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Canadian artist's riot-police paintings trapped in Cairo bedlam

When Canadian artist Matthew Carver began painting giant scenes of riot police around the world, he had no idea that the works would some day overlook an actual uprising - and that they might become casualties of it.

Three of Carver's paintings are currently on show at the Cairo Biennale - or at least he thinks they are still hanging in the Palace of the Arts, overlooking the streets where Egypt's pro-democracy demonstrators have clashed with police. Because of the crackdown on communications, he has not heard from officials at the art fair, an international exhibition that is backed by the government of Hosni Mubarak.

One of the canvases, which measures two by three metres, depicts police in riot gear at last year's G20 summit in Toronto, Carver's hometown. The other two show riot police guarding gas stations during May Day protests in Berlin, where he now lives.

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All three of the works are displayed prominently inside the Palace of the Arts. "If anyone breaks in there, knowing how Egyptians feel about the police in their society, I could see them tearing them down," Carver, 42, said over the phone from his studio in Berlin.

His art dealer has told him that he will probably never see the paintings again. The art fair insured the three works for $50,000, but he says, "I don't think insurance covers revolutions."

Carver understandably has mixed feelings watching the footage from Cairo: He is worried about his Egyptian artist friends, excited by the prospect of popular change, anxious he might lose his paintings and a little proud that his work has such currency: "All artists dream about their work resonating, but I hadn't quite expected this."

In fact, he says, his Berlin dealer had been disappointed that he started painting riot police instead of the popular large-scale cityscapes that had made his name (British art collector Charles Saatchi has some of those works). But Carver became fascinated by the way that police in riot gear looked the same all around the world, from Europe to Asia. "I came to see it as the flip side of globalization," he says. "Is one company making all the helmets? All the batons?"

He is currently working on more paintings in the series for a show at Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto in October.

Carver spent 10 days in Cairo at the opening of the art fair, and he found himself surrounded by officials who said they could not support their families on what they were making. "One guy asked if I could get him a job in Canada, working in a hotel, doing anything. And this was a guy in a suit."

The artist's riot-police paintings were partly prompted by the Cairo Biennale asking its artists to consider this question: "Do we need art today at a time and space full of conflicts and struggle to survive?" Carver would say that absolutely there is a place for art, and some day he hopes to get his back.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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