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Published on June 23, 2005

A question of order

The doors of the renovated Museum of Egyptian Modern Art (MoEMA) are finally open to the public following months of arduous work. Recognising the necessity of addressing "significant gaps in the process of description, preservation and storage of artwork, as well as shortcomings in documentation, cataloguing and measurement" of the pieces, which represent the many movements making up the history of modern Egyptian art, Head of the Fine Arts Department Ahmed Nawwar drew up a temporary higher committee for the MoEMA that began convening in 2001. Four years thence, the museum has been restructured to the committee's satisfaction.

On the ground floor, a selected work was chosen for each of the 94 artists displayed for "depth, length and breadth of experience, regardless of style, direction, affiliation or age". Although the conceptualisation may be logical, it remains over-ambitious judging by the visitor's ability -- or lack thereof -- to form any coherent impression of the whole. The committee was initially comprised of 13 members, four of whom (Mohsen Shaalan, Mostafa El-Razzaz, Helmi El-Touni and Ahmed Fouad Selim) have remained permanent members. Chaired by Nawwar, it opted for Selim's proposal, which entailed reserving the ground floor for the work of contemporary Egyptian artists from 1975 to the present day. The floors above, on the other hand, were to proceed in chronological order, according to artists' dates of birth: from the turn of the 19th century up to 1905 (with Mohamed Nagui at the helm); 1906-1920 (starting with Ahmed Osman and Kamel El-Telmesany), 1920-1931 (starting with Hamed Nada and Inge Eflatoun); 1932-1942 (starting with Georges Bahgoury); 1945-53 (starting with Ahmed Nawwar and Sabry Mansour); and finally post-1954. Yet the three main "windows" of the first floor are reserved for the early 20th-century pioneers: Ahmed Sabry, Mohamed Nagui, Mahmoud Said, Ragheb Ayyad, Mohamed Hassan, Youssef Kamel, Ahmed Lotfy, Aly El-Ahwany and Georges Sabbagh.

According to the State Information Service Web site (www.sis.gov.eg/online), "The style of the building allows the visitors to see certain works from more than one angle and level, just like Guggenheim Museum in New York." The comparison is rather more flattering than realistic, however. The Guggenheim is, for one thing, not a museum at all; despite its name, it functions as a gallery that hosts temporary exhibits. The MoEMA, by contrast, has always held the same collection. And if the architecture of the two buildings is ever to be compared, an endeavour likely to generate derision in any case, the MoEMA's rectangular structure would stand in stark contrast to the Guggenheim's circular one. In fact, tourists and New Yorkers who fork out the $18 entrance fee to enter the Guggenheim do so, as much as anything, for the sake of the building itself -- its impressive spiral ramp and the curved walls on which paintings are hung.

As far as internal structuring is concerned, the MoEMA seems to be far more interested in offering an overview of the art scene than affording visitors, at the modest entrance fee of LE2, the chance to view, much less appreciate, any individual work on its own merit -- or as the independent manifestation of a personal sense of perception or expression. Respect for individual works is sacrificed to their being integrated into a panoramic, fish-eyed display.

The space separating the visitor from paintings hanging in the narrow balconies of the corridors, for example, renders impossible any attempt at viewing from a distance -- which is required for a basic understanding of at least the larger canvases. A case in point would be Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar's 1954 Sea Features : in order to behold the totality, the essence of the work, the puffer fish-like creature it represents, one is forced uncomfortably close to the opposite wall. Only by using the maximum space available is it possible to make any sense of the painting at all.

As for the notion of a seat, a couch, indeed any form of furniture to facilitate contemplating a work over any comfortable length of time -- a pleasure afforded by the larger artistic institutions the MoEMA aspires to emulate -- it does not appear to have occurred to the committee. Rather, like a window shopper, one is expected to cast the quickest glances at the goodies on display while having a cursory stroll. And while the polished marble floors are spotless, they are also perilously slippery, especially on the small spiral in the centre of the Main Hall, the nucleus offering seating -- impossibly far removed from the paintings.

The whole experience is awkward enough to raise speculation about the nature of the metamorphosis the MoEMA has undergone since its inception at the hands of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bey in the early decades of the 1900s, and its effect on that museum's very raison d'ĂȘtre. Art appreciation is no easy feat where paintings are only a few inches away from each other -- at times they are paradoxically bundled on a surface more adequately designed for stand-alones -- or when sculptures are mounted on stands at a level with your knees. Lighting fares no better, if your own shadow darkening the painting as you look at it is anything to go by.

But to sprinkle a little more salt on the wound, no factual information on "the only reference for studying Egyptian art in the 20th century" is made available to art seekers unless they personally visit the Opera House grounds. Despite its self-congratulatory claims for having modernised the display of such a unique collection, the MoEMA's official online presence in 2005 as printed on the catalogue cover, www.fineart.gov.eg,consists in two paragraphs by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny on the great pride taken in the museum and the art it showcases. Of the actual art to be found at the MoEMA, there is not the shadow of a mention, in words or images, save for a fading background of snap shots from various pieces, designed to entertain the surfer while he waits for the top cultural official's statements to download.

On the grounds, tactile temptations need not be resisted for fear of reprimand, as the offence is unlikely to be intercepted by security personnel, given their meagre presence and lack of concern. In fact, the only voice you might reasonably expect to rise in protest on your touching a painting or statue is that of your own conscience. Not cordoned or protected in any way, even breakable sculptures are left at the mercy of the visitors' sense of right -- and age, since a MoEMA "Children's Corner" is now scheduled for development.

Future plans also provide for a database and copy centre, as well as a gallery for such postmodern art forms as installation, video art and computerised expression. "In spite of the current museum's advantages," claims the official catalogue, "it is still not spacious enough to fulfill its long-term goals: to be a focal point for hosting and exhibiting the cream of Egyptian plastic arts, with all its different techniques, styles, and schools, through various generations of artists, and to catalogue and register, as well as to provide cultural, educational and marketing services."

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