The East, formerly the Orient, is the theme of this year’s 13th Cairo Biennale titled Eyes East Bound. Spread over three venues: Aisha Fahmy Palace in Zamalek and the Palace of Arts and the Egyptian Modern Art Museum, both located near the Cairo Opera House, the exhibitions feature works by artists from around the globe, including entries from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America, with a handful of artists representing Australia, Central and East Asia and South America. The selection of very high quality artworks ranges from traditional painting, sculpture, photography, installation to video art.
Over eight years has passed since the previous 12th edition of the Biennale, which took place from December 2010 through to the beginning of the eventful year 2011. It was to be expected that since the event itself was put on hold partially because the events of the Arab Spring, a significant amount of works would be dealing directly or indirectly with the events of 25 January Revolution in Egypt and its aftermath. Quite a few works on display are explicitly political, social issues and problems of everyday life in Egypt and in the region are also explored from a variety of perspectives, including artists living and working in the MENA region, Middle-Eastern artists living abroad, or outsiders from elsewhere. In the history of Western Art this part of the world has been often misrepresented with the use of appealing exotic imagery, while native arts were for a long time dismissed as mere craft. In today’s world we often associate the Middle East with negatives, because those usually make the headlines in the international news: violence, wars, and migrant crisis. The theme of this year’s Biennale challenged the participating artists to present their own view on what the East as a concept means to them.
Out of the three Biennale venues the most lavish setting is the historical Aisha Fahmy Palace (The Center of Arts). Its splendid interiors provided a fitting space to showcase luminous canvases of the French painter Gérard Garouste, who is the Biennale’s guest of honour, and selection of works by the acclaimed Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil. Garouste’s paintings, inspired by sources as varied as the Bible, literature, popular culture and mythology, fit well within the theme of this year’s Biennale. In the historical setting of Aisha Fahmy Palace Nabil’s films (a contemporary take on the artificial and glamorous aesthetics of the movies from the forties, fifties and sixties, the golden age of Egyptian cinema) and hand-coloured photographs (a technique popular during the late nineteenth century) really come to life.
Climate and nature
One of the thematic strands well represented in the Biennale are ecological and climate concerns. Melina Nicolaides (Cyprus), who is the Director of ACTIVATE Nonprofit Arts Organisation, works on cross-disciplinary projects which address climate change and its impact on the Eastern Mediterranean and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) area. Nicolaides’s film titled Everyone Here is Connected (2019) is a reminder that far from being local problems, global warming and related issues affect all of us.
Palm leaves (2019) installation by Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih is not only visually striking, but it also fills the nostrils with wonderful aroma of palm leaves. The artist is known for stunning architectural installations. In the context of other works on display it relates to climate change concerns, while transporting the viewer away from noise and pollution of Egypt’s capital to an imaginary oasis.
For many participants the East, or Middle East is a large part of their identity. Those who emigrated often struggle with complex double or multiple identities, an example of this is the series of five paintings by Reda Abdel Rahman from Egypt titled Cairo-New York (2019) – an autobiographical work in which the two cities appear connected by lines and cables.
For Sarah Al-Abdali, one of the first street artists to emerge in Saudi Arabia, Islamic arts of her own country and the region provide a constant source of inspiration. In her ceramic Trilogy of Refuge (2019), the artist used tiles as a background for the three-part narrative, which formally resembles a comic strip or pages from a graphic novel. Decorative tiles are traditional form of Islamic art. Traditionally they were decorated with colourful floral and geometric patterns, so the use of black-on-white figurative decoration by Al-Abdali is unusual. While the style of drawing harks back to Persian manuscript miniatures, instead of vibrant colours associated with those manuscripts, the artist used black pigment only, which gives these dream-like scenes stark yet elegant appearance.
Conflict and memory
Ahmed Kassim’s large monumental canvases in the style of historical paintings are filled with references to the past and more recent historical events in his native Egypt. In one of his more ambiguous canvases several women are asleep under blankets in the desert and surrounded by blooming cacti and little toy tanks. The presence of the tanks poses the question of whether the women are dreaming or are they perhaps dead. Each holds a delicate white flower, but large blood-red flowers spring around them.
A selection of works by the Senegalese artist Ibrahima Dieye is much more troubling. His nightmarish human-like figures with their heads replaced by animal skulls (Human Sacrifice, 2019) are ripping apart animal carcasses in an attempt to show how dehumanised the world has become.
War and destruction often appear in the painting of the acclaimed Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki, who grew up during the years of the bloody civil war in his home country (1975-1990). In his painting titled The End (Draw the curtain) (2016) empty shells of residential buildings stand out from the brilliant blue sky, a neon sign attached to the canvas says simply THE END.
Home (2017) is a display of photographs featuring soap replicas of ruined houses in Aleppo, Syria by the French artist Emmanuel Tussore. Aleppo soap is said to be the world’s oldest soap, the sculptures made out of it skilfully blend heritage and memory with craft and contemporary art practice.
Objects, memory and power
The photographs of Aleppo soap houses are displayed near the neon-orange oversized sculpture of a drill by Ahmed Badry (Egypt) curiously titled Various Names for a Provisionary that Lasts (2019) and right next to two sculptural installations by Johannes Vogl (Germany). Both artists produce highly conceptual artworks based on real objects. Creating useless copies of useful objects Badry questions global systems of production and consumption, while Vogl uses actual objects and turns them into impressive, yet bizarre installations, stripping them of their useful status and turning them into works of art, such as the Column of Steam (2011), a tower built of kettles.
Astrid Menze and Julia Neuenhausen (Germany) collected objects found on the streets of Cairo and Berlin and put them together in their installation 1000 + All Things (2019). In a reference to the tales of a Thousand and One Night, each object could tell a story of its previous owner.
Perhaps the most challenging use of found objects is the video by Adam Broomberg (South Africa) and Oliver Chanarin (UK) titled: The bureaucracy of Angels (2017), which centres on the wrecks of the abandoned boats which carried refugees to European shores. With a touch of irony the artists bring to attention the little known side of the migrant crisis story, as the animated digger sings a sorrowful song with its mechanical jaws. While the refugees themselves got to be ‘processed’ and otherwise ‘dealt-with’, the boats were left to rot and never returned to their original owners, ultimately they get obliterated in the final minutes of the video.
The Game (2019) by Hazem El Mestikawy (Egypt) is packed with symbols, perhaps even too many at once. This visually striking installation consists of two chairs and a table prepared for a game of chess. On one side is the set of ‘Egyptian Golden Chess’ based on the ancient Egyptian game of Senet, opposite are the Bauhaus Chess Pieces (painted cardboard replicas of the originals designed in 1923 by Josef Hartwig). The game is about to take place in a room decorated with sixteen sceptres, each crowned with different symbols illustrating different ideologies, religions and currencies. The crescent, the cross, and the menorah symbolising the three monotheistic religions, are surrounded by other ideograms, such as the dollar and the euro signs, the swastika or the sickle and hammer. Ultimately, we are all a part of ‘the Game’, whether we realise it or not.
One of the most memorable works is the untitled video (2019) by Mahmoud Obaidi (Iraq). An image of a bearded, dark-haired man rotates to the sound of drums. His clothing gradually changes, we observe as the clothes literally ‘make the man’. A Muslim, a Jew, or an Orthodox Christian, a mix of cultural and religious identities switching from one to another. Who is he? Some Middle-Eastern baddie from a Hollywood movie? As we look at these transformations, our expectations change. We, the viewers project different things on the man on the screen, influenced by our own cultural background, stereotypes and prejudices. In the end, he is probably just a regular guy who gets up each day, gets dressed in a collared shirt and goes to work like everybody else, regardless of their nationality or faith.
Stills from Untitled (2019) by Mahmoud Obaidi
Another remarkable and powerful artwork is the installation by Nikki Luna (The Philippines). Lady Of The House (2019) is a wall-hanging made of cattle skin with the work’s title embroidered on it. Interwoven with cow’s hair are the hair of female Filipino domestic workers, whose tragic stories of abuse and mistreatment by Egyptian employers inspired the piece. The artist, who often addresses social and political issues, especially women’s rights, chose the cow’s skin to symbolise how these dispossessed women became ‘invisible cattle’.
This year’s Cairo Biennale managed to bring works of very talented artists and addressed important and current issues, which are increasingly relevant to the so-called East but also to the rest of the world. On a side note, although the international jury consisted of women only, female artists were rather outnumbered. Hopefully future editions of the Biennale will attract an even more varied selection of art and artists from other continents.
With 80 participants from over 50 countries it is impossible to mention everyone, here are the prize winners: 
Joris Van de Moortel (Belgium) (main prize)
Ahmed El-Badry (Egypt)
Sadik Kwaish Al-Fraji (Iraq)
Kim Heecheon (South Korea)
Brigitte Kowanz (Austria)
Ayman Yousri (Jordan)
See the complete list of participants and online catalogue at the 13th Cairo Biennale website:
Cairo Biennale 10 June – 10 August 2019 Cairo, Egypt.
All the factual data about the artworks was sourced from the Cairo Biennale’s website and the information available at the venues.