For years, the Egyptian pavilion was a real joke. Or rather a real tragedy. It was here that Mubarak's various ministers of culture presented their absurd notions of art. In fact, on occasion the one or other of them even went so far as to present their own art. At times, the outcome was reminiscent of décor for a travel agent's office, at others of third-rate après-garde. Now this year everything's changed. After the Egyptian Revolution, the young, independent art scene, which hitherto had such a tough time of it in Egypt, has managed to take over the pavilion. It was by no means easy to achieve, says curator Aida Eltorie, and she confesses that the future is uncertain.
Be that as it may, five large screens with videos by media artist and professor Ahmed Basiony, born in 1978, give things a duly contemporary thrust. One of the videos documents a Basiony performance he staged in 2010 on Cairo's Tahrir Square. The others present the Egyptian Revolution, as Basiony filmed the mass demonstrations on Tahrir Square over the course of four days, using a mobile phone and a digital camera. In itself this might not be so stunning, were in not for the fact that in the process Basiony himself was shot and killed – on January 28, 2011. And his videos thus document not only the dynamism of this revolt, which cold be followed almost in real time via the Internet, YouTube, Twitter and Al Jazeera. First and foremost they stand for the courage and willingness a young generation in the Arab countries to sacrifice their own lives in a bid to assert their demands. Aida Eltorie emphasizes that it was the strong will to change that led to the revolution being successful. The Internet was very important, she recalls, but secondary to personal commitment.
For Aida Eltorie, the Basiony show is a clarion call for a new beginning. What is important for the Egyptian art and culture scene, she states, is for it to network internationally. "Lend us an ear, please, as so much is happening in Egypt and we have a lot to say." In her experience, in Europe people are very open-minded and she and her comrades-in-art thus guested last fall at the "Manifesta". The topic: the Arab countries on the Mediterranean rim. Aida Eltorie is visibly proud that the revolution generation has managed to seize hold of the Egyptian pavilion. And while others are still tussling with the concept of national representation in the pavilion, she simply enthuses about being able to present a bit of the Velvet Spring here only a stone's throw away from the Israeli and the US pavilions.
Change of scene. "The Future of a Promise" is the title chosen for one of the heavyweight side shows at the Biennial. In the former salt warehouse next to Punta della Dogana, Lina Lazaar, an expert at Sotheby's auction house, has assembled an attractive group show of art from Arab countries, financed by private foundations who are linked to companies in the Arab world. Here, it is less the revolution that takes a front seat and more the art's status in the international art business. And this can best be achieved if the art is instilled with zeitgeist rather than bowled over by it. The exhibition includes, for example, Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, who now lives in Paris, Tangier and Los Angeles and has in recent years made a name for himself with his witty concept art. Fatmi has lent flagpoles with the flags of 22 Arab countries against the wall. A broom as the symbol of cleaning things out to start anew is attached to the bottom end of two of the poles (those for Egypt and Tunisia). This intelligent but (for Western eyes) not exactly rebellious piece recently fell victim to censorship at the Art Dubai fair. Fatmi considers censorship a sign of a regime's weakness, and hopes that he will soon be able to add brooms to the flagpoles of other Arab countries.
What are things like in his home country of Morocco? Born in 1970, Fatmi studied, among other things, in Paris and Amsterdam, and he explains that his own generation is fed up with the empty promises the Moroccan king keeps making. His parents' generation as the postcolonial generation, he continues, was content with the fact that the former colonial powers had been replaced by local rulers. By contrast, his generation wants more, he says: "I expect a president or king to work for me. The current government always says it wants to change something. But the people there are unable to change things because they don't know how to work. They simply don't know how."
The 22 flags suggest a pan-Arabic union. However, Fatmi is allergic when it comes to the idea of a unified "Arab world" as she suggests there is "no Arab world. That is a western cliché banded about since 9-11 that simply tries to claim we are ruled by al-Qaeda, we are all Islamic fundamentalists and potential suicide bombers. I for one speak Moroccan and can therefore not understand an Egyptian. What unites us is our criticism of our dictators." And when asked what importance the death of Bin Laden has, Fatmi responds: "The key feature of the Arab Revolution is that it is driven by us young people and the intellectuals. For us, Bin Laden was dead long before the Americans killed him."
Fatmi finds hope in the Revolution and the present spirit of upheaval, even if you currently need a good shot of black humor to tolerate things. He is pleased that the young Egyptians have liberated the Biennial pavilion from it "being held hostage by Mubarak". "Doesn't that show that with out art we can even achieve something beyond death? And up in Heaven Ahmed Basiony is no doubt content that he is the first person to exhibit in the Egyptian Pavilion following the Revolution."
Mounir Fatmi and Aida Eltorie both stand for the social and artistic upheaval in the Arab countries. They also belong to the important group of cultural intermediaries between their home countries and a Europe that is only gradually grasping the true scale of the current changes. Their presence at the Venice Biennial is a wake-up call, precisely for visitors from Europe.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting
> "Slings, slings over all" by Barbara Basting
> "The Last Supperhero: Tintoretto" by Annette Tietenberg
> "Overpainting the feuilleton" by Joerg Bader