A different space: how art maps Egyptian political economy

Say you wanted to write about Egypt in 2000 and were puzzling how best to represent your topic. Why not delve into Egyptians debates about representation? After landing at the airport, getting your passport stamped with state insignia, and exchanging your currency for Egyptian pounds, you still have an array of roads open to you. One might lead to the government offices, another to the syndicates, a third to Al-Azhar or a Coptic church. How about taking the road to the art galleries? It may be harder to find, and in fact, it has many branches. But do you know whom you could meet there? Somebody tasked with representing Egypt, for sure, but other than that? Let’s imagine you have now visited several galleries scattered across Cairo and Alexandria. A chief figure you will have encountered is the “young artist.”6 You will meet this person soon after his or her graduation from art school, maybe just back from a residency or a skills development workshop. Perhaps you will encounter Shady El Noshokaty (Shadi al-Nushuqati, b. 1971). Still in his twenties, Noshokaty won awards at the government sponsored Youth Salon in the mid-1990s, taught painting and drawing at the public university of Helwan from 1995, inaugurated the new private gallery Townhouse with a solo show in 1999, and then represented the Egyptian state at the Иш'се Biennale that year. He moved from painting to video; plunged his work deeper into explorations of family heritage; cultivated fluency in English and Arabic; pursued connections in local, regional, and international art circles; took a professorship in the visual arts program at the private American University of Cairo; and by 2011 worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture again for the Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, implementing a posthumous project for another “young artist” who had been killed by pro-government forces, Ahmed Basiony (1977—2011), in a highly controversial display of martyrdom and governmental benevolence, potentially undermining but also consecrating the Ministry. This spiraling description of Noshokaty’s work should indicate the mix of references it draws on—its international vocabulary and networks, as well as deeply local, familial, and personal concerns—and of energies it draws in—entrepreneurial, educational, governmental, and commercial; activist, self-promoting, and self-questioning.

How can such a multi-faceted career like that of Noshokaty clarify a study of Egyptian politics and society"? As she set about her study of Egypt in the 1990s, anthropologist Jessica Winegar responded to the prominence “young artists” like Noshokaty claimed in local debates by following their lead. Where did they go during their days?Through their artwork, Noshokaty, Basiony, and their peers embraced private galleries and state spaces (Winegar 2006, p. 198).They looked for opportunities provided by Western curators coming sporadically to Egypt, lest they wait decades to be recognized on the age scale, but they also toiled tirelessly to cultivate respect for their work in their local milieu, lest they be left unable to support their careers and families. The artworks they produced widened cracks in the state hegemony over the art market, but they also reinforced state protectionism which they drew on to compete fairly" in the international market.

Winegar examines, for example, Noshokaty’s The Tree of My Grandmother’s House—The Dialogue, a video installation from 2001 that explores eerie intimacies and inheritance in familial contexts on the verge of demolition. Moving across Egypt, Germany, the United States, and the Internet in its various instantiations, the work’s social lives utilized Western, neoliberal, familial, and socialist resources, joining high-tech installation media with forays into kinship concerns. Entrepreneurial investors (sometimes Egyptian, sometimes Canadian or French) funded its manifestation, as did support from public welfare schemes and state subsidies. Following such work along ever-widening arcs of circulation, Winegar notes that Noshokaty and his peers learned to speak about it in English—art’s cosmopolitan language—yet they also inserted Egyptian Arabic, deploying traditional terms, to describe the material and interests, too (Winegar 2006, p. 184). When their work travelled abroad, the “young artists” were glad for the new exposure, but they also sought a say in how new audiences interpreted their work lest these latter erase “local hierarchies of value,” including public utility, anticolonial memory, and anti-imperial messages (p. 198). Notably, their discussion activated colonialist logics (“outsiders providing hope and sustenance”) and national attachments (“we, Egyptians”), glorification of the youth, and, paradoxically, paternalism (p. 176).Thus, the art portfolios forged unexpected continuities across national/international, Egyptian/Western, and state/private boundaries.

Now let us contrast the mélange that emerges from a description of Noshokaty s work with other models for grappling with Egyptian life during the 1990s. Tending to emphasize a state or market perspective, they note the transition from Sadat’s Pharaonic nationalism to Mubarak’s crony-benefitting internationalism.They speak of Egypt exiting socialism, and, under Sadat and Mubarak, entering an era of infitah thanks to mechanisms introduced for facilitating capitalism and even liberalism. Egypt, a huge monolith, hulks clunkily around, doing (hypostasized) capitalism incorrectly, striding forward into (abstract) liberalism or falling back into (manifesto-defined) socialism somewhat faultily. Positing ideologies like socialism and liberalism as oppositions, political-economists’ models assume that people must choose between them. But, where are the living people in such models? What do we learn of their way of seeing their world? Would that not be an important element of understanding how they lived this set of transitions and might ultimately respond to it? The problem is that we cannot simply read off the dictionary pages or consultants’ plans to learn what meaning people bring to their lives and develop through the choices they make. Art, however, offers a rich site for studying the emergence of meanings, because it fundamentally is not pre-bound to space/time coordinates the way subjects of economic and political regimes are. While art happens in one place—say, in a Cairene gallery or a Venetian pavilion—it partakes via its resources, references, and representational techniques, in multiple spaces and times at once. The categorical junctures found in art can alert us to the categorical junctures that are imaginable, tangible, and often motivating for the people we study, despite their “messiness” to the eyes of onlooking political scientists or economists.

Artists and their audiences think their world through artworks. If “young” artwork posited new categories, these categories often did not have clear terms. As one artist who regularly participated in the private galleries put it in an interview with Winegar, “A group of friends and 1 are trying to create something different. A different space and set of connections that are not the Quartz [private gallery] and not the state” (Winegar 2006, p. 198, emphasis added).This description of difference only speaks to what the space and connections should not be; it leaves the new content to be figured out. Similarly, artists carved unpredicted borders within given categories. Even in seemingly pure “state” or “market” spaces, they adopted “partial” stances. Sometimes, curators coming from abroad heard their critiques of state activities and the older generation as categorical rejections of Egyptian nationalism, but these curators then could not fathom how the same young artists could “maintain active ties to the state for employment, exhibitions, commissions, and acquisitions,” as Winegar, who followed them on their daily routes, notes (p. 184). Confronting this relationality, Winegar recognizes the operation of a novel principle she calls, “cultural sovereignty”: It is a type of state authority that may be partial or “graduated,” rather than all or nothing. It undergirds complex strategies for being Egyptian political actors that may not match textbook definitions of the nation-state or temporal progress. Thus, with art, we learn that “sovereignty projects can be the ground rather than the antithesis” of internationalism (p. 198).

One answer to art’s relevance for studying society and politics of the Middle East begins to crystallize. As grounds for the merging and co-functioning of ideas that society otherwise separates out or poses as mutually exclusive, art practice offers the researcher opportunities for questioning the divisions assumed elsewhere, for rethinking the connections ignored otherwise, and for coming at life differently. Taking our first steps with art, we arrive at a non-state/noninternational space mapped by Egypt’s artists. From her examination of the lives and works of “young artists,” Winegar concludes: “It would be a mistake to insist that artists working in formerly colonized countries, or those exiting socialism, must choose between state cultural policy and a capitalist market” (p. 198, emphasis added). Here artists do not choose between state cultural policy and a capitalist market but draw on both.This space has “different connections,” to borrow their phrase, activated through art practices which include linguistic strategies, debts of reference and investment, and personal intimacies, none of which overlap neatly with national or Western configurations of political belonging. This space is a “critical space,” in anthropologist Amira Mittermaier’s terms (2011, p. 2): a space from which actors can analyze how some aspects of their lives have been gathered up into mutually exclusive but always artificial and incomplete entities such as “the nation” or “internationalism,” or ideologies such as socialism or capitalism.

The foregoing raises the question of how scholars can function without recourse to basic political and philosophical categories. Here art provides a method—as long as we surrender some epistemological assumptions, including the idea that representation operates ex post facto. At one point, Winegar muses, “Just as state officials ‘create’ young artists to prove Egypt’s cultural progress, Western curators‘create’young artists in a way that emphasizes Western cultural superiority” (Winegar 2006, p. 185). Yet scrupulously applying the art lens turns the observation around: Would there be “Egyptian cultural progress” or “Western cultural superiority” outside the special field of material action that can happen in Egypt but look Western (as when Noshokaty mounts his video-installation art at a downtown gallery), or happen in the West but look Egyptian (as when Noshokaty stages “contemporary Egyptian art” at the 2011 Venice Biennale)? Representation flows from artistic activities which operate at once on local, international, and universal fields. What would “Western” look like, and how would we measure it comparatively without representational strategies? How could “Egyptian” be more secure or operable?' Political analyses based on these partially true categories will falter when they allow their descriptive terms to become predictive of behavior.

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