Having liberated art from the confines of stuffy galleries, Lina Mowafy, Dina Shaaban & Hatem Zaazou talk humble beginnings to online artistry as they exclusively reveal to CairoScene their plans for a revolutionary new space, launching within weeks.
The world of art has long been an exclusive one; one surrounded with velvet ropes, extortionate figures and, we have to say, an air of arrogance. The gallery experience is one that requires you to dress up, talk down and come armed with a cheque book. So when I was invited over to the home of Lina Mowafy, one of the three founders of Arts-Mart.com, I was rather taken aback by the familiar aromas of fool and falafel filling the air, the sound of children playing and the giggles of a group of friends that clearly go way back. Then again, Arts-Mart.com – an online fine art gallery, now in its second year – isn’t your average art establishment. “Lina made me an amazing breakfast!” exclaims co-founder Dina Shaaban, insisting we delve in, while partner Hatem Zaazou quickly realises he might be overdressed for the occasion. “I thought I’d dress like a businessman – I didn’t know the ladies would be sat here with fool and drinking tea!” he laughs, before settling in with them and losing the tie. The trio have incredible energy and, like any group of good friends, love making fun of one another. So I decided to have some fun too – this, after all, is the company that liberated the hoity arts world, let it run wild on the internet and included both the artists and the aficionados that usually wouldn’t have access. Instead of asking Lina, Dina and Hatem to tell me about themselves, I ask them to tell me about each other…
“Let Hatem tell you about me!!!” screams Lina Mowafy, complete with jingling as she waves her multi-ringed, multi-braceleted arms. “I’ve known this girl since she was 15,” laughs Hatem, as he explains that they’re actually brother and sister-in-law. “She was always in her room, drawing and painting. It was clear she was artistic.” Lina is quick to interrupt – “He was actually the first person to buy a painting from me!” – as it becomes clearer that her involvement in Arts-Mart comes from a real passion and understanding for art, not just business. In fact, from the plethora of original works on her living room wall, the one that catches my eye the most – a chiseled-jawed Egyptian man in all his glory – is one of her own. “Just look at her, with all this jewellery and colours – of course she’s artistic!” Hatem continues.
Dina Shaaban, as it turns out, goes way back with Lina too. “We lived on the same street, we went to the same school on the same bus,” Lina begins, with a smirk that indicates decades of girly secrets between them. “We were always interested in art, and it’s always a topic that we come back to – when we were drawing on walls, thinking we were cool graffiti artists! We had a lot of energy back then…” she says with a laugh. However, their bond clearly goes beyond the rom-com standards of female friendship. “Dina is very organised, very committed and a real go-getter,” says Lina, singing her best friend’s graces. “She’s motivated to reach her goals, so she’s the one that always keeps us on track when we get distracted or carried away.”
And on to Hatem Zaazou. “Well, of course, I’ve known Hatem from the moment he came to propose to Lina’s sister!” she laughs, as she explains the dynamics of the trio. “Actually – I’m going to tell you something I’ve never even told Hatem. There was always this mythical businessman called Hatem everyone used to tell me about. Apparently everything he touched turned to goal, and people would always say he’s the guy to work with when starting a business. Finally – I realised it was the same Hatem!” continues Dina. Dina and Lina’s clear attraction to the art world lead to the realisation that there lacked a platform for young and emerging artists. “Furthermore, when I wanted to buy art for my home without spending an arm and a leg, I didn’t know where to go. So I was complaining to Lina one day, when she said ‘yalla, let’s start a gallery,’” says Lina. To minimise and maximise exposure, they decided to go online. It took a while to actually get things going, “and that’s where Hatem came to the rescue! We sat down together and he told us ‘That’s enough planning. If you’re not going to do it now, it’s never going to happen. Just do it!’”
“We’re now comprised of the three of us, an accounts department, an operations manager, delivery systems and a warehouse, to store the 1700 pieces of art we currently stock,” says Hatem about the company today. Working with over 70 artists on their books, they’ve become a hub for both the creators and appreciators of art alike. “We’ve made the website as informative as possible. Each artist has a profile, where you can find out about them, their styles and their mediums. We’re an educational tool as much as we are a purchasing tool,” explains Dina about their relationships and real passion for the artists they work with. While they started off by approaching artists that they knew well, the concept went viral as those artists told their artist friends to get in touch with Arts-Mart and get listed on their site. “We also have an online submission form for anyone who wants to sell their work with us, which we screen regularly,” explains Lina. And Hatem, ever the businessman, is quick to add that they have had customers return again and again, forgoing auctions and stuffy galleries for the ease and access of the internet.
However, what of the criticism that taking art and putting it online into a fast-paced, interconnected online shopping format might cheapen it or devalue the painstaking hours artists spent creating it? What of the unparalleled experience of seeing art in its true form, the way artist intend it to be experienced, rather than digital copies, easily saved and shared and replicated? “At the end of the day an artist wants his or her work to be seen and bought. And if you want someone to buy it, it has to be accessible to them – otherwise why are they creating it?” explains Lina. Dina agrees wholeheartedly – “If we have the tools to give artists the wide platform for exposure they need, then there’s nothing wrong with that,” adding that the receive thousands of hits every week on Arts-Mart.com. They also offer a sort of ‘try before you buy’ service in which a selection of works can be delivered to a potential buyer’s home before they commit to purchasing, so they can see them in real life and how they would suit the walls they are to adorn. “We know that it might take a little more education for the market to understand the value of what we’re doing, because it’s the first time it’s been done here in Egypt,” admits Hatem. “But that’s why we go above and beyond with the service.” Meanwhile, the crew put on pop-up physical galleries so the arts community can put faces to the web address that’s disrupted the traditional process of selling and buying art, as well as meet and greet artists they never might have encountered on the gallery circuit.
“With our client base constantly growing, we’ve decided to set up a permanent physical space,” says Hatem, letting us in on the secret. “There are a lot of young collectors popping up across Egypt as the country as a whole gets more and more interested in the arts world,” adds Lina. “What we’re really proud of is bringing together this demographic and turning them into art lovers. Most of our customers have made their first ever investment in art through Arts-Mart.com,” explains Dina, finishing up the thoughts of her partners. The new Arts-Mart gallery flings open its doors on March 5th, and promises to be a revolutionary new way of presenting, promoting and appreciating at. The massive warehouse-style space at the beginning of the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road not only has the capabilities to house hundreds of paintings, but has the space for art installations, workshops, audio-visual art, studios and more. In this capacity, the team have only unshackled the art scene further, forgoing the typical set-ups for a space that wouldn’t seem out of place in the likes of London, New York or San Francisco.
For the opening of Arts-Mart the gallery, the team have looked to none other than iconic Egyptian artist, Mohamed Abla, to present his most extensive exhibition to date. The Mansoura-native pulls on his past travels through Europe stylistically, though his art remains Egyptian, through and through. This one-of-a-kind exhibition will run for two weeks after the grand launch but the team kept tight-lipped about what else they’ve got in store.
Portrait photography by Jonathan Zikry. On location photography by Mahmoud Asfour.