Seeing potential

Nadya Shanab, manager of Ubuntu, explains how taking risks by giving emerging and lesser-known talent a platform is a key part of the art gallery’s philosophy

Nadya Shanab with Omar Gabr's door

The founders of Ubuntu Art Gallery set out to push boundaries when they opened the two-storey space in Cairo to the public in 2014 and the list of artists exhibited over the years indicates that they’ve stayed true to their mission.

“We are really keen to give opportunities to artists who are starting out or mid-career but haven’t yet been given a chance to showcase their talent,” Nadya Shanab, Ubuntu’s gallery manager, explained. “We’re also happy to put the spotlight on artists that other galleries might feel are too risky if we believe their work deserves to be seen – it’s not in our nature to play safe or focus solely on what’s going to sell. We’re great believers in raising awareness about groundbreaking artists and introducing them to audiences.” 

The contemporary gallery’s willingness to give experimental artists a platform has often yielded great results, with their work not only causing a stir, but proving extremely popular, as Nadya explained.

“For example, in her first show at Ubuntu, the sculptor Nevine Farghaly included kinetics, interaction with the audience and even rotating wind-up toys,” she said. “It was unlike anything people had seen before and although we were unsure about the reaction it would receive, we were adamant that her art was something people should experience. As it turned out, the show was incredibly successful, and people continue to ask for her work today.”

Nevine Farghaly

Other artists that Ubuntu are keen to highlight include Mutaz Elemam, an exciting rising talent, whose work caused a stir throughout the art world in London and Miami last year. Nadya described one particular piece by the Sudanese artist – a depiction of the River Nile which is 8 metres wide and 3 metres high – as “absolutely brilliant”.

She also described the Egyptian artist Doaa Fakher and Omar Gabr, whose work was a major talking point when shown in London in October, as “ones to watch” and “must-sees”. “Interestingly, Gabr has recently begun creating sketches of works with a surgical aspect to them, featuring his subjects wearing masks – clearly a highly topical element,” Nadya noted. 

She added that it had been intriguing to observe the various ways in which the pandemic had influenced artists and their work, saying: “I’ve noticed that a lot of the pieces brought in recently by artists have seemed more subdued, with less use of bright colours, which I believe reflects their emotions and mental state in the current environment.” 

Aside from featuring in some of the art on display, masks are unsurprisingly an obligatory accessory for visitors to Ubuntu, with the Covid-19 pandemic still a concern. 

Omar Gabr - Funny Effects 3

“Summer was manageable for us in terms of visitor numbers, since a lot of Egyptians traditionally travel to the coastal areas in the north in the warmer months,” she explained. “When the new season began in September, we went ahead with our planned schedule, but decided against holding opening receptions to avoid encouraging a crowd. Now we’re monitoring numbers carefully and encouraging people to request an appointment to visit. We’ve also introduced other measures with health and safety in mind, such as providing hand sanitisers and social distancing.” 

To help reassure clients, all artwork is available to buy online and the gallery is collaborating with digital art platforms, such as ArtScoops, to promote its exhibits.

While Covid-19 has inevitably produced challenges for Ubuntu, like much of the art world, Nadya has noted key positives, including people focusing on revamping their interiors. “I think spending more time indoors has inspired many of us to refurbish and redecorate our homes, which includes buying new art for our walls and internal spaces,” she said.

In keeping with tradition, the gallery has continued to hold two exhibitions every four weeks or so, using both its ground and first floors for separate shows. “The spaces are very different - downstairs is smaller with lower ceilings, while the upstairs is airy and brighter, with windows and high ceilings typical of older Cairo buildings,” she explained, “so how we curate will be influenced by the space.”

Doaa Fakher - Helmet Mask

Once a year, at least, Ubuntu holds a major exhibition across both floors for the secondary market, featuring works by Egyptian modernists, such as: Seif and Edham Wanly; Omar El Nagdy; Samir Rafi; Ragheb Ayad; Effat Naghi; Taheya Halim; Enji Efflatoun; Hamed Abdallah; Gazbia Sirry; and George Bahgoury. The show not only celebrates the rich legacy of the country’s art scene, but chimes perfectly with the gallery’s philosophy, which is enshrined in its name as Nadya explained.

“Ubuntu means ‘I am because we all are’ in Swahili,” Nadya said. “We feel strongly that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is rather interconnected with everything else, from history and identity to societal influences. What appears on the canvas is a reaction by the artist, conscious or otherwise, existing in spite of or because of everything else. This philosophy lies at the heart of everything we do, from the artists we choose to support to the shows we curate.”

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