A Basement of Ideas: MASS Alexandria

by Daniella Rose King

MASS Alexandria began its program three months before the events of January 2011 that threw the country into turmoil, and which subsequently led to the ousting of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. The pilot program which, was intended to culminate in an exhibition at the end of its fourth month, was extended, opening up space for discussion and reflection on the intertwined nature of art, society, and politics until finally the first exhibition of student works entitled Exhibition 1 was held in early May 2011.

The state of decline in (art) education from which Egypt suffers is the backdrop against which MASS Alexandria was conceived. With a visible lack of progressive institutions for the teaching of art and its related narratives Wael Shawky — an artist from Alexandria — received his early art education at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Alexandria, the very same place where many of the students of MASS Alexandria have or are currently training. Shawky has since cited the urgency for providing an alternative — and real — opportunity for the encounter, study, and production of art, and providing aspiring artists a space through which this would be possible. After several years of planning, Shawky transformed a spacious garage located in Miami, Alexandria, into MASS Alexandria — Egypt’s first independent studio and studio program dedicated to emerging artists

An important question that remained prior to the initiation of MASS Alexandria was, given Egypt’s cultural landscape — deficient in cultural outlets and producers, considering its large population and illustrious history — what exactly may be necessary to contribute to the prospects of artists and the art public in the country? The first stumbling block could be seen as the regressive and constrictive education system; therefore in developing a new system that would serve to counter this indoctrination of a conservative and nationalistic narrative of visual art, it could succeed in encouraging a new generation of artists and audiences. The University of Alexandria’s Faculty of Fine Art produces students who are, in their own words, unprepared for — if not discouraged from — participating in the international sphere of contemporary art. The motivation behind a space like MASS Alexandria is to introduce emerging artists and those with a curiosity for what happens outside Egypt’s landscape of fine, if not always contemporary art, to the divergent constellation of artistic practices that are currently taking place in the region and across the globe.

In May 2011, in a moment of pause from protests, the students of MASS Alexandria held their first exhibition. The culmination of week-long reading groups and a series of workshops, together with the tutorship of Wael Shawky, Exhibition 1 was realized. Exhibition 1 was a three-day group exhibition demonstrating the artists’ diverse tendencies and approaches through installation, painting, collage, video, sculpture, and performance. It was also the first opportunity for a public to engage with the space and become acquainted with its activities. Salma Badawy’s Government Project was the product of chromatherapy tests she performed on employees of the local tax office in which she presented photographic portraits of her subjects next to a solid color canvas, and provided a diagnosis based on her analysis of each character — in addition to a short video documentary of her conducting the tests. The diagnosis is a strict description of her subjects’ character, elucidating personal conflicts, and propensity for ill health that combines the artist’s interest in ancient alternative therapies, superstition, and their application within different contexts (civic and contemporary art). Eman Hamdy’s multimedia installation Self-Exposing explored her dissatisfaction with self-portraiture; leading her into new forms of articulation, including an interview, free writing, and death masks. Walid Elsawi’s expletive The BBC Is a BBC was a strip of white text at the base of a gray painted column in the space; an audacious word play, that recasts a highly-recognizable news institution in a different frame- work. Upon entering the space, and on first encounter with the exhibition, he presented another coined site-specific phrase: “Art needs money which we cannot afford.” Through collage and installation, Amna Badawy’s Untitled was a simple, tactile, and ultimately beautiful portrayal of the artist’s experiments with miniature formal studies of color and material. Printed chocolate wrappers appeared within her series of collages on the walls Badawy presented a bowl with miniature chocolates, typical of what is found in middle class homes, offering the audience a present. The chocolates were doubly wrapped in printed aluminum foils, directly referencing the details in some of the collages.

MASS Alexandria is housed in a 500-square-meter basement of a residential building in Miami; the neighborhood is a working-class district in a densely populated area of Alexandria, and is lacking in cultural outlets. The space itself serves as an open-plan, shared studio, and study space.
Each of the artists enrolled in the program are assigned their own studio area, participating over the course of the program in workshops, talks, meetings, and screenings that take place in and amongst their works in progress. At the end of the program the space is cleared, and an exhibition occupies the entire basement, using walls, floor, ceiling, pillars, and nooks and crannies that was previously appropriated by the building’s tenants for storage. Throughout the seven-month MASS Alexandria program visiting and resident art historians, artists, curators, and art educators working across the fields of art, culture, and science are invited to contribute a day or a week of their time and experience to work with the students.

In some ways, (literally underground) MASS Alexandria aims to truly complement existing art education schemes, by focusing on the conceptual aspects of artistic production and creating a space for dialogue and exchange. It is a place for artists to work, and most importantly it acts as a forum for dialogic encounters, introducing new ways of seeing in order to broaden the ways of perceiving and working with the world through their practice. The first year of the program saw three of its students present their work at the Thessaloniki Biennial of Contemporary Art in Greece, marking their first experience showing work overseas. For the second year of the program, MASS Alexandria and the seminal exhibition Documenta 13 have set up a collaboration, giving ten students the opportunity to partake in The Cairo Seminar: Studium, to work as artist assistants for the installation of exhibitions and projects for Documenta 13.

Continuing the core ambitions of the pilot program, MASS Alexandria has invited a curator-in-residence, to engage in the coordination and conceptualization of the program, with the aim of encouraging a lateral approach towards thinking about curating and education, in addition to the renowned roster of artists, curators, thinkers, and historians invited to undergo theory and practice-based workshops with the students.

Approaching the summer of 2012, the second year of the program will culminate with an exhibition of the students’ work; a distillation of new experiences and beginnings of thought and practices that mark the last seven months in this basement of ideas.