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MASS Alexandria


In October 2010 Alexandrian artist Wael Shawky inaugurated the MASS Alexandria Pilot Studio and Study Program, an initiative aimed at offering practical, educational and professional opportunities for emerging Egyptian artists. Located in the 440-sqm basement of a residential building in the east-Alexandrian neighbourhood of Miami, it was funded solely by the artist and on an in-kind basis. The pilot programme involved 12 artists and over 20 contributors; artists, curators, museum and gallery directors from Egypt and internationally who led workshops, lectures and seminars with the participants. In 2012 the second MASS Alexandria programme expanded to 25 artists and 25 contributors over a seven-month period, with secured funding from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Goethe Institut in Alexandria, the Foundation for Arts Initiative, Young Arab Theatre Fund and support from dOCUMENTA (13). The third programme is due to begin in early 2013, with a new cohort of students, contributors, and staff, once again against a backdrop of a constantly shifting socio-political and cultural landscape of post-Jan 25 Egypt.

Most importantly, MASS Alexandria aims to complement, and not to replace or substitute existing art education models in the city, through an interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on the conceptual and theoretical aspects of artistic production. Artist Wael Shawky was moved to establish a study programme because he found ‘all opportunities for artists, to travel, to study etc.’ were controlled by the patriarchal, retrograde Ministry of Culture. Alongside offering opportunities that could further an artist’s career, he also wanted to create an environment ‘not of teaching or receiving knowledge, but of opening a dialogue, where [the artist] could choose what direction their work would take, and what questions they wanted to ask’ whilst engaging with theory tied to contemporary art, that he felt was missing from his own studies. The motivation behind a space like MASS Alexandria is, on a basic level, to introduce emerging artists and those with a curiosity for what happens outside of the (largely) fine art concerns of Egypt’s cultural landscape, to the multifarious array of artistic practices that are taking place in the region and across the globe.

In 2011 three students from the pilot programme were invited to take part in the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, marking their first experience of showing work overseas. For the second year of the program, MASS Alexandria collaborated with dOCUMENTA (13), the seminal exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years, to host nine students in Kassel for one month, as a part of The Cairo Seminar: Studium. During this time they worked as artist assistants for the installation of exhibitions and projects for dOCUMENTA (13), before hosting dOCUMENTA (13) for The Cairo Seminar: The Seminar in Alexandria and Cairo a month later in July 2012. These successive travel components are rare opportunities for early-career artists to visit international settings, view exhibitions and have important conversations and exchanges with artists and cultural actors with varied experiences and backgrounds. From MASS Alexandria’s beginnings in late 2010, the country and greater region has been incontrovertibly altered. From the ousting of Mubarak to the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the ongoing instability on a political level; to the recent closure of the seven-year-old Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), due to the unsustainability of this socio-political moment; the changes are evident on all levels. The pilot programme, starting as it did a few months before the uprisings that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, was suspended during for many months, but resumed with an exhibition of the participants’ work in May 2011. However, despite the disruptions, the grassroots, bottom-up origination of MASS has protected its trajectory somewhat from pressures related to funding and audiences subjected to other cultural centres. And as it has developed, locally, and internationally, through collaborations with the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece in 2011, dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, and by other means, it has sought to establish itself and make a strong case for its continued existence in a decidedly under populated visual art scene, not just in Alexandria, but more broadly in Egypt.

The combination of exposure and dialogue on a local and international level is unique to MASS Alexandria as a study programme. It is the experimental and flexible approach that it embodies and its commitment to the development of studio-based, professional, theoretical and networked skills and awareness through the programme that has, and will continue, to produce discerning artists and audiences.

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