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Egypt’s Minister of Culture Keeps Eye on the Present

Times Art Writer

“For most foreigners, Egypt’s culture is in the past. For us, Egypt is not of the past, it is the future,” said Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s minister of culture, in an interview over the weekend.

“Egypt’s past is unrivaled and unparalleled. In the present it has many rivals and many cultures surpass it, but Egypt also aspires to have a strong presence in the contemporary world.”

People who don’t know Egypt well are surprised to learn about the vitality of its contemporary arts, he said. “We are trying to find the means to express this richness.” Following in the footsteps of writer Andre Malraux in France and actress Melina Mercouri in Greece, Hosni, a painter, is among the rare breed of artists who serve their countries as high-level administrators. On his first visit to the United States--a 12-day jaunt that includes Dallas, New York and Washington--Hosni was a guest of the Getty Conservation Institute for four days in Los Angeles.

“Being an artist doesn’t just mean that you create things but that you are a person of vision and imagination,” said Hosni, speaking through a translator in his hotel room in Marina del Rey. The difficulty for artist-administrators is that they are inclined to be “idealistic perfectionists,” he said, but they also have an advantage: an ability to dream. “The problem is not the artist’s visionary point of view but the means--the material tools--to carry out his dreams.”

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A dashing figure who might be mistaken for a film star, Hosni said his childhood dreams were formed by Hollywood movies. While his visit to Los Angeles returned him to “the old days of American cinema” (in part through a tour of Universal Studios), his official purpose was to shape Egypt’s cultural future. To that end, his itinerary was packed with meetings with museum administrators, ceremonial meals, visits to local cultural institutions--the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art--and a conference on “The First Egyptians: Pyramid Age and Before” at the Natural History Museum.

Egypt’s writers, composers and plastic artists are the strength of the country’s contemporary culture, Hosni said. The formerly vital Egyptian film industry, whose products have been widely distributed in the Arab world, has declined for reasons not unique to Egypt: the rise of video and an increasing emphasis on making movies for profit, he said. Movie theaters have closed because Egyptians watch movies at home. “Every home has a VCR, if not two or three,” Hosni said, and most of them show imported movies. Asked if a Muslim fundamentalist movement had also crippled the film industry, Hosni said that “at a certain point, about two or three years ago, it was a menace to the arts,” but that threat has now “collapsed.”

Hosni said his primary challenge in promoting the arts is to find ways to put them on a sound economic footing and even turn them into money-making ventures. “The arts can be a real source of income by attracting tourism,” he said, insisting that spotlighting the arts is also a way of raising quality. “If the quality is good, the art is wanted.” He calls the concept “the industrialization of culture” and noted that other countries have found culture to be profitable.

“We need to show the civilized face of Egypt” to tourists, said Hosni, who wants that face to include more than spectacular monuments. He envisions--and has already begun to work on--performing and visual arts centers located at archeological sites. Contemporary artists’ work would be cast in the impressive light of history, while “forlorn and forgotten” archeological sites would come to life again as venues for arts exhibitions, performances and other programs. Hosni plans to hit “every target. Any building or site that has its own character can be turned into a cultural center.”

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Meanwhile, even the most forward-looking minister of culture cannot forget the past. The needs of Egypt’s disintegrating monuments are enormous--and these ancient treasures demand foreign expertise and resources. The Getty Conservation Institute has come to the rescue of the 3,500-year-old tomb of Queen Nefertari, across the Nile River from Luxor in southern Egypt. An international team headed by Italians is salvaging wall paintings that were gravely endangered by water and salts. The tomb, which has been closed since the early ‘50s, will reopen to tourists in 1991, Hosni said.

Such success stories are tempered by the fact that Egypt has about 10,000 archeological sites that are deteriorating at an ever-increasing rate. Urban encroachment, pollutants, changing water tables and tourism are all taking their toll. Conservation of the Giza Plateau, including pyramids and the Sphinx, is a $50-million job, according to Hosni. But the project is “completely feasible,” he said. Saving “the world’s first Surrealist statue” is “no problem,” Hosni said with visionary optimism. “All we need is material and scientific resources.”


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