Mazaj, a new art gallery with a transformative mission recently opened its doors in Cairo’s trendy Zamalek neighbourhood.  The gallery is reaching out to up-and-coming Egyptian artists by providing them with a space where they can freely exhibit their art. The founder and visionary behind the project is businessman Omar Islam, Chairman of International Trading & Aviation Consultants Group (ITC), who owns several successful ventures, including The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf franchise in Egypt, and who is currently working on an e-commerce platform called Presto.

Islam’s enthusiasm for this art project came naturally. For a long time, the art scene has been a field literally close to home.  Besides his own personal appreciation for the arts, his wife, Janan Shihadeh, is a serious artist with a successful career. Her résumé as a versatile painter runs far and wide, and she was recently chosen by Mercedes-Benz to add her creative spin on the luxurious G-Class for the ‘She’s Mercedes’ initiative, a global program aimed at empowering female drivers. “We have a big studio in our house for Janan and everyone in our household is interested in art.  Our children, Taya and Samo, don’t have video games or watch TV and are always in the studio. We are avid art collectors and I am surrounded by art in my life,” he explains.

Mazaj’s debut night was a great success, attended by a host of celebrities and socialites alike, even though it was “a spur of the moment project, which only took a couple of weeks to launch from conception to execution,” says Islam.  “One night, I met an artist, Deena El Kilany, with her parents and she showed me her art, which I loved.  The next day, I met Rania Awad, another budding painter. I told them let’s launch the project next week!”

Islam is proud of the diversity of his personal art collection, and wants to extend that to Mazaj, where he hopes to provide exposure, not only different artists, but a wide variety of art forms.  “We want to exhibit all types of artists.  If you’re a painter, you’re welcome; if you’re a sculptor, you’re welcome too. The whole idea is to give a chance to other people to believe in their art,” he exclaims.   Islam is even open to the idea of exhibiting street art, fashion, and even graphic arts.  “The idea behind Mazaj is to discover people who otherwise have no chance of being known- those who can’t afford to promote themselves.  We are going to help them and promote them by inviting people to see their art,” he adds.

Deena El Kilany, Hana Afifi, Rania Awad, Hayam El Sayed & Omar Islam

“The outcome was amazing,” says Hana Afifi, one of the young artists who made her debut at Mazaj’s opening night. “For me, as an artist, I couldn’t have asked for more, because it was really good exposure, and really well put together, even though it was last minute. We had such a big variety of people who came, and many stayed for a good two hours; in art galleries you don’t really have this.”  Deena El Kilany, another participating artist, adds, “Mazaj exhibits art with a twist.  It’s not like the regular exhibitions.  By providing drinks and music, it makes people enjoy the vibe as well as the art around them, while socialising.  It is a celebration of art.”  Hayam El Sayed, also one of the exhibiting artists, exclaims, with a big smile, “It’s going to encourage more people to pay attention to art and value it more. Everyone was happy, they really liked the paintings!”

With a laser focus on discovering the country’s hidden art gems, Islam is strictly interested in only exhibiting the works of up-and-coming artists.  “Mazaj is a startup. It’s for people who don’t have a chance. The established artists do not need me.  I am doing this purely because I really want to help all the young artists out there. Therefore, it is completely free of charge. If there were to be any commission, it would be used to support the artists themselves. Looking at the big picture, the idea is to buy time for the artists and let clients judge if they are good, to take them to the next level,” he explains.  According to Islam, there is a toxic dichotomy at play in Egypt. “The art scene in Egypt is both underrated and overrated, at the same time,” he explains. “Young artists are very much underrated because the big galleries don’t take them in, or they just ask them to ‘reproduce’ art that is similar to what is popular at the moment. Artists are not encouraged to truly express their art the way they want to; while many of the established and older artists are overpriced and too commercial.”

Islam is not just a detached benefactor giving new artists a helping hand.  He’s made a personal investment in the exhibitors by purchasing a piece of artwork from each of the artists showing in the opening of Mazaj.  “I am in love with these young, rising artists.  They’re what I am going to invest in now,” he proudly insists.  The fact that 80-90% of the paintings were sold on opening night, is a testament to the quality of their art and a validation of Islam’s belief in their potential over the long term. 

According to Islam’s plan, Mazaj will also have a competitive edge over other galleries in Cairo with its inclusion of a bar and bistro on the premises. “When you go to an art gallery you only stay for 10 to 15 minutes.  To prolong your stay we thought of including a bistro and bar to make the overall experience more fun,” says Islam.   This comes as a logical step, given that Mazaj is located right next to Islam’s thriving business venture, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.  Clients will be able to enter Mazaj through the coffee shop, as well as through the gallery’s main entrance.  That way the gallery will also be drawing traffic from the coffee shop’s clientele, making for an easy integration.

Islam’s ambitions do not stop at shaking up the Egyptian art scene, however. He intends to transform the art scene throughout the Middle East, no less.  “We want to create an art foundation for Middle Eastern artists, not only those in Egypt.  We are now actually working on an app that would allow someone who lives in Iraq or Syria, or anywhere in the Middle East, to show us their artwork; and we can try to help them, to support them throughout the region,” explains Islam. Although a seemingly ambitious plan, Islam is obviously the right man for the task.  With his numerous international connections, including with prestigious galleries around the world, from Dubai all the way to Geneva and even New York City, Islam’s plan has a credible chance to become an actualised reality soon.

Islam finds that the current regional political turmoil, as well as the prevalent false western stereotypes about the Middle East, make a space such as Mazaj very valuable in changing the image of our region. “I want to show Middle Easterners in a different light. We have great people, and we have great artists.  I want to demonstrate that Arabs and Muslims are creative, that we have a lot of hip, cool and creative people. This is the whole intention,” he explains.

For now, Islam is focused on building a strong foundation for Mazaj in order to achieve true, genuine change in the art scene.  Judging by the energy of its opening and the interest it has elicited, he is definitely off to a good start.  Islam’s business savvy and social connections, coupled with his genuine passion for the project, are sure to make Mazaj the talk of the town, and, if he has his way, eventually, the talk of the world as well.

Deena El Kilany & Sherine Reda

“Music, movies, travelling and meeting new people with different backgrounds inspire me. I like to do something odd that makes me want to paint something different”Deena El Kilany

Dina Nosseir & Hana Afifi

“I just feel like I want to paint, but I think it’s more like therapy for me. It’s the only time of the day I completely get away from the world. I zone out and think of nothing except my paintings” Hana Afifi

Hayam El Sayed & Mirette Aly

“One of my paintings was sold and it gave me this sense of freedom. I think it’s a very good start for all of us” Hayam El Sayed