With the Rietveld Academy to Egypt
Lecture program 2001/2002
Excursion April 26/May 5 2002
From September 2001 onward Studium Generale started a lecture series on the 19th century "rediscovery of Egyptian art", an orientalist subject rarely addressed during art history classes at the Rietveld Academy. This was not necessarily the result of a very conscious rejection of the ideological heritage that clings to the appropriation of "Egypt" in popular European imagination.
Most art history teachers and art students simply agree that the Pyramids and the Pharaohs are better left to tourists and the kitsch-industry.
But since Studium Generale wants to open up areas of knowledge that don't necessarily fit in fashionable concepts of what an artist should know, it was decided that certain romantic concepts might be interesting to re-evaluate.
An excursion to Egypt was planned for spring 2002. Prior to that archeologists and art historians were invited to share their knowledge with a group of around 50 students (for example Maze de Boer and Richtje Reinsma) and teachers (among them W.M.J. Kok (BK) Frans Oosterhof (at that time connected to the Foundation Course) and Paul Tames van den Berg (VAV)) who all somehow wanted to confront their idealized and romanticized notions of Egyptian ‘Grandeur' with ‘the desert of the real'. The first lecture was scheduled on Wednesday September 12, 2001.
On the morning of Tuesday September 11, 2001 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners. The hijackers intentionally crashed two of the airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in the collapse of both buildings soon afterward and extensive damage to nearby buildings. The hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon. The fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers and members of the flight crew on the fourth aircraft attempted to retake control of their plane.
The lecture on September 12 took place in an atmosphere of total disorientation and bewilderment. Somehow the notion that the ungraspable events of the other day were related to "Islamic fundamentalism" was quickly brought to the fore on a worldwide scale.
There we were: carefully reconstructing an art historical illusion about an ‘empty' stretch of land where meaning is only contributed by relics from the past and not knowing anything about the contemporary Arab Republic of Egypt and its 80 million inhabitants other then a couple of clichés.
In the weeks thereafter the discrepancy between the lectures by theinvited Egyptologists and their quite amazing lack of interest in contemporary Egypt and the endless stream of texts on the supposed clash between the Islamic world and the West that were published in the aftermath of 9/11, grew.
Our focus for the whole project started to shift from the past to the present.
During the preparatory visit to Cairo former Rietveld student Tarik Sadouma who lived both in Amsterdam as well as in Cairo challenged the organizers Erik Mattijssen and Gabriëlle Schleijpen to question their motives for the whole project. He urged them to look at how modernity shapes Cairo, not antiquity.
Once in Egypt the Rietveld group did however not abstain from visiting the awesome sites of Memphis, Sakarra, Gizeh, Luxor , Thebe , Karnak, Edfu en Kom Ombo, as well as the Nubian Museum in Aswan and Kitchener's and Philae islands but encounters with contemporary Egyptian culture were staged as well.
In Cairo for example Gino Schallenbergh, who was then assistant-director at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo
and in charge of the Arabic teaching program and the weekly lectures held at the institute, took a group to various large as well smaller, more intimate mosques (for most of the group the first time to enter one in a non- tourist setting) and to the Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum, opened in 2001 by the Egyptian government in the memory of the great singer Umm Kulthum. Gino Schallenbergh's research covers developments in Islamic doctrine and its relation to the traditional heritage. With his engaged enthusiasm he strongly encouraged the organizers to deepen their encounter with contemporary Arab culture by organizing a follow up visit to Syria- (an advice that we were happy to follow up in 2003).
Thanks to the artists Susan Hefuna
and Georges Hanna who both guest lectured at the Rietveld we were introduced to several young Egyptian artists who at that time were in the middle of a process of breaking with the somewhat inadequate and outdated outlook on art as it was transmitted by their teachers (a fairly intense group discussion on this subject took place between Rietveld students, students from the art department of the American University of Cairo and the faculty of that institute) and opening up towards discourses that were linking them to new developments at the forefront of the art world.
The Townhouse Gallery, at that moment still quite unknown outside of Egypt, did not fail to deeply impress the Rietveld participants.
The, in the Netherlands not so common combination of community oriented art for social change, and a quite experimental, "avant-garde" attitude plus a refreshing eagerness to relate to all sorts of input from ‘outside', makes the Townhouse Gallery a vibrant open space were young artists, film- and theatre makers and theoreticians can exchange their ideas.
On the last day in Cairo a breakfast meeting was arranged in the rooftop restaurant of the El Hussein Hotel (overlooking the bustling square in front of the Al Azhar Mosque) with William Wells, the director of the Townhouse Gallery and several artists from the gallery. After the breakfast the group split up in smaller entities, and accompanied by either William or one of the artists, each group embarked on city walks into those living areas of Cairo that will not be easily entered by tourists.
Several Rietveld students later said that these walks had definitely left the deepest impression on them.
Our last evening was spent in the building of the El Warsha theatre group where thanks to a dedicated staff member of the cultural department at the Dutch Embassy in Cairo a performance by the wonderful folk group El Tanbura was especially staged for a Rietveld audience.
El Tanbura are a collective of master musicians, village singers, local fishermen and Sufi philosophers based in the North Eastern Egyptian city of Port Said at the Mediterranean gateway to the Suez Canal. The key instrument in their music is the Simsimiyya, an ancient lyre dating back to the times of the Pharaohs. But their songs are firmly linked to the here and now. Their holding on to musical traditions happens from a very critical perspective and their music can be understood as a form of political resistance by way of trance-like soundscapes.