Like its towering media and literary traditions, Egyptian art dominates the Arab world. Flush buyers from the Gulf flock to Cairo to nab new creations so regularly that those red 'sold' stickers hurriedly posted on the frames almost seem like part of the piece, especially at top galleries in Zamalek.
And it's no wonder: with walls adorned with everything from power portraits to Tetris-style cityscapes, Cairo's galleries tell the thrilling narrative of the city's life through the eyes of its visual masterminds.
Find creative inspiration at Cairo's SOMA Art School & Gallery © Leah Bremer / Lonely Planet
Bask in SOMA’s sun-drenched colour
From its new third-floor location on Al Adel Abou Baker behind the Telecom building, SOMA Art School & Gallery offers young visual artists the opportunity to participate in educational programs combined with exhibition and market exposure. The gallery's mission is clear: to showcase bold new artists who set the tone of contemporary media with multidisciplinary works. It sounds daunting, but SOMA is a relaxing space that invites quiet reflection and a return to nature. The abundance of sunlight sets this radiant space apart from other galleries, with the natural world outside framing each room with its lush foliage. Visit in the afternoon when the soft western sun shimmers over the Nile to enjoy the view with the pioneering works on display.
Get to know the lay of the land at Ebdaa Art Gallery
Part of Zamalek’s charm is its sheer number of art students, who you’ll see wandering with canvas in hand around Ismail Muhammed St, home to the renowned Faculty of Art of Helwan University. Wade past these streams of aspiring artists towards signs for Peking restaurant. Located on the first floor of the adjacent apartment building, Ebdaa Art Gallery can feel like a serene trip up the Nile. From sultry impressions of cosmopolitan living in Alexandria and Cairo to idyllic scenes of Nubian marital rituals, the curators of Ebdaa aim to serve up every vibrant pulse of Egyptian society through its most expressive folk and modern artists.
Get to know past and present stalwarts of Egyptian art at SafarKhan © Leah Bremer / Lonely Planet
Rub elbows with the regulars at SafarKhan
An intimate split-level gallery amid Brazil St’s hustle in the heart of Zamalek, SafarKhan has nurtured young talent since the 1960s. Focused as much on education as exhibition, the gallery has become the keynote on modern Egyptian art, setting the tone for the intersection of Egypt’s volatile society and its reflectively restless art scene. Flip through the gallery’s extensive online archives before you arrive to pick up some names of past legends, like Hamed Nada, and the greats of today, such as Dr Reda Abdel Salam, a celebrated artist and fine arts professor who regularly gives gallery talks.
Study Cairo's take on modern art at Picasso © Leah Bremer / Lonely Planet
See and be seen at Picasso Art Gallery
This family-run mainstay of Zamalek’s gallery scene expanded its space in 2017 with two new halls, and a wrap-around balcony dominates the first floor of its busy building on the corner of Hassen Assem St. Picasso's growth speaks to its hand in Egypt’s flourishing modern art market. It spotlights bold young artists like Amina Salem, whose imposing portraits of women speak to gender and identity politics in Egyptian society. The terrace doors give visitors a chance to step out, reflect and socialise above the buzz of Brazil St. Before spilling out into the hum, sift through the off-the-wall collection in the left-most hall to scout out a beautiful bargain souvenir.
Admire the creations of Egypt's new artists at Ubuntu © Ubuntu
Engage with the next generation at Ubuntu
Opposite the Dutch Embassy on the corner of Ibn Zinky and Hassan Sabry sits a life-size sculpture of an African water buffalo guarding the brick doorway down into Ubuntu, a young and determined gallery established in 2014 with the aim of bringing new artists to the international market. The gallery engages a wide range of mediums, from classical painting to sculptures and ceramics, Egypt’s artisanal bread and butter. With many of Egypt’s independent artists today struggling to step onto the crowded stage, Ubuntu is a welcome broker between emerging local artists and art fairs abroad, including Context New York, a swanky Manhattan affair.
Feel bad about just browsing at Al Masar Gallery
On the first floor of the Behler mansion off July 26 St sits Al Masar, a gallery that will make you wish you had a fully loaded bank account. A peek at the guest list on the curator’s desk reveals an international clientele, and it’s easy to see why this space is an essential stop – or perhaps the grand finale – of any art tour around Cairo’s official literati neighbourhood. Far from that quaint feeling of other galleries, the tall ceilings and towering works of abstract expression radiate a sense of awakening, even next to bulbous bronze sculptures of slumbering cats. Ask the manager to point out works by Taha Hussein or Farouk Hosny, two leading figures in Egyptian modern art.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.