With facilitation from the Egyptian embassy and a dozen renowned artists from halfway across the world, Falls Church Arts’ exhibit “A New Legacy — Contemporary Art from Egypt” marks a new level of ambition and scale for the gallery that has been steadily growing in visitor traffic since moving to its gallery space on West Broad Street two years ago.
The gallery features twelve of Egypt’s most renowned artists altering their traditional styles to paint on the ancient medium of papyrus.
The idea was spontaneously suggested in conversation between Falls Church Arts board president Barabara Cram and Egyptian-American art collector Moushera “Sheri” Maaraba. Maaraba founded the Divine Art of Egypt Project to introduce contemporary Egyptian art to other cultures and countries, and it was because of Falls Church’s proximity to the Egyptian embassy that Cram was originally contacted by Maaraba.
“Egypt has an amazing heritage and an amazing foundation and they are the first influencers if you will. The reason I felt it was important to see the world of Egypt through art is because art is a window,” said Maaraba. “It’s a very simple opportunity for people to bond with this facet of Egypt in a very genuine way without any misunderstandings of the culture.”
Since Falls Church Arts Gallery is dedicated to local work and teaching, Cram recognized the potential in visibility from the opportunity but struggled to fit it into the mission of Falls Church Arts.
It was after watching a public television documentary on Cleopatra’s tomb and learning that Cleopatra’s notes were preserved for thousands of years that she felt she was onto something.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Egyptian culture and how advanced they were with the arts. The papyrus fascinated with me that it lasts so long. That you would have these dead sea scrolls and notes from 2000 BC that was still around and it was just paper and silver fish when it seemed so fragile,” she said.
Cram asked Maaraba if the artists she had in mind for the project had any experience working with papyrus and none of them had. This immediately sparked the imagination of both parties and the artists themselves.
“The idea of working on papyrus was different and interesting. Despite the fact that as raw material it proved to be a challenge,” wrote artist Adham Badawi in his artistic statement. “The cultural and historical heritage of papyrus was an impetus for me to draw closer to our identity and how to present it in a modern context. Ancient Egyptians considered nature’s gifts, such as papyrus, as holy, and emphasized, its simplicity and dainty texture; it’s very simplicity an inspiration for the art our ancestors created.”
Falls Church Arts docent Joan Bixler emphasized that having to adapt to papyrus as a medium can be seen as a challenge but it’s also a unique opportunity.
Maaraba curated the collection to show different facets of Egyptian life. The artists come from three different Egyptian artistic communities — Luxor, Cairo and Alexandria — which she believes has a sense of their view.
“In general, the 12 artists all have a close handle on the Egyptian society and they reflect it in their own way,” said Maaraba, who noted how Cairo-based Aya El Fallah portrays the busy city life in an abstract sense, or how the Luxor-based Alaa Aboelhamd depicts the relics of the ancient world in his day-to-day life.
Perhaps the most decorated artist and surely the greatest geographic outlier is Norweigan-born octogenarian Britt Botrous Ghali who is one of two artists to be awarded the Saint Olav’s Order by the King of Norway (1996) while they were still alive. Botrous Ghali has been living in Egypt for 45 years, currently identifies as Egyptian and has dedicated her time to fostering the Egyptian arts scenes.
For the grand opening on July 13, Maaraba personally arrived from Egypt five days earlier with all the papyrus pieces in a rolling suitcase. Art and Frame of Falls Church (whose owner Tom Gittins founded FCA in 2003) immediately went to work framing all the pieces.
The opening exhibition boasted a crowd of nearly 400 (according to the Gallery’s report) including Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda, City of Falls Church Mayor David Tarter and various other dignitaries with the Egyptian government.
Unfortunately the 12 artists couldn’t make the reception. According to Maaraba, discussions were had but they couldn’t fit it into their schedules. Instead, the artists recorded video greetings and wrote artistic statements. For Cram, the fact that Maaraba could make it was a great help.
“Her infectious enthusiasm as a representative for the participating artists has contributed greatly to the success of “A New Legacy — Contemporary Art from Egypt,” she said.
The event is indicative of the larger presence in visitor traffic that Falls Church Arts has had in the past few years which prompted them to move to a larger space. Shaun Van Steyn estimates that the new gallery at 700 West Broad Street is five times bigger and gives them better foot traffic.
“At the Creative Cauldron, Laura Holt, she kept moving the walls backwards [because her space was expanding] which meant we were getting smaller and smaller,” recalls Van Steyn. “Plus we were getting so many people coming that they couldn’t get through the door…This is bigger because we’re international now!”
The event has also been supported by the Egyptian Embassy which has promoted it as part of a series of Egyptian arts and cultural events occurring around the D.C. metropolitan area on July 23. That date is significant on the Egyptian calendar as it marks the nation’s independence.
“A New Legacy — Contemporary Art from Egypt,” runs until Aug. 11 at the Falls Church Arts gallery (700 W. Broad St., Falls Church).