Tuesday May 21st, 2024
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The All-Women ‘My Favorite Things’ Exhibit is Powerful & Personal

Stephania Angarano, founder of the Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art, joins CairoScene for a conversation about this vibrant exhibit.

Catherine Johnson

The All-Women ‘My Favorite Things’ Exhibit is Powerful & Personal

Walking through the Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art’s eighth edition of the ‘My Favorite Things’ exhibit feels a bit like stepping into conversation between two good friends – the kind of ebbing, flowing conversation that can only occur when like minds give each other the freedom to say anything.

Intimate moments, social commentary, political statements, strong opinions and more can be found upon the gallery’s walls, arranged by aesthetics rather than theme. These pieces play off one another in a way that is at once unexpected and natural. Hager Elsayed’s neon commentary on the strangers who DM her are next to Alaa Abdelrahman’s striking orange and black ‘In Motion’ series, which in turn lead to Raghda Khairy’s intimate portrayal of a breakfast of fresh fruit served in an unmade bed. This is followed by ‘A School for Teaching Very Bad Handwriting’, in which Heba Tarek presents a series of collages covered in stamps, old schoolwork, and tattered High School Musical valentines.

And so the exhibit continues, bouncing from tender family memories with Alaa Ayman’s portraits to Nouran Malek’s visceral, interactive installation on human helplessness and suffering; from Mariam Soliman’s surrealist dreamscapes to Afraa Ahmed’s broken Yemeni qamariya window, a meditation on longing for a homeland and grappling with multiple identities.

“Artists are free to express themselves, regardless of the subject,” Stephania Angarano, exhibit curator and Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art founder, tells CairoScene. “It’s political, it’s memories, it’s personal, it’s touching. It’s something real.”

If this exhibit is reminiscent of a meeting of like minds, perhaps that’s because, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. Each of the works inside the ‘My Favorite Things’ exhibition is chosen because it speaks to Angarano. When asked about the title of the exhibit, the curator says, “In reality this is an exhibition of my favourite things, because I put this show together by walking through exhibitions and taking note of works and artists that touched me.”

Only three or four artists were represented in her first edition of the 'My Favorite Things' exhibit. Over time, the exhibition started to grow – but with the COVID-19 lockdown, Angorano knew she had to revise her selection process. Without access to galleries, she was unable to discover new work organically, which led to her to put out an open call for submissions.

Now, roughly 200 artists submit their work to the show every year. Of these 200, Angorano choses 20 to show at the gallery. She offers a consultation to the other 180 artists to explain why their work was not chosen. In doing so, she creates an educational opportunity for every artist who submits their work, helping them on their journey in a very real way. According to Angarano, many of the artists she speaks to rarely get the chance to hear feedback about their work, something that she sees as crucial to an artist’s success.

“Feedback is the only real thing in this world,” states Angarano. “Everything else is marketing.”

Taking the time to speak with all of her artists is in line with the overall vision and mission of the exhibition, which is to give Egypt’s female artists a platform. According to Angarano, the majority of the students at Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts are female, yet male artists continue to dominate the Egyptian art scene. Angarano attributes this to societal pressures that push women to settle down, have children, or go into other fields. “I wanted to create a platform to show the world their work and encourage them to continue,” Angorano says.

In the years since the exhibit’s opening, the project has become more and more visible. Now, Angarano says it is something people expect to see every year. In her eight years of working with and looking for female artists, she has also noticed positive changes in the art scene, particularly in the subject matter women address in their work. The gallery founder notes that female artists are more and more willing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, and that she is excited to see more work that engages with subjects that are often left out of societal discourse.

But just because more female artists are addressing taboos and breaking into a male-dominated field doesn’t mean that these women aren’t lonely, Angarano states. In a gallery filled with work that adheres to Angarano’s criteria for audacity and originality, that can be easy for a visitor to forget.

In the center of the ‘My Favorite Things’ collection is Marwa Talat’s ‘Solitude’. In this tapestry, gold stitches hold an elegant armchair against a midnight blue background. Cupped inside the chair, a pair of legs curl beneath a torso made of lace. The figure’s head and shoulders are obscured, lending the piece a feeling of both anonymity and universality. Talat’s work is physically located at the heart of this year’s collection, and is also transposed on the posters advertising this event. Talat’s work explores the societal and political realities of modern women and, although this gallery exhibit is purposefully unthemed, Angarano gestures to a larger meaning behind the collection of work through centering her piece.

“It is my own interpretation,” said Angarano. “This platform is a place to be with others who are of the same mind, but solitude is the background of the artists. Families might not understand why they are doing this work; they might not have the support of their community. It is very representative of that general feeling of being alone.”

The ‘My Favorite Things’ exhibit will be shown at the Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art until May 8th. The gallery is open Saturday to Wednesday, from 11 AM to 8 PM, with Ramadan hours from 11 AM to 3 PM and from 8 PM to 11 PM.