At the Pyramids of Giza, an Unprecedented Exhibition of Contemporary Art

Nadine Khalil
Nov 2, 2021 5:19PM

Sherin Guirguis, installation view of Here I Have Returned, 2021. Photo by Hesham Al Sayfi. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

During all hours of day and night in the bustling city of Cairo, you’ll hear the sound of blaring horns, like cars communicating in a secret language. At the Pyramids of Giza, though, all you’ll hear is the wind—a language the ancients were familiar with—and currently, Egyptian-born, L.A.-based artist Sherin Guirguis’s sculpture Here I Have Returned (2021), with its two cymbals clanging when the gust is strong.

The wind also accompanied Iranian artist Amitis Motevalli as she laid down a path to Guirguis’s work with stones from the three Queens’ Pyramids in a guerrilla performance I was privy to. Here I Have Returned, which references women’s invisible labor, is inspired by the sistrum—a sacred, ceremonial instrument used by priestesses of Hathor in temples—and often depicted in Goddess Isis’s hands. It is one of 10 works in “Forever Is Now,” the latest public art showcase by Art D’Egypte, and the first international art exhibition to be mounted at the site of the Pyramids of Giza, on view through November 17th.

Gisela Colon, installation view of Eternity Now, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.


Art D’Egypte, a team of nine Egyptian women led by Nadine Abdel Ghaffar and founded in 2016, has staged annual pop-up exhibitions at Egyptian heritage sites from the Egyptian Museum (2017) to the Manial Palace (2018) to al-Mu’izz Street (2019); the pandemic precipitated a one-year hiatus. While there are obvious cultural diplomacy aims behind these stunts, there’s also a veritable fascination with time and the timelessness of juxtaposing the ancient world with the contemporary. Abdel Ghaffar calls this obsession “a space-time continuum.”

“Forever is Now” was curated by Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, who enlisted the New York– and São Paulo–based art advisory Simon Watson Arts, alongside a curatorial board that boasted the likes of Neville Wakefield, Creative director of Desert X.

At “Forever Is Now,” a few artists seemed to interpret the temporal theme in a literal way. Others were inspired by geometry, the Egyptian sun god, and lines of sight. Gisela Colon’s submarine-like carbon fiber sculpture Eternity Now (2021), in seductive, luminous gold, is sunk into the ground in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza; it belongs as much to the Space Age as the unknown future of intergalactic travel. “The form itself is like the eye of Ra, an oculus represented in Egyptian cultural artifacts,” Colon said. “I wanted something elliptical in shape that could have a symbiotic relationship with the triangular pyramids, and the sun rising and setting. It is a kind of universal geometry that is semiotic.”

Shuster + Moseley, installation view of (Plan of the Path of Light) In the House of the Hidden Places, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

Many of the featured artists spoke about being unable to “compete” with the majestic monumentality of the pyramids. Those who were the most successful engaged in playful and considered (rather than forced) dialogue that questions our position in the temporal narrative. Here, British duo Shuster + Moseley’s (Plan of the Path of Light) In the House of the Hidden Places (2021), which spliced Giza’s sandy-colored skies with reflective planes of glass, stood out. Their work was broken into four large-scale sculptures, or glyphs, their slopes appearing and disappearing with sunlight. The effect was ethereal—a stunning array of illuminated, deconstructed angles corresponding to celestial points and incorporating mathematical measurements such as the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence, and π, based on studies of the Great Pyramid. “During our research, we were interested in this mystery of the measure,” Edward Shuster explained. “The perimeter of the capstone of the eight-sided pyramid referenced π remarkably.”

Moataz Nasr’s Barzakh (2021) also drew perspectival lines with his teepee-like oars forming an open triangular shelter. He was influenced by Andalusian poet-philosopher Ibn Arabi’s concept of the barzakh, which denotes a borderland or liminal space. His structure felt like a portal, referencing the solar barque used to carry the soul of pharaohs. The pathway became tighter as you walked from one end to the other. “It’s a divide between worlds,” Nasr said, “between black and white, day and night. It’s also a sign of growth, moving from one form to another, like a creature exiting its shell. The paddles are a way of going through time—up to the sky and back into the earth.”

Moataz Nasr, installation view of Barzakh, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

This skyward movement was dramatically articulated in Brazilian artist João Trevisan’s Body that Rises (2021), a seven-meter-tall gridlike structure made of 74 repurposed railroad ties, within which curved, parallel lines were embedded. It was meant to depict the imprint of an open-ended obelisk, calling attention to an ancient city full of missing obelisks, but could also allude to a female figure.

For others, the magnificent setting seemed to provide little more than a backdrop for works of the Instagram-friendly kind. This was true for Lorenzo Quinn’s omnipresent welded hands in stainless steel (versions of which have been seen in Shanghai’s L+Mall and Venice’s Arsenale) framing a cluster of pyramids in his work Together (2021); as well as JR’s Greetings from Giza (2021), a trompe l’oeil piece lending the impression of a hand holding up a broken pyramid peak. My experience with this work involved trying to find the right vantage point from which the broken part, which looked like a postcard, would align with the rest of the pyramid. Although it’s clear why Art D’Egypte would want such a big-name street artist and his entourage (which in this case included Pharrell) present, much of the debate by viewers on the ground was whether his work was really art. And it will live online: JR has broken the image file into 4,591 NFTs (the approximate number of years the pyramid has been standing) with 738 hidden hieroglyphs.

Lorenzo Quinn, installation view of Together, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

Site-specific art has recently become a growing trend in the Arab world (think Desert X AlUla, which began in Saudi Arabia’s desert, another UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2020). Although this isn’t the first time that the pyramids have been part of a contemporary land art project—Tunisian American artist Lita Albuquerque installed her Sol Star on the Giza Plateau for the 6th Cairo International Biennale in 1996, based on the idea that the pyramids were built in alignment with the Orion’s belt—it’s the first exhibition of this scale to take place so close to these monuments that seem to exist outside of time.

This collapsing between the work and the site is what made the strongest impact: to see how art behaves in an uncontrolled environment, and how artists perform in a mystical landscape that raises questions about the alignment of the stars and sacred geometries.

JR, installation view of Greetings from Giza, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

“It wasn’t just about placement for us. The artists scouted and chose locations based on what spoke to them,” said Abdel Ghaffar, who worked closely with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism and UNESCO in handling the location. “For those who couldn’t come in the beginning, I had FaceTime meetings with them on site. We covered the floor with plastic sheets and covered them with new sand so the sand of the Pyramids would not be touched.”

Art D’Egypte’s intervention extends to the new Cairo International Art District, which was launched in 2021 and curated by Hana El Beblawy. The new district is supported by the developer Al Ismaelia Real Estate Investment, which is restoring this historic area that takes over downtown Cairo—a former paper factory and abandoned shops—creating new art spaces for gathering. Showcasing art in nontraditional art places is part of Art D’Egypte’s raison d’être, as well as creating new public audiences for art in Egypt.

João Trevisan, installation view of Body That Rises, 2021. Photo by Hesham Al Sayfi. Courtesy of the artist and Art D’Egypte.

With “Forever Is Now,” which saw over 300 people fly in for the grand opening at the pyramids and is averaging around 15,000 visitors per day, Art D’Egypte succeeded in raising the profile of contemporary art in Egypt. “And it’s increasing,” said Abdel Ghaffar, who extended the exhibition’s run due to this popular demand. “People are queuing for an hour and a half to see the exhibition, I cannot believe it,” she continued. “We claim to democratize art and put art in the streets and it’s really happening.” Even the Ai-DA robot, who was initially detained by Egyptian authorities, made an appearance and presented her work in downtown Cairo on her Scarab Beetle—a symbol of the sun god Ra. “Ai-DA presents a debate on the future, of humanoids becoming artists,” said Abdel Ghaffar.

Back at Giza, a place of ancient burial grounds that attests to the endurance of monuments and labor, I’m reminded of Motevalli’s words to me: “I’ve learned that the pyramids of Giza are not meant to be entirely understood in their complexity.” In her performance, Motevalli had migrated to her final destination within Guirguis’s work, where a circle inscribed with Egyptian poet Doria Shafik’s words “here I have returned” framed the Queens’ Pyramids, her starting point. Past and present conflated. “My practice is grounded in understanding the spaces I have left behind,” Guirguis told me. The work sang as the wind played it.

Nadine Khalil
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019