. When she brought the painting to the artist for verification, he smiled slowly and told her that it was a good painting, but it wasn’t his; someone had imitated his style.
Nude with the Golden Bracelets and The Reciter
This hothouse climate in the art market tended to foster the sale of certain kinds of works over others. The depiction of nudity represented one of the primary factors informing the kinds of works circulating in the market after 1989. Sultan al-Qassemi, chairman of Barjeel Securities and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, recalls that images of nude paintings by Mahmoud Said published in an auction house catalog of the period were censored. At the same time Karim Francis, director of the Karim Francis Gallery in downtown Cairo, defends this approach, which he frames as a response to laws in Arab countries regulating the display of nudity rather than any rules imposed by the auction houses themselves. Shahbandar, for her part, believes that the moral basis for an assessment of the value of a work of art or the tepid reception of paintings of nudes can be attributed to the predominance of specific social values.
In the early 1990s, Shahbandar exhibited a painting by Said, which was priced at less than LE 100,000. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris had turned down the work — titled Nude with Gold Bracelets (1946) — preferring, instead, she reports, to purchase and display Said’s The Reciter (date unconfirmed). Representatives of the Institut claimed that the painting of the pious reciter of the Quran was more representative of Egyptian art than a painting of a nude, dark-skinned woman. According to Shahbandar, “In the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, a general social climate prevailed that rejected paintings of nudes. This was not just due to the spread of Islamism; it involved all sectors of society.” Sitting in her home, Shahbandar gestures toward a painting by Sabry Ragheb depicting a girl applying makeup in front of a mirror and wearing a short, black nightdress. The painting had been purchased by a woman from a middle class, Coptic family. A few days later, the client returned, asking to exchange the work because her daughter would not tolerate having a painting of a nude in the home. What Shahbandar describes as mutable social mores came to inform the practices of cultural institutions, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe, that played a prominent role on the international stage and sought to influence perceptions of Arab identity abroad. The same values came into play in even the most basic forms of social organization, such as the family. Shahbandar tells of how she would use her own exhibition space to display nude paintings by Georges Sabbagh from private family collections because the children of the owners refused to display the works and approached her for help in selling them.
Others, such as Mohamed Talaat, the director of Misr Gallery in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, believe that those social values that discouraged the exhibition of nudity have since changed. In 2012, for example, Misr Gallery exhibited various works created by Nadine Hammam over the course of the period following the January 25 revolution of 2011. The exhibition, titled Tank Girl, was composed of acrylic paintings representing the eponymous female nude who confronts the viewer from atop a tank with her legs spread, transforming the barrel of the gun into a larger than life size phallus. An explanatory booklet accompanying the exhibition framed the work in the following terms:
Through her work, which she has titled Tank Girl, the artist sets out to reconfigure stereotypes and established beliefs. Simulating this reformulation a combination of power inversions, a woman controls one of the most vicious war machines, the tank, as a symbol suggesting ‘woman’s’ ability to impose her power and prevail in the battle to assert their existence.
The booklet closes with a paragraph that explains: “Through her treatment of these complex symbols, the artist hopes to locate a more active role for modern women in the political and social scene. Here, Tank Girl represents every Egyptian woman.” According to Talaat, those collectors with an interest in buying art today are attracted to the more contemporary works in various media and don’t have a problem works that contain nudity or even erotic content, such as works in the Eros collection by el-Dessouki Fahmi, a portion of which was also shown at Misr Gallery.
Until the mid-1990s, there were no clear laws on the art market for setting prices and confirming the authenticity of works of art. An ethical code existed, but no supervisory body. Artists set their prices and the galleries exhibited their works, earning a percentage on sale. Some of the artists active in the 1980s harbored misgivings about this system and asked galleries to purchase their works instead of handing them over directly for consignment. At the same time, artists were not immune to questionable behavior, and cutting out the middleman by selling work at a lower price than that advertised in the gallery constituted one of the worst possible violations of the ethical code yet, apart from the latter, Egypt has no laws in place regulating the art market.
A case brought against the Aida Ayoub Gallery in 2005 (Case 2238/3) laid bare some of the flaws in Egypt’s art market. Aida Ayoub began working in the art world in the early 1990s, and sold her clients dozens of paintings forged by the late artist Yousri Hassan. After opening her gallery, Ayoub quickly established a broad network in Egypt’s art world and was awarded the honorary title “patron of the arts” by the Minister of Culture. The forgeries were only discovered when May Zaid, one of Ayoub’s clients, tried to insure some of the paintings she had purchased, only to discover the deceit. Due to the absence of Egyptian laws penalizing art forgery, the courts dealt with the case as an act of fraud.
The uptick in activity in the Egyptian art market stemmed from the drive among the new upper middle class to acquire artwork. Some of these individuals were encouraged to enter the market based on a business approach that relied on a logic of quick gains. Until the mid-1990s, most owners of private galleries in Egypt were women whose interest in art had prompted their entry into the field; the need to make a profit proved a secondary consideration. Sherwet Shafie represented another prominent art world figure. Shafie had opened the Safar Khan Gallery after leaving her position as a program presenter on Egyptian television in the 1960s. While Safar Khan Gallery still operates today, Shahbandar stopped working in the field in the mid-1990s due, she claims, to the type of clients who were beginning to take an interest in art. She recalls standing with the artist on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition she had organized, when they overheard a client saying she wanted to buy a painting because the colors matched her living room interior. The artist was insulted and pleaded with her not to sell the painting to that client. In 2005, Shahbandar would found Shayfeencom (We are watching you), a movement that aimed to uncover the corruption and electoral fraud of the Mubarak regime. She would later become one of the most prominent names in political activism, especially after the 2011 revolution.
Shahbandar withdrew from the field just as the new adventurers were entering. At the time, Karim Francis was embarking on a journey of self-discovery which took him from working in the import/export business to tourism, and, finally, to art. Francis devoted three years to reading about art and familiarizing himself with artists and various artistic practices before opening his own gallery. He held his first show in 1995 in an apartment he owns on Sherifein Street in downtown Cairo. The group exhibition, titled Identity, included works by artists such as Mohamed Abla, as well as literary works, displaying manuscripts belonging to the celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim.
Sitting in his gallery, surrounded by sculptures by Sobhy Guirguis, Francis recalls his beginnings:
When I started working in the art world, most buyers were receptive to works by the older, well-established names. Quite simply, each buyer felt in touch with the artists of their generation. However, motivated by my own passion, I wanted to put new names and new ideas in art out there that had not yet been seen in the market. I held a series of group shows titled New Talents to introduce artists whose work was being shown for the first time, as well as to show artistic modes and experimentation that went beyond paintings hanging on a wall, including installation artworks and video art.
This spirit of innovation and embrace of the unfamiliar would come to define the direction of the art scene in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Francis, alongside other gallerists active in the period and espousing similar ambitions, helped provide a platform for the emergence of a number of artists who are often referred to collectively as “the 90s generation.”
This project was carried out in the framework of MHWLN, a research and writing group dedicated to the history of contemporary art in Egypt. MHWLN’s website features this piece in its entirety in both Arabic and English with relevent images. The second, final part is published on Mada here.