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Cairo Biennale XII: Looking back

Egyptian artist, cultural programmer and General Commissioner of the 11th International Cairo Biennale, Ihab El-Laban returns with The Diversity of All and Everything Possible as the theme of the 12th edition of the biennale. This year's biennale opens tomorrow noon at the Palace of the Arts and el-Bab gallery of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art at the Opera House grounds in Zamalek.

Since he took over in 2008, El-Laban has introduced a number of changes to the biennale, like revision of the selection process. Instead of basing it on nominations from different cultural organizations, selection is currently being done directly by the biennale administration. This was meant to ensure the quality of the artwork and also reduce the number of participating artists to allow better display of the artwork.

El-Laban also tried to experiment with themes to engage with recurring discussions on the contemporary art international scene. In 2008, he proposed the theme of The Other which invited artists to explore the various identifications with the word on the personal and global levels. El-Laban sought to foster intercultural dialogue through The Other.

This year’s theme, The Diversity of All and Everything Possible, seeks to encourage artists to explore the various themes and visual languages used in contemporary art. In his curatorial statement, El-Laban proposes that the divide in the art world between center and peripheries has ended. Artists across the globe share common concerns such as the definition of contemporaneity in the art world.

In 2008, The Other, a loosely articulated theme, acted as an overarching theme rather than a discursive tool and steering curatorial concept. But it did allow for the incorporation of diverse artistic practices and ideas, many of which were highly interesting. Works that stood out in 2008 included Egyptian artist Lara Baladi’s Tower of Hope and Korean artist Kimsooja’s installation Mandala: Zone of Zero.

The Tower of Hope, which won the Grand Nile Prize in 2008, was an ephemeral structure modeled after the architecture of informal housing in Cairo.  Accompanied by a soundtrack of donkey brays inspired by Henryk Gorecki's composition Symphony of Sorrowful Songs #3, Opus 36, Baladi’s tower offered called attention to  Egyptians who are often left out of the official narrative of historic greatness and touristic diversion.  

Kimsooja’s installation Mandala: Zone of Zero, matched the biennale theme by offering harmonious Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chants, playing from a shimmering jukebox mandala.

Although this year’s theme is also general, audience members and professionals remain optimistic that it will showcase great pieces of art in its 12th installment.

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