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Egypt’s Art Scene Suffers from Lack of Investment

September 10, 2015
Arts-Mart, a new gallery in Cairo that exhibits contemporary Egyptian art. Courtesy of MO4 Network

Arts-Mart, a new gallery in Cairo that exhibits contemporary Egyptian art. Courtesy of MO4 Network

It is said that a picture is a poem without any words, and one of the ways to study a country’s heritage can be by delving into the history of its art development process. Picasso once said that painting is just another way of keeping a diary. In another form, the art of every country or region can tell a lot about the economic, political and social struggles people witness every day.

Nowadays, paintings have become a rare, rewarding field of investment. The prices of art pieces increase daily, and the business of buying one of these paintings is one of hardest businesses to establish as some of these paintings, particularly of painters now deceased, are very few and hard to find.

“Investment in paintings and antiques is a very profitable business, it even increases according to the artistic value of the pieces,” said Sherwet Shafei, an antiques collector. “Especially the art pieces of the artists who established the modern art in Egypt, like Mahmoud Said.”

Les Chadoufs, a painting by Mahmoud Said, sold for $2 million in 2010. It serves as a powerful metaphor for an Egyptian Renaissance.
Les Chadoufs, a painting by Mahmoud Said, sold for $2 million in 2010. It serves as a powerful metaphor for an Egyptian Renaissance.

Shafei is a former television anchor who had a weekly TV programme specialising in art for 30 years. Since then, she has become a major art expert. Today, she owns a large collection of rare works that are routinely displayed at her Zamalek art gallery, Safarkhan.

As the journey of getting those paintings might take a long time, especially now that most of the original owners have passed away, the passion some people have for collecting them never fades. However, to find a current owner that’s willing to sell the work for money, that’s an almost impossible thing nowadays.

“For me, the artistic work is priceless, yet for others it’s pure business,” Shafei added. “The longer you have a certain painting, the more expensive it gets in time and that means the more money you gain just by keeping them.”

One of the reasons the business has gone viral worldwide is due to the global fame old Egyptian artists gained in their years of glory and fame “so getting a painting that the whole world knows about is a satisfying target”.

"Culture Clash" mural by Egyptian graffiti artist Alaa Awad.
“Culture Clash” mural by Egyptian graffiti artist Alaa Awad.

On the other hand, contemporary artists are facing the lack of investments, due to being unable to cross the national borders and let the world know they exist.

“The techniques of contemporary art have witnessed a huge jump all across the world, except for Egypt,” Shafei said, and that’s down to many reasons.

The talent those young artists have need to be improved upon with education and acknowledging the work of other artists around the world, neither of which exists in Egypt. Egyptian artists are also still suffering from a cultural siege, “like the whole world is running while we’re still crawling”, according to Shafei

Although there are so many talented young artists that have given so many exhibitions, they haven’t been in the spotlight to make people aware of the art they provide to the public.

“The lack of publicity in media portals never allows investors to know there are creative young artists waiting for their work to be sold,” Shafei said.

Mahmoud Said. 1938
Mahmoud Said. 1938

She also reasoned the lack of investments at the general art field nowadays due to the culture ignorance of the Egyptians.

“If we still don’t have any public museums to show the public contemporary art, how do we expect to have foreign investment in that field then?” she explained.

On her behalf, Shafei worked on turning Safarkhan into a prominent art incubator, to convey the pioneers’ legacy to the newer generations and support up-and-comers. Safarkhan arranges 8 to 10 exhibitions every year, in an attempt to help the local scene and give it the needed push.

“Art in Egypt is currently decaying because artists stopped having a message; any artist of the pioneers knew what he wanted to do and the message behind it,” Shafei concluded. “The main problem is that the new generation is in a hurry and for them success is to sell, not to become a better artist.”

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