Art d’Egypte and the Rise of ‘Big Desert Art’

A public exhibition at the Pyramids of Giza offers sun, sand and monumental landscapes with a dash of Burning Man

BY Rahel Aima in Exhibition Reviews | 08 NOV 23

In the necropolis of Dahshur, about an hour south of Cairo, lies the Bent Pyramid. It’s so named because it was initially built too steep, and builders had to switch to a shallower angle about halfway up so that the structure didn’t collapse in on itself. By the time the great smooth-sided pyramids at Giza were built, however, they had figured out the optimal angle. Some 4500 years later, these wonders of the ancient world serve as backdrop to the exhibition ‘Art d’Egypte: Forever is Now’. Founded by French-Egyptian curator and entrepreneur Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, the event is organized by her consultancy firm Culturvator, which also facilitated Dior’s recent show at the pyramids. This is its third edition.

Costas Varotsos, Horizon, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Art D’Egypte/Culturvator; Photo: Walaa Al Shaer

Here, too, the angles have been all worked out. Laid out in a trail on the Giza plateau, each of the 14 commissions on view offers a slightly different vantage upon the pyramids. As such, each has a little sign indicating to visitors the best spot for photographs. In Costas Varotsos’s Horizon (all works 2023), eight metallic rings half-filled with watery glass invoke the Nile when you position yourself just so. The gold-topped chevrons at the centre of Azza Al Qubaisi’s otherwise pleasingly curvaceous metallic dunes meet the Khufu pyramid at its highest point (Treasures). Stephan Breuer’s Temple, a floating inverted golden triangle, is sited where the three largest pyramids form a single perfect triangle, and so on. The effect is rather like puckering up in front of the Sphinx or holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, except it’s the artworks who are the tourists here. 

Arne Quinze, Lupine Aurora, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Art D’Egypte/Culturvator; Photo: Walaa Al Shaer

Everyone here understood the assignment: scaled up, Instagrammable and nominally inspired by Ancient Egypt. Many works function as literal frames for the pyramids: bright red colonnades in Sam Shendi’s The Ghost Temple, or the particularly photogenic Lupine Aurora from Arne Quinze, which alights on the plateau like an extraterrestrial punched leather scrunchie. I especially enjoyed the 1990s video game portal energy (Encarta Mind Maze, specifically) of Pilar Zeta’s Mirror Gate, which came replete with mirrored eggs and a refreshing lack of self-seriousness. A couple of other artists have built pyramids themselves, albeit with a slight twist, like Mohamed Banawy’s As Above, So Below, which represents the 42 laws of Ma’at as whirling, pinwheel-like stars.

Mohamed Banawy, As Above, So Below (Dome of Starry Sky), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Art D’Egypte/Culturvator; Photo: Walaa Al Shaer

Art d’Egypte is particularly interesting as an entry into the growing regional phenomenon of Big Desert Art, as typified by Desert X Alula. You know it when you see it: sun, sand, monumental landscapes and a government with an appetite for cultural tourism, all with a dash of Burning Man. Like various futurist movements, Big Desert Art exhibitions anchor themselves in civilizations past: the Indus Valley, precolonial America or here, the Nabateans and the Old Kingdom. Put another way, yoking an exhibition to an abstracted distant past invites artists to bypass the far messier, politically charged present. It goes hand in hand with investing heavily in new infrastructure – Egypt’s new capital city megaproject in this case – almost as if an increase in urban sprawl and its attendant economic struggles necessitates an increased romanticization of desert pasts. In September, Egypt’s Tourism & Antiquities minister announced plans to double tourist numbers by 2028, and next year the mammoth Grand Egyptian Museum is anticipated to finally open. Notably, in contrast to the generous government support elsewhere, Art d’Egypte’s strengths lie in its remarkable ability to harness both significant corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy, particularly in the counter-revolutionary vacuum of Cairo’s once thriving art scene.

Sabine Marcelis, RA, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Art D’Egypte/Culturvator; Photo: Walaa Al Shaer

Every Big Desert Art exhibition needs a glinting obelisk, and Sabine Marcelis delivers in ‘Forever is Now’ with an elegant sundial clad in solar glass that stores the sun’s rays during the day to emit them at night (Ra). Also successful in their spareness are Artur Lescher’s Observatory Meta Oiko, a handsome steel observation tower, and Dionysios’s Meditation on Light, a textured carpet of brass leaves on linen barely articulated against the sand until you approach and see that the leaves are plated with – what else – gold. But just as most works here lean heavily on pyramids-as-prop, one wonders too if these works stand out primarily in contrast to the rather fetishistic maximalism on view elsewhere, as exemplified by Carole Feuerman’s patinated Pharaonic Barbie, Egyptian Woman in the Form of Hathor.  

DIONYSIOS, Meditation on Light, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Photo: Dionysios

Prior to ‘Forever is Now’, Art d’Egypte previously staged annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Museum, the Manial Palace and Museum, as well as in the heart of the Fatimid-era Cairo between 2017–19, each with a restoration component. It also organizes an auxiliary festival in downtown Cairo that emphasizes Egyptian artists.  This year, these relationships resulted in an auxiliary series of exhibitions under the umbrella ‘If The Walls Could Talk’ at the magnificent Citadel of Saladin.  Most interesting here were a small group show of Saudis curated by Ibrahim Romman and a remarkable collection of Arab modernist paintings curated by Mohamed Talaat, an earnest entreaty for Egypt to return to playing a pivotal role in Arab culture. Even as it brands itself as global, Art d’Egypte, however, seems more invested in forging ties to Western and Gulf states, as evidenced by its artist selection. Yet, Art d’Egypte is successful in what it sets out to do, leveraging private and corporate sponsorship and ministry connections to function as a gateway to historic Egypt. 

‘Art d’Egypte: Forever is Now’, is on view until 18 November

Main image: Stephan Breuer, TEMPLE •I•, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Art D’Egypte/Culturvator; Photo: Walaa Al Shaer

Rahel Aima is a writer. Her work has been published in ArtforumArtnewsArtReviewThe AtlanticBookforum, friezeMousse and Vogue Arabia, amongst others.