Arts-Mart, the region’s largest online gallery, puts on its second exhibition at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza.
By Dominika Maslikowski
When a twelve-year-old Hassan El Shark began painting on palm tree fiber, his fellow villagers in Zawyet Sultan in Minya thought he was possessed by jinns. An exorcism didn’t stop his imagination from conjuring up scenes of sailing the Nile River or riding horses that he let manifest on his father’s butcher wrapping paper.
Now 63 years old, the self-taught artist stands tall in a black galabeya near his vibrant paintings under the glass chandeliers of the Four Seasons Nile Plaza during a winter exhibit by Arts-Mart, a recently launched website that’s now the region’s largest online gallery. El Shark never took over his father’s butcher shop as the family’s oldest son, but he’s now an internationally known artist whose work has been exhibited from France to Kuwait and whose village home is a landmark for diplomats and art lovers.
“I want to say thanks to all the haters who told me I was crazy,” he says at the exhibit with the broad smile and hand gestures of an Upper Egyptian. “That’s what gave me the recognition and will power to continue.”
El Shark was discovered by German art critic Ursula Schernig, who later arranged exhibits for him in Cairo and Europe where his work quickly sold out. He never finished high school and says his gift for painting mosaic-like pieces full of Hamsa hands, rababa players and feluccas comes from God.
His colorful multimedia pieces on paper were among some 250 artworks at yesterday’s exhibit, the second major show to date by the Arts-Mart website which was launched in December 2012. The exhibit showcased well-known artists along with up-and-coming talent in a country where many galleries frown upon unknown painters and make it difficult for the new generation to break through. With worldwide shipping and artwork starting at LE 200, the website features some 500 art pieces and aims to give Egyptian artists an international audience. It also demystifies the process of finding and buying art for collectors, the founders say, with its easy-to-use search features.
“When I first started out, I found it difficult to promote my work because galleries were focusing on very well-established artists who had specific clients,” said artist and website co-founder Lina Mowafy, whose bright paintings deal with themes like gratitude and motherhood. “The website offers transparency, which is something new to the art scene. You can see established masters and new artists, who can apply online by uploading their work. What we’re very proud of is that we have artists from all over Egypt, all with different mentalities, visions and dreams. The young artists have fresh ideas, and the old generation have a completely different viewpoint.”
Mowafy says she worked on the website’s launch along with two other co-founders through the tumults of the January 25 Revolution, but the idea didn’t “flop” like some ventures at the time because Egyptians were happy to see a positive side of their country that offered hope amid the turmoil.
“I thought it was fantastic. Two girls in the middle of a revolution starting this project,” said Norwegian Britt Boutros Ghali, a painter featured at the exhibit who draws her inspiration from the saturation of light in her native Norway and the strength of women in Egypt, where she’s lived for nearly 40 years. “It’s important because new artists don’t have a venue so the older artists have to help the new ones. I’m so happy that the very established painters are here along with the new ― this is something you couldn’t have in Europe.”
The exhibit in the hotel’s Nile Ballroom included an array of styles, from emotional paintings of Umm Kulthum by young artist Esraa Zedan to traditional landscapes of Egyptian villages by Khaled Hanno. Dozens of art collectors chatted over coffee and cakes, browsed the variety of artworks and got a rare chance to meet dozens of artists from across Egypt. The website’s founders say they’re aiming to put on such exhibits twice a year.
For the artists from outside of Cairo, the Arts-Mart exhibit was an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
“I have more problems than young artists because I’m from Alexandria and we don’t have a market for art like in Cairo,” said painter and sculptor Ibrahim El Tanbouli, who works with a large contrasting palette to create paintings of daily Egyptian life. “There’s no promotion for visual arts, only football and music, and no space for visual art in Egypt. People are only familiar with the classics. Internationally if we had good media, like Dubai or Qatar, we could do a lot more. When there are exhibits outside of Egypt, people are amazed to see how good it is and that it comes out of Egypt.”
Several artists noted that it’s the private sector and websites like Arts-Mart who can pump new life into the Egyptian art scene. The Ministry of Culture is riddled with corruption and does nothing to promote new talent, El Tanbouli says, while well-known artist Mohamed Abla claims that local galleries are not run in a professional way.
“The private sector can start and the government can be jealous,” says Abla, whose work at the exhibit included chaotic Egyptian street scenes where faceless crowds walked in scattered directions. “I think Arts-Mart is a good idea because many people don’t really go to exhibits and the people who want to are too lazy so it’s a good way to bring people to art through events like this or buying online.”
Samir Fouad, a Heliopolis-born artist best known for his watercolors, says he’d love the Ministry of Culture to put on events like Art Dubai to draw in international collectors and expand the market for Egyptian art. NGOs should also get more involved in promoting the arts so the ministry doesn’t carry all the weight, he adds.
Events like the Arts-Mart exhibit and website give a boost to an Egyptian art scene that still has a ways to go, the artists say.
“It’s a panorama of contemporary Egyptian art: an opportunity to see different schools, different generations, from all across Egypt,” Fouad says. “It brings vitality because the more shows you do the more it spreads the message that art is still thriving in Egypt.”