Alexandria: Past Futures, an exhibition about new ways of rethinking the Egyptian city

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) A strip of land between two lovers, the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Mariout. A port city caressed by a passing breeze and the seasonal winds of North Africa. A memory that stays. A great sentinel guiding ships arrives safely at its port: the Alexandria Lighthouse, a spectacular architectural and engineering feat.

Alexandria, a city of Hellenistic glory in antiquity and home of the Mouseion, where the library of encyclopedic knowledge once stood. Alexandria witnessed the social and political changes that took place in Egypt in 2011. How does Alexandria’s rich multicultural heritage fit into today’s world? How do new perspectives on the Egyptian Mediterranean city emerge beyond clichés and glorified myths? How can art help create nuanced meaning? These are some of the questions explored in Alexandria: Past Futuresan exhibition at the Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels from 30th September 2022 to 8th January 2023.

The exhibition, put together in collaboration with the Royal Museum of Mariemont and the Mucem in Marseille, takes visitors back to 330 BC. City founded by Alexander the Great. Emerging as one of the first ancient metropolises, Alexandria was not only an important economic trade center but also internationally renowned for its cultural and scientific influence. Different peoples lived together and created a unique melting pot with elements from Egyptian, Greek, Syrian, Roman, Jewish and other cultures. The most renowned scholars and researchers of the time met in Alexandria.

The exhibition features artifacts spanning more than seven centuries, from the founding of the city by Alexander the Great (331 BC) to the advent of Christianity (381 AD), as well as forays into Byzantine, Arab-Islamic and modern remains . With a selection of around 200 works from Europe’s largest museum collections, the exhibition showcases the legacy and legacy of the megapolis by looking at its urban, political and religious organisation, the daily lives of its inhabitants and the scientific and philosophical influence of this civilization’s hub in of antiquity.

Alexandria is also a contemporary city, marked by constant ecological, social and political erosion, determined by its colonial past, geopolitical realities and the turmoil of globalization. “This exhibition looks at how the past writes the present,” said Christine Perpette, CEO Ad Interim at Bozar. One question that hovers in the air as you walk through the exhibition hall is: How will the past be reconciled with the post-colonial period?

Today the city is in ecological, social and political decline, but the ideal image of earlier times still shapes the collective consciousness. The exhibition reacts to this friction. For the Egyptian curator Sarah Rifky, it was crucial to show the multifaceted nature of Alexandria in all its complexity. “To this day, political tension can be felt in the city,” said Rifky. “It was important for us to maintain this tension.”

Throughout the exhibition, 17 contemporary artists will present works that deal with the city of today, its complexity and the paradox of its representation, which is based on a constant back and forth between historical, present and imaginary time. “The politics of representation is at the heart of the exhibition,” said Edwin Nasr, curator. “We wanted to ask: Where are the limits of representation?”

Through five main themes, the exhibition deals with the urban, political and religious organization of the city, the daily life of its inhabitants and the scientific and cultural influences of the important center of civilization in antiquity. “In the exhibition, historical time mixes with contemporary and imaginary time,” said Nicolas Amoroso, curator of the Royal Museum of Mariemont. “They are in constant dialogue.”

A typical Alexandrian phenomenon of antiquity is also in focus: the concept of cultural bilingualism. The bridge between cultures was created through hybrid creations with elements of both Greek and Egyptian traditions. Serapis, the tutelary god of Alexandria, is the Hellenized version of the Egyptian god Osiris.

Visitors will sometimes be in awe, sometimes disoriented. For example, a constant droning is part of Malak Helmy’s Music for Drifting (2013), which chronicles the journey of a recording device-equipped messenger bird as it cruises past an old port on the outskirts of Alexandria, a hilltop site where the The First Battle of El Alamein was held to prevent the Axis from advancing into North Africa during World War II. The bird collects rhythms as bars from places that have changed in the meantime.

The public will discover a new selection of contemporary artworks (paintings, photographs, sculptures, audiovisual installations), three of which have been specially conceived for the exhibition by artists Wael Shawky, Jasmina Metwaly and Mona Marzouk.

In Isles of the Bless (Oops, I forgot Europe) Shawky has created a new large-scale drawing and short film in which a puppet character narrates the Greek mythology of Zeus’ rape of Europe. Shawky’s piece invites the viewer to rethink the founding myth of Europe.

2022 marks a double anniversary: ​​the bicentenary of the decipherment of the hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion and the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. In this context, Bozar collaborates with an important museum institution of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, the Royal Museum of Mariemont, which has the second largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in Belgium.

Simultaneously with the Alexandria: Past Futures Exhibition at the Bozar presents the Royal Museum of Mariemont Egypt. Eternal Passion, an exhibition exploring ancient Egypt’s fascination with the Western imagination from ancient times to the present day. Synergies and echoes between the two exhibitions are suggested and visitors are directly invited to move from one place to the other.

That Alexandria: Past Futures The exhibition is part of the international project Alexandria: (Re)activating Common Urban Imaginaries, organized by the partners Mucem (FR), University of Leiden (NL), Kunsthal Arhus (DK), Undo Point Contemporary Arts (CY), Royal Museum of Mariemont (BE), Center for Fine Arts, Brussels / Bozar (BE), Ariona Hellas (GR) and Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto (IT), with the support of associated partners Cluster (Egypt), Institut Français d’Alexandrie (Egypt) and Theatrum Mundi (Great Britain).

Parallel to the exhibition, two artist residency programs, a series of workshops, study visits, meetings and conferences in the cities of the various partners involved will explore the multiple challenges art, heritage and cities face through the symbolic and historical lens of the city of Alexandria and analyze its influences on urban development in the Mediterranean region and beyond.