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Publication: Fuse Magazine
Author: Banh, Joseph
Date published: October 1, 2011


As the revolution continues to unfold here in Egypt, it is clear that any celebratory posturing is premature, if not entirely delusional. However, recent events have undoubtedly created a rupture in the social, cultural and political landscape whereby, for the first time in decades, previously suppressed debates and discussions about issues of public concern are happening in local ahwas (coffee houses), work places, online, in the streets and in public squares. The revolution has, at least for the moment, destabilized the state's ability to control public discourse and the circulation of ideas.

A striking aspect of the Egyptian revolution is the frenzy of creative response and accelerated cultural production that has gripped Cairo and other parts of the country. The creativity and sense of urgency expressed in the streets continue on as competing groups give voice to their visions for the country's future. However, the question remains what legacy the revolution will have on the country's cultural organizations, artists and art production.

Egypt's cultural scene has been dominated and officially administered by the Ministry of Culture, which acts as both patron and censor, since it was established in 1 952 following Gamal Abdel Nasser's military coup and rise to power. Matters of taste, aesthetics, and what constitutes appropriate art and culture for the public (and, therefore, what would be funded or exhibited publicly) have been tightly controlled by the state. Despite this, a number of independent arts organizations have been gradually established outside of the purview of the Ministry of Culture, including Cairo's Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center; the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC); and the Townhouse Gallery.

Such spaces play a significant role in the advancement of contemporary art and cultural praxis by making space available for local artists to produce work, and by reframing the interlocking discourses of art, culture and politics beyond the control of the state. Independent art organizations also serve as a muchneeded supplement to an (art) education system that has been neglected by the state, and is, therefore, out of sync with current issues and ideas that circulate in academe and the international art community.

However peripheral independent art organizations may be to the staterun cultural system, they have, nonetheless, been on the radar of state security, making them repeated subjects of state censorship and coercion. To varying degrees, this has been the experience of all of the independent art organizations presented below. Notably, since the events that began on January 25, 201 1 , reports of state censorship have diminished, but it is uncertain how long this will be the case. This state of uncertainty is part and parcel of an unfinished revolution, but it seems that for now, actors in Cairo's cultural field intend to continue their work undeterred.

In July of this year, I interviewed three of Cairo's cultural insiders to get their take on how recent events might impact Egypt's artists, cultural production and the respective organizations that they operate. Their insight into pre- and postrevolutionary Cairo and what lies ahead is a result of their deep engagement with the city's art and cultural scene. In conversation with Moataz Nasreldin, artist, activist and founder of Darb 1718; Mia Jankowicz, artistic director at Contemporary Image Collective (CIC); and William Wells, founder and director of the Townhouse Gallery, we get a sense of the operational realities of working as independent arts organizations in Cairo, areas of common concern, and a glimpse of how they will move forward in the days to come.

Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center

Darb 1718 was founded by Egyptian visual artist and cultural activist Moataz Nasreldin in response to a need for additional art spaces to serve Cairo's artistic community. Situated among the historic communities of Old Cairo, south of the city's downtown core and east of the Nile, Darb 1718 is a multi-use facility consisting of a main exhibition space, rooftop and garden performance and screening spaces, two theatres for dance and musical performances, and workshop spaces.

Darb 1718 operates primarily as a collective. Eschewing the practice of promoting individual artists, Darb 1718 typically mounts group shows, bringing artists together around a core theme or curatorial premise. Exhibitions are either curated in-house via an open call, or by visiting curators. Like many of Egypt's other independent art spaces, it operates in counterpoint to the controlled and closed system of the state-sanctioned cultural institutions and "official" art world. Thus, Darb 171 8 strives to continually keep spaces of free expression and exploration open to already established as well as up-and-coming artists.

Nasreldin, however, is quick to point out that Darb 171 8's programming is "not just about contemporary art, but about whatever is contemporary- music, performance, storytelling, contemporary dance. It's a chance for young artists and performers to express themselves." [1] This openness and commitment to broader contemporary cultural practice is clearly important to Darb 171 8's mission-based activities because such openness also "brings different authences to contemporary art."

While one of the core activities at Darb 1718 is to act as a platform for the presentation of contemporary culture, Nasreldin pointed out that a strong conceptual approach is key to their programming, noting that, "The concept is the most important. The concept is the star." For this reason, when questioned about whether the contemporary art scene has noticeably changed since the start of the revolution he replied, "Darb has always been a place to let people say what they want to say, without limitation or censorship. From the beginning, we have targeted and talked about political, social and economic issues in the country." Exhibitions put on by Darb 1718 have explored such issues as the nationwide shortage of bread (a subsidized commodity) in 2008, which resulted in long queues for rations and near riots, to questions of place and identity in relation to the Sahara Desert's division of Northern and Southern Africa.

At the time of writing, the group exhibition on display was entitled Maspero, the name of the infamous state television building, and symbol of the state's ideological oppression of the past 50 years. A timely exhibition, it was a compelling multi-media display (multimedia installations, video, photo-based works and paintings) of artists' critiques of state television programming and deconstruction of the cultural icon that is the Maspero building.

Darb 1718 has never shied away from content dealing with issues that are often highly relevant to the specific space and time of the region. In the context of revolutionary Egypt, Nasreldin simply, but no less meaningfully, stated, "We are continuing on, but feel that the 'freedom-space' is expanding. We were pushing before, trying to push things to the edge. Now, you dont feel you have to push as hard, or worry about the reaction, what people will say, whether state security will come to accuse you of anything. There is a sense of freedom, but our work remains the same."

In regard to ascribing a role to contemporary art in these times of upheaval, Nasreldin's response was particularly apt, "Contemporary art's role is to get away from traditional issues. Getting out of traditional media (oil painting, sculpture, &c) is a way of changing people's mentality, to teach them that they can accept anything else. People are used to seeing painting and sculpture, but now they can see video and installation too -it's about acceptance. Part of accepting contemporary art is also about accepting others generally." As for Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center in the days to come, "Our role is simply to give a chance for people to express themselves. This is a place where anyone can come to express him or herself. The most important thing is to keep the energy alive."

Contemporary Image Collective

The Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), located on the fourth floor of a 1 940s office block in downtown Cairo, was founded by a group of artists, photographers and photoj ou rna lists. Frustrated by the difficulties they encountered across the entire range of the photographic production spectrum (lack of space, equipment, problems with digital workflow, printing facilities and the like), the group decided to take matters into their own hands and establish a collective that would support the pursuit of their artistic ambitions. These ambitions included establishing the necessary infrastructure for photographic production at a professional level. Further, they aimed to foster an active and critical engagement with a public largely unfamiliar with photographic representations outside of the context of state-run news media and its claims to photographic objectivity. As Mia Jankowicz, CIC artistic director and curator, explained, the collective's mission has expanded beyond professional training (such as photographic workshops), transitioning into a curated space with public programming split between photography and contemporary art.

Interestingly, from a curatorial vantage point Jankowicz noted that she was not only interested in content but also how the "shape, form and presumptions" of an institution frame what is possible. [2] This observation is particularly pertinent in the present context as the revolution, and subsequent destabilization of the state, has created a situation where the policies and procedures of the Ministry of Culture can be deconstructed with proposed models of governance based on transparent democratic processes, the participation of the cultural community and with adequate systems of accountability in place. Thus, in regard to the revolution's potential impact on Egyptian art and culture, Jankowicz noted, "I'm more interested in how this time is going to affect the art scene's infrastructure. The positives are that young people are taking things into their own hands, and that artists can better explore their autonomy. I would like a situation in which independent institutions can support and work with this autonomy, and will be trusted by artists in doing so. I feel now, more than ever, that arts institutions should take up messages from artists and apply them to their own operation."


The future trajectory of Cairo's contemporary art scene is, for Jankowicz, inextricably tied to the cultural infrastructure of the country. She insists that in addition to rethinking the Ministry of Culture's gate-keeping functions, along with funding models for arts organizations, the issues of censorship and oppression by the state security services also need to be /aid bare.


Observing that the practice of state censorship has temporarily lessened, Jankowicz acknowledged the importance of free expression, but cautioned that while "there have been many shows of 'revolutionary' artwork from people naturally getting inspired by these ideas for the first time, it is a mistake to believe this is the sole way the art scene can respond to the revolution. I'm not interested in applying pressure on artists to make 'revolutionary' art That implies the only role of art is to push a political view, or to be purely celebratory or condemning, and I think this is a very limiting idea. It also implies the revolution is over, which it is not"

As for CICs role in the days to come, Jankowicz explained that their photography workshops continue to be important in distributing the tools of production and representation to those who are living the revolution and who wish to document it The importance of critically interrogating systems of representation and the production of meaning in Egypt is perfectly illustrated by CICs recent project, the Alternative News Agency (ANA). The ANA project brought together artists, citizen journalists and photojournalists in a series of workshops over four months, in response to the 201 0 Parliamentary Election. The ANA culminated in an exhibition and publication of photo stories developed over the course of the project

By integrating educational programming with curatorial direction, the ANA is a great example of, as Jankowicz explained, CICs original intention "to exist as an alternative to the state education system." CICs approach is foregrounded by an understanding that "education projects needn't be so didactic They can be spaces of collaboration that can work across programming and curatorial." The combination of advancing a critical engagement with ideas, and ClCs contribution to the development of the hard skills of cultural production makes it an extremely relevant organization in Cairo's contemporary cultural scene.

Townhouse Gallery

The Townhouse Gallery was founded by wayward Canadian William Wells, in response to the absence of non-governmental and non-commercial art spaces in Cairo. Recognizing the need for creative spaces free from governmental oversight and commercial pressures, the gallery opened in 1 998 to a large crowd, most of whom attended out of curiosity. As Wells noted, once people visited Townhouse they started to realize its "potential be a space for discussion." [3] But, almost immediately, Townhouse ran afoul of the Ministry of Culture and state security services that perceived the gallery and its owner as a threat Art colleges advised students not to attend exhibitions, and newspapers reported that Townhouse Gallery was injecting foreign ideas and influence into Egypt Despite this rather inauspicious start, Townhouse has become a widely recognized and respected art space in the country and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

Community engagement and collaboration is an integral part of Townhouse's activities. Its commitment to establishing standards of curatorial and artistic practice that encourage critical thinking and engagement with contemporary issues has resulted in a multitude of programs and workshops that supplement the performances and exhibitions staged. In an attempt to address the intense social stratification in Egyptian society, the programs include workshops with working children, refugees, the disabled and with other marginalized groups. An international residency program was soon added that encouraged professional and cultural cross-pollination amongst local and foreign artists. Because Townhouse's activities respond to the different but interrelated needs of various communities, their projects tend to be interdisciplinary in nature, integrating aspects of art and education.

Recent collaborative projects such as Tasmeem: Design for Life testify to Townhouse's expansion of its reach and relevance. The 1 6-month Tasmeem project is a collaboration between Townhouse, Azza Fahmy Jewellery, and AM IDEAST, with curriculum developed with the Rhode Island School of Design. The program offers underprivileged Egyptian youth the chance to learn about design, and develop critical thinking and practical craftsmanship skills. An intensive English language-training component is also part of the program.

Actively engaged in Cairo's activist and development communities, it appears that recent events have not significantly impacted Townhouse's mission-based activities. Acknowledging the outburst of creative responses to the revolution, Wells astutely pointed out that one must go beyond the immediate context of the revolution to be able to comprehend the import of what is happening in Egypt. He noted, "Everyone involved with Townhouse is an activist and is especially aware that there has not been a revolution. Any celebration is premature."

Independent artists and arts organizations have been operating in opposition to the state-sanctioned cultural system for years. They have been struggling for this very moment. Thus, in response to the question of how the content and mandate of contemporary art may have shifted in response to the revolution, Wells mused, "In terms of pre- and post-revolution, any artwork able to reflect serious critical thinking on what's taking place right now won't be produced for at least a year. The work created now belongs in the metro, the square, the streets." Indeed, Wells questioned the very notion that there is a special role for contemporary art and artists. "I don't see a 'role' at all," he said, "this idea that contemporary artists have a role, like a doctor, it's not like that We have imposed on artists the role of cultural translator and its not fair. I dont think artists have any other role aside from producing. We just need to give them the resources to allow the work to be produced and presented without any agenda, without assigning a role to it"

Spaces like Darb 1718, CIC, and Townhouse take on increased relevance when understood in relation to the revolution, and the possibilities of creating a more critical and inclusive public realm. Despite this, times may have changed, but their missions have not The forms of Egyptian contemporary art presented by the three organizations are on par with exhibitions in many cities of the world. The content however, necessarily reflects the idiosyncrasies, realities and contradictions of the region - revolutionary or not Continuous engagement with local and regional issues (that are often also consonant with broader international issues), a commitment to education through workshops and residencies, and deep connections built with their respective communities ensure that independent art organizations will have a role to play in rebuilding the country in the days to come. The approaches taken by each organization may be different but in many ways their aims are the same. The revolutionary moment is happening now, but one could also say that for these organizations, it has always already been on the horizon. Understood as the expansion of democratic cultural potentialities, revolution continues to be something that they, and their artists, are reaching for.

[1] All quotes derived from an interview with Moataz Nasreldin, July 16,2011.

[2] All quotes derived from an interview with iMia Jankowicz, July 20,2011.

[3] All quotes derived from an interview with William Wells, July 23,2011.

Author affiliation:

Joseph Banh is a Canadian cultural consultant, visual aitisi and writer currently based in Cairo, Egypt. He is interested in the dynamics of global cultural flows as expressed through contemporary cultural production.

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