Kunstsammlung NRW
Sarah Rifky, Foto: Ruud Gielens

#32 meets: Sarah Rifky

Premier Guest of the Goethe Residency Program in the Schmela Haus

The author and curator Sarah Rifky, who hails from Cairo, spent a few weeks at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen as the first guest of the F3 Goethe Residency Program. Rifky is the founder of the Cairo International Resource Center for Art (CIRCA) and a cofounder of Artspace Beirut, also located in the Egyptian capital.

What is the most important difference for you between the Arab world and the north when it comes to external conditions for art and for the museum world?

Rifky: Here, with you, the city and the state play a large role when it comes to supporting art and art institutions. In Egypt or Lebanon, all art facilities are private, or are headed by the artists themselves. In the Gulf States, Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi, art is sponsored by hypercapital.

#32: To the extent that it is possible to generalize, how would you characterize the inner conditions for artists in the Arab-Islamic world? 

Rifky: Expressed in general terms, artists in the Arab world have a strong relationship to tradition, to language, and to their culture. The Arab language and its poetry in particular are very important, and play an enormous role, whether directly or indirectly. This is noticeable, for example in the work of Wael Shawky.

Crucial to the works of some young Saudi Arabian artists, for example, are geometric forms, which are linked to art through Arabic calligraphy. These generate a connection to the written and spoken word, and hence to religion as well. With us, the artist works within a complex network of language, religion, and the political situation. But many contemporary artists would have problems with this characterization, it is of course also a reduction.

#32: Does the ancient history of the region and its extraordinary significance play a role for artists today?

Rifky: Art in the Arab region appears to be overburdened by ancient cultures, this is how the world sees us. Some artists find inspiration there as well. One work by Shawky relates to ancient Egypt, it has to do with magic, with old fables, the discovery of pharaonic treasures. Such stories are very inspiring. The artist Khaled Hafiz, for example, applies the style of pop art icons to prototypes from the pharaonic era.

#32: What kind of repercussions are current political upheavals in the region having on art?

Rifky: We don't know yet, we'll just have to wait and see. Art is a highly extended, psychological process. Over the past three years, since the fall of Mubarak, the number of art spaces and institutions in Cairo and Alexandria has definitely increased tenfold. There exists a new relationship to public space in the city, with posters and graffiti playing a major role. You see thousands of pieces of graffiti as part of a political campaign against the military courts alone.

#32: Does there exist – for example in your homeland Egypt – a polarization in the art scene between proximity to and independence from the state?

Rifky: There are no government-supported artists as in the earlier socialist states, but there are art spaces that are more official, and others that are instead more independent and experimental. Some artists have no difficulty working in both realms. Some maintain memberships in official artists associations, but that is disappearing gradually, it is not all that relevant any longer.

#32: Do you have a personal vision for the future of art – both here and in the Islamic countries?

Rifky: I would like to see artists having a voice in the political sphere, participating more strongly in public discourse. It would be interesting to integrate artists in many areas of social life, from urban planning all the way to educational policy, as is the case in Norway, for example. How would the presence of artists in the parliament transform political discussions?

#32: There are prominent hotspots for international art tourism. When will the first wave of visitors arrive in Egypt, not for the sake of temples and pyramids, but instead for the contemporary art scene? 

Rifky: Before we can invite an international public, we must have the corresponding museums. We would have a problem when the buses arrived, because my art space is too small.

For #32, Gerd Korinthenberg spoke with this Egyptian woman, regarded as the “shooting star” in the curatorial scene in her country, about the special characteristics of art and artists in the Arab world – to some extent against the background of the political upheavals taking place there currently.