Gallery Profile: Ubuntu Gallery
Founded by Ahmed El Dabaa, Ubuntu Art Gallery opened its doors in October 2014 and specialises in contemporary Egyptian artworks and secondary-market modern Egyptian art. The gallery promotes both young, emerging talent and artists with more established practices regionally and internationally. Its name is derived from the Swahili word ubuntu, which means “I am because we all are,” to connote a holistic concept of being. At Ubuntu Art Gallery, belief in the interconnectedness of Egyptian history, society, and identity is at the core of the work presented.
Ubuntu runs a program of bimonthly exhibitions to showcase work and introduce new artists. With one gallery in the Zamalek neighbourhood in Cairo, Ubuntu also exhibits in several satellite locations, including the Swan Lake Clubhouse in the suburbs of New Cairo. In this interview with Omenka, we learn about the challenges of running a gallery in Egypt, the future of African art, and upcoming projects.
What inspired the creation of the gallery and its focus on Egyptian art?
The founder of the gallery, Ahmed El Dabaa, has been dealing in and collecting art since 2002. He decided to further dive into the Egyptian art market with Ubuntu Art Gallery in 2014. The powerful stance and potential that Egypt holds in the art market allowed the gallery to find its place as well as contribute to the thriving art scene in the country. Egypt’s stance in the art market is a work in progress, and we find it our responsibility to further enrich and cultivate our visual literacy locally and internationally.
Does the gallery represent only the works of artists from Egypt?
No. We specialise in Egyptian art, but we’re not limited to it. Although most of the artists we currently represent at this stage are Egyptian, we’re definitely open to representing and collaborating with all nationalities. We currently work with two Sudanese artists, Hassaan Ali and Mutaz Elemam, and we’re open to expanding in terms of diversity.
This year will mark the fifth year of the gallery’s existence. Please tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced in running a space in Egypt, and what marked changes have occurred in the Egyptian art scene since your establishment?
One of the main challenges in Egypt is that the amount of people interested in buying art is weak compared to the number of the population, so your audience becomes a minuscule figure against a large statistic. Another challenge was that people are not used to buying works by upcoming and emerging artists; they prefer the well-known and established names. However, this is starting to change, and people are slowly but surely starting to accept and become interested in buying works by up and coming artists. There has also been noticeable growth in the number of galleries in Egypt, and demonstrably more Egyptian art galleries are taking their artists internationally.
What informs the selection of artists and exhibitions presented at the gallery?
When artists present new ideas and their experimentations with new techniques, this is what essentially grabs our attention first. At the end of the day, we must be convinced of what we present to the public, which doesn’t necessarily have to be commercial. The selection isn’t based solely on what would or wouldn’t sell. It is important, but not the most important aspect when selecting artists.
You have participated in major fairs like Art Dubai, CONTEXT Art Miami and CONTEXT New York. What do you think is the role of these art fairs on the African art scene and what impact have they had on your gallery and artists?
Art fairs are always a learning experience for us. Whether they’re successful or not, you still win exposure and broaden your reach as a gallery for your artists. We’ve found that our participation in Art Dubai was more relevant and fitting to us compared with our experience in CONTEXT Miami and CONTEXT New York, where the audience seemed less compatible with what we showcased. It’s challenging, but nevertheless, we’re always looking to assimilate and research more art fairs that we believe would fit our identity and what we represent and deliver as a gallery. Art fairs in general act as great channels for all galleries to broaden their horizons and expand their reach. It’s refreshing and deservingly becoming prevalent to see galleries from African countries familiarising themselves within the market. Our upcoming participations this year so far include Art Dubai 2019 and 1:54 New York.
Considering the commercial nature of the gallery, does your focus also embrace new, experimental, and conceptual work?
Yes, completely. Ultimately, to continue its operation, any gallery needs to sell. However, we never want to present work that is repeated or that we’ve all seen before. We believe it’s important to allow artists to have and own their freedom within their craft and not direct them towards certain visuals or paths, including commercial. As much as it’s important to sell, it’s also important to take risks, which may not be deservingly appreciated, but as a gallery, at least, you’re convinced that what you present is original, innovative, and distinct art.
In what way does the exhibition space affect the gallery programming?
Almost four years into our journey, as of March 2018, we expanded upwards and now have two floors for our programmes. Depending on the concept and work, we either hold two exhibitions simultaneously on each floor or just one exhibition throughout the ground and first floor. So this expansion definitely allowed us to add more exhibitions to our season schedules and to introduce new artists more frequently. We also have several satellite galleries around Cairo, where we exhibit our works and which we oftentimes add to our gallery programming to reach beyond our geographical audience in the neighbourhood of Zamalek.
In recent times, there’s been increased demand for art from the African continent. What would you say is the reason for this, and what does the future hold for art from Africa on the international stage?
Africa has always maintained a powerful history and visual wealth stronger than that of the Europeans, and the art market has seen significant growth in terms of interest and production both regionally and internationally because of its revolutionary developments and advancements throughout the years. From the Dak’art Biennale to the 1:54 art fair that’s dedicated solely to showcasing African art, African art is increasingly being included in auction houses, international art fairs, and museums. More and more venues and platforms are flourishing from the region. It’s important to continue this phenomenon and to also create an international centre point within the region that promotes events and showcases African art and culture, to shed more light and further enrich the visual literacy of the market.
What do you picture as Ubuntu’s role in the development of the Egyptian and larger African art scene?
Our goal has always been to work towards the development of the flourishing Egyptian art scene and further Egypt’s place on the international art market. We aim to educate, to assimilate, cultivate, and provide content that will aid the furtherance of the Egyptian and African art scene as a whole. The gallery derives its name from the Swahili word “ubuntu,” which means “I am because we all are,” to connote a holistic concept of being; it is a concept we abide by through the work we present as a gallery.
Is there any project you’re presently working on?
We’re currently working on a collaboration with a non-profit organisation in Cairo called Banati [English translation: My Girls] Foundation, which works towards supporting girls, young mothers, and their children who live on the streets of Cairo to lead safe, healthy, and productive lives. We’re currently planning an art school with Banati, which would connect our artists and the girls to help them learn more about art and harness it for therapeutic purposes. We’re excited for its implementation, and we’re looking out for collaborations with different entities.
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