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Stories from Artists in Residence

Beate Engel – Where are you?

“Where are you?” was the first SMS typed into my new cell phone after arriving in Cairo for my curator-in- residence program, November 2008. While waiting downtown in the coffee shop beside the Townhouse Gallery for my city-guide, and a fellow practicing artist, Mahmoud Hanafy. The question “Where are you?” accompanied me everywhere I went.

This was the decided title for the group exhibition I organized one year later (November 2009) with 17 selected artists from Switzerland, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan who had participated in the Pro Helvetia Artists in Residence program over the past 5 years. Due to this context, the question opened up a dialogue about existential, socio-political and aesthetical standpoints connected to different cultural backgrounds. As a director of the artists’ studio house PROG in Bern, which runs a very active artist-in-residence program in cooperation with Pro Helvetia, I have worked with several artists from the Arab region during the last few years. It was therefore, a great chance for me to experience a change of perspective and participate in a residency program in Cairo for myself in November 2008, in order to fulfil my curiosities towards the working and living conditions for artists in Egypt.

As a curator or artist-in-residence in Egypt or Switzerland, one can easily get lost in the popular stereotypes on the Orient and Occident. The artists-in-residence had to constantly redefine their changing consonants, while trying to adjust to a strange territory, yet still carrying their mental luggage with them. The gap between “here” and “there” has certainly changed and now belongs more to the general living conditions found within today’s global society. The gap has become shorter, especially if we take facebook, as an example, where you can contact your friends on the other half of the globe, and you can buy Swiss cheese in a supermarket in Cairo and watch Aljazeera on TV screen in Zurich. Yet if you go out on the street, you are still expected to follow the local rules.

Art will not solve existing conflicts like the European debate about the burka ban or the Swiss minaret – initiative. However, with artists-in-residences, the barriers identified strictly through national flags, are no longer there, and instead there stand individuals who take the chance to become involved in an ongoing dialogue between different civilizations. This includes the willingness to transform, not only places and spaces, but also minds in an exchange between different art worlds constantly moving their position between financial and intellectual powers, national interests and international trends.

Beate Engel: Curator  of Where are You?,  a group exhibition for Pro Helvetia Cairo artists in residence ( Cairo – 2009)