Visions of Cairo
Published: April 2009
By Sean Rocha
The contemporary art scene in Cairo is electric—wired for multimedia, wide awake to questions of Arab identity and political opinion, attracting the interest and money of international collectors, and, casting new light on an ancient city
In downtown Cairo, miracles are performed on Maarouf. This narrow, tree-lined street in the eastern shadows of the Egyptian Museum echoes with the sound of hammers reshaping steel. Black motor oil glistens in pools on the sidewalk, and the small shops nearby are stacked floor to ceiling with auto parts or safety glass. Parked at the curbs, propped up on jacks, a century’s worth of automotive history awaits resurrection. Through improvisational genius and the ability to fabricate almost anything, mechanics here can return old Cadillacs to their 1920’s elegance and rebuild Turkish-made Dogans for another decade’s hard labor in the streets of Cairo. On Maarouf, even the Soviet Union can be patched together again and made to stagger on, in the form of the boxy black-and-white paneled Ladas that are the mainstays of the local taxi trade.
On a warm evening last spring, I went to an opening at a contemporary-art gallery called Townhouse, on a quiet lane a block south of Maarouf. Here, the hammering of the mechaniki was reduced to a faint, metronomic ticking, and the place buzzed with Egyptians debating the merits of a video installation and some large-scale color photographs of conspicuously untouristy parts of Cairo. A few older, professorial types mingled with the mostly young crowd, but everyone gave the work respectful consideration. Some were artists themselves, dressed in the black-framed glasses and fashionable casualness of art scenesters everywhere. But this juxtaposition of old and new, past and present, is typical of Cairo: a century ago, this alley was the entrance to a sprawling mansion that still sits, decrepit and alluring, behind a long wall. Now, Townhouse’s echoing white-walled space feels vaguely industrial, and unmistakably hip, and downtown Cairo has become the home of an astonishingly vibrant contemporary art scene.
Just as the temporal distance between Townhouse and Maarouf might seem to be measured more easily in decades than minutes, every part of Cairo is dense with competing functions and overlapping histories. I lived downtown in the mid 1990’s and spent much of my time going to events few people associate with life in Egypt: outdoor jazz by the Nile on Sundays, modern dance at the Gumhuriya theater, opera at the grand neo-Islamic Opera House. Mostly, though, I went to art exhibitions. It was a sleepier scene then, but there was something about downtown—palatial buildings in a haunting state of disrepair, traffic-jammed streets adjacent to alleys of almost pastoral beauty—that inspired creativity.
What I loved most about downtown was that it was originally intended to be French. Almost 150 years ago, the Khedive of Egypt laid out the district as a replica of Haussmann’s Paris, with stately apartment buildings, central étoile, and radial boulevards. At the time, France was synonymous with modern, and downtown was part of the Khedive’s very expensive effort to persuade the world that Egypt was a modern country. The world was largely unconvinced, and Cairenes soon reclaimed this faux-French urban space as their own: shops were refurbished, signs were rewritten, and boulevards were renamed. Today, downtown at street level feels like the archetypal Cairo district; it is only when you step back and look at the upper floors of the buildings that you recall the foreign influences.
Townhouse opened in 1998, which was the year I left the city and precisely the moment at which the Egyptian art world began to change dramatically. I returned to find out what had happened to the artists and galleries that I’d followed so closely a decade ago, and to explore what it now means to create contemporary art in the Arab Middle East.
"How can you learn to draw the body if you never see nude models?" I ask Rehab El Sadek as we sit by a café window in Alexandria, talking about her art education. "It is difficult," El Sadek offers, her laugh suggesting this is the sort of question foreigners always ask. "We used to draw in our houses, in front of the mirror. Or you can wear stretchy T-shirts." Now I laugh. "Yes, yes, I know," she says impatiently, "but the body still shows."
When I ask Egyptian artists about the challenges they face, nudity—and religion, government censorship, and many of the other things that preoccupy foreigners—is not generally what they talk about. Americans may be increasingly aware of fundamentalism in the Middle East, but Cairo is a little more liberal than it was a decade ago: newspapers demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation; couples hold hands in public instead of walking chastely arm in arm; and alcohol, once a closed-door activity, is sold openly at the new Drinkie shops. Besides, Egyptian artists have always had the equivalent of stretchy T-shirts, strategies that allow them to walk right up to society’s red lines—without stepping over them. They have enough freedom to create art, so what most of them talk about is the need to get their art out into the world. And at some point that conversation leads back to Townhouse, even among artists who don’t exhibit there.
William Wells, the Canadian-born cofounder of the gallery, does not look like a revolutionary. He is in his early fifties, with a soft but forceful way of speaking. When he discusses the operation of Townhouse, he almost makes it sound like a succession of mundane but vital tasks; to everyone else, Wells’s moves merit the scrutiny and speculation that U.S. diplomats brought to the study of the Kremlin during the Cold War.
"I came back here in 1998 and just felt this energy around the Cairo Biennale," Wells says, referring to the big government-sponsored exhibition. "I knew that if I didn’t open up this space, someone else would." The energy had its source in a number of long-developing trends in Egyptian art that would burst to the surface over the next few years; in particular, a talented generation of young artists was beginning to work in video, photography, and installation—media that many in Egypt did not regard as "real" art forms. Wells positioned his gallery at the forefront of these trends, capitalizing on them and also pushing them further.
When I lived in Cairo, there were a few independent galleries downtown—including Mashrabia, Karim Francis, and the now-defunct Cairo-Berlin—that generally showed traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture. It was hard for them to compete with the state galleries, which functioned as showcases for the regime and were part of a vast infrastructure sustained by the Ministry of Culture. Indeed, Cairo probably has more art colleges, museums, galleries, and national exhibitions than any other city in the world at a similar level of wealth and development. But it is also a conservative place, one in which a well-known Egyptian artist like Georges Bahgoury still exhibits, to official acclaim, Picasso-influenced Cubist paintings that could have been made in 1910. To the old guard, who see video and photography as not really art, Townhouse looks like an expanding empire designed to reward the wrong artists.
Townhouse’s success only makes the shift more galling. It grew from a single gallery, where it mostly showed paintings, to a cluster of spaces along the same alley that became the leading venue for young artists working in new media. "We discovered there were serious problems in terms of representing artists," Wells says, "because there was no portfolio system. Artists were just bringing in family albums with pictures of their work." A frequently heard exclamation in Cairo is "mafish nizam"—there’s no system—which is used to explain anything that doesn’t work efficiently, from traffic to bureaucracy. What Wells discovered was that in art, too, there was no system. Actually, there were parts of one: a lot of pieces were created and displayed, but the ways they were marketed and sold, even the ways they were installed and lit—were undeveloped. Wells set about trying to change that, and as a result, Townhouse is the only gallery in Cairo that looks the way many foreign curators and critics think a gallery should look, the way one might look in New York or London.
When I arrive at Mashrabia it is early afternoon and the lights are off, which is a common economizing measure for Cairo galleries. It’s a musty space with low ceilings and uneven wooden floors, located on the second floor of a building on Champollion Street. The entrance is hidden in a narrow passage lined with café tables and people puffing on shishas, clouding the approach with sweet, apple-scented smoke. As I wander the two connecting rooms of the gallery, trying to make out the colors of Ahmed Nosseir’s Abstract Expressionist paintings by the dim rays filtering through the front windows, the exhibition lights finally come on.
In the mid 1990’s, Mashrabia was the gallery of choice for artists working in painting and sculpture. It is still a space that exhibits respected contemporary artists working with traditional or indigenous materials—for example, Ahmed Askalany, who makes anthropomorphic sculptures from woven palm leaves. They now occasionally exhibit photography as well, but I ask Italian-born director Stefania Angarano why she had otherwise not embraced the move into new media, and she can’t help talking about Townhouse. "Okay, they are magicians at communications and all the world knows Townhouse now," she says, as if this were an incidental part of a gallery’s business. "But they are not the only reality here." Angarano pauses, considering her words, and then declares "catastrophic" the impact of Townhouse’s promotion of new media on the younger generation of artists. "Now, when you ask them, ’What do you want to do,’" she says, in a weary tone, "they want to do a video. For most it is just because it’s new. They have not internalized the language of video; they use the language without thinking deeply about it. It’s so superficial." When I ask her to name a video she finds especially shallow, she mentions one by Moataz Nasr. As it happens, I know Nasr, and I decide to pay him a visit.
For 2,000 years, every empire wanted control of Egypt, and the country was invaded and occupied countless times. Each new power in Cairo built a district in its own image, adjacent to the old ones, leaving behind a fossil record in the streets and buildings of the city that survives to this day. In the same way that downtown resembles Paris, Garden City, just to the south, embodies an ideal that is particularly British, with lots of trees and winding streets. To the east, there is the medieval, formerly walled city of the Fatimids and Mamluks, with its great mosques, congested alleys, and famous Khan El Khalili souk, and south of that, in the still disproportionately Christian area of Mar Girgis, there is the pre- Islamic city of Cairo as it was before the seventh-century Arab invasion.
The only chapter that has been almost completely destroyed is the first Arab settlement, Al-Fustat, which until quite recently was a wasteland colonized by gypsum factories and potters who formed makeshift kilns out of salvaged materials. In the mid 1990’s, Nasr and another artist I knew well, Hamdi Attia, had studios near Fustat in illegally constructed buildings whose existence the government officially denied, even as it gradually wired them for telephone service. It was a toxic environment: the gypsum factories spewed a fine white ash into the air, veiling the district in an unhealthy fog. Nasr worked in paint and clay then, with limited success; today, he works often in video and is talked about with equal parts awe and resentment as the embodiment of the expanding possibilities in the Egyptian art world.
Nasr was born in Alexandria in 1961. He now has a little more gray in his beard than he did when I last saw him in 1998, but retains the same thoughtful manner. We meet at his new studio downtown and then go to a popular restaurant nearby called Felfela. In the entryway there is a large mural that he and Attia sold a decade ago for $800; by contrast, Nasr says his 2002 video installation Tabla—the one Angarano so disliked—recently sold for about $50,000, a price and a medium that would both have been inconceivable 10 years ago.
The change came in 1998, after Nasr held his first solo show of paintings, at the powerful government-run Akhnaton gallery in the Zamalek neighborhood. He then made extended art trips to Paris and London, where the work he saw in video and new media left him "totally confused," he recalls. "What I liked very much was the idea of conceptual art, art that is not just something beautiful but also has this kind of influence on the audience and makes them think. Especially in a country like Egypt, you should not just create art to hang on the walls, for the elite, but do it for the common people so that maybe—maybe—it can change something in the society."
Nasr’s embryonic interest in conceptual art led him, like so many others, from painting to video. Video is by no means a new medium for art, but in Egypt video equipment became widely available (and affordable) only recently. Shady El Noshokaty, a professor at the College of Art Education and an artist who has also migrated to video, says that until a few years ago, his students had to edit in the video camera—fast-forwarding to the right spot and then copying each section to another machine—because they had no proper editing machines. Nasr and others working in video were also accused of slavishly copying the West, one of the most radioactive charges in Egypt and also, to me, one of the strangest. As the once French district of downtown suggests, everything becomes Egyptian if it is in Egypt long enough. Indeed, visiting the newly reopened Museum of Egyptian Modern Art—which represents the cultural establishment’s official narrative—it becomes clear that the story of art in Egypt for the past century has been the arrival of new ideas and trends from the West being adapted by Egyptian artists to represent local subjects and address local issues.
In any case, technique was never Nasr’s strength, even as a painter. But watching some of his video works, I realized that the new form has liberated the power of his mind from the limitations of his hand. In his split-screen video The Echo, for example, he addresses a century of political disappointment by showing a moving speech from a well-known Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine called El Ard (The Land, made in 1969 and set in the 1930’s), in which a man lectures his fellow villagers on their emasculation and berates them for failing to resist the British occupiers; juxtaposed with this scene is the same speech being recited in 2003 by a female storyteller to a group of men seated passively in a café. This powerful, arresting work made me think—about the cycles of hope and despair in Egyptian politics, about the longing for change and the powerlessness to bring it about—just the effect Nasr hoped to achieve.
Later, I saw Tabla at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as part of the traveling "Africa Remix" exhibition, and understood why Angarano had criticized it as "a typical example of what foreign curators want to see." The video showed a man playing an ornate, mother-of-pearl–inlaid hand drum (tabla); the image was like something out of a tourist brochure depicting a particularly folkloric and stereotypical Egypt. It seemed fitting that it should be part of a hodgepodge group show of contemporary African artists who appear to share nothing except a continent. But "Africa Remix" is an important show, offering a lot of exposure for Egyptian artists; it was natural for Nasr to want to be part of it. And the reality is that many foreign curators who come to Cairo to make selections for international exhibitions look for work that is ostentatiously rooted in Egypt.
That foreign curators are coming to Egypt at all is due in part to the September 11 attacks, which prompted the United States and Europe to pay closer attention to contemporary Arab life—and, almost incidentally, Arab art—than they had before. But many of these curators know more about art than they do about Egypt, and they come here to fill shows on themes they think American or European audiences will find resonant—Islam, women, and the veil being popular subjects. "It’s funny," artist Amal Kenawy says. "We receive these invitations for international exhibitions that all have the same titles: ’Scheherazade,’ or ’A Call for a Woman.’" There are important political and gender issues in Egypt—Kenawy addresses some of them in her art, as does Nasr—but few Egyptian artists want this to be the defining prism through which their pieces are viewed. But as long as foreign curators have the money, produce the big shows, and provide an avenue to the important collectors, it will be tempting to adapt to their tastes. Even the artists who try not to cater to a Western audience can find the heliotropic effect of curator approval bending their work toward certain themes.
One of the most unbending artists is Sabah Naim, who describes herself as "an ordinary Egyptian girl who listens to her mother and father." Naim suggests we meet in the garden of the Cairo Atelier, a kind of ramshackle social club located on a cul-de-sac not far from Maarouf that is frequented mostly by an older generation of artists. We sit outside on white plastic chairs, in a garden without vegetation and hemmed in by buildings.
Naim was born in 1967 and lives in a shaabi district, which Egyptians alternately call a "popular quarter" or "middle class," but which most foreigners, who aren’t as attuned to Cairo’s fine class distinctions, would mistake for poor. It is an area of narrow streets and close, concrete-framed buildings whose foundations sometimes rest uncertainly on the ground, a legacy of corners cut in construction. Yet it is a community of long standing, with the tight social bonds that make so many parts of Cairo feel smaller and more human than one would imagine possible in a city its size.
This is the life that Naim records in her photographs, painting on them to add or subtract elements and emphasize people or places or expressions. They show a side of Cairo that is neither wealthy and modern nor impoverished and traditional, but, rather, something in between: just people making their way in the city, lost in their own thoughts. Naim also makes collages, from folded newspapers or magazines, which she often arranges in abstract patterns reminiscent of water currents. In "Africa Remix," she had a 15-panel piece called Cairo Noises that combined photographs and collage on canvas; in a show that spanned a continent, her work was the most engaging.
Naim speaks very little English and she wears the head scarf called a hijab, two facts that roughly balance each other in terms of her appeal to foreign curators. The new emphasis in Egypt on the conceptual component of art places a premium on the ability to talk about the ideas that drive the concept, and with foreign curators and writers it helps to be able to do it in English or French. I met with a number of artists who feel part of a lost generation—primarily because they speak only Arabic and so can’t communicate directly with most curators and critics from outside. Naim shows widely—"I’m rich," she tells me, completely without affectation, when I ask how her art is selling—and somehow manages to engage the international art community on her own terms, at least as far as language is concerned. With the head scarf, it’s harder. "I totally refuse to be exhibited as a veiled Muslim woman," she says. "I am not a feminist. I am an artist from Egypt, like any other man or woman who is an artist from Africa or Europe."
In most parts of the world, "issues of representation" are the type of thing academics debate in esoteric journals, but in Egypt almost everyone has a strongly held opinion on the subject. I will often be politely stopped from taking a photograph by a passerby and given a lecture—usually a very long, detailed, and by turns insightful and paranoid lecture—on how I am taking this photograph out of context and can use it to misrepresent Egypt or Egyptians. European travelers have been taking photographs of Egypt almost from the day the camera was invented, and that long history has left many Egyptians feeling powerless to control the way their country is perceived by the world. I understand their frustration: the Egypt I read about in American newspapers or hear debated on talk shows seems almost unrelated to the country I lived in for three years. It must be a strange and difficult thing to create art in a culture that foreigners are convinced has "gone wrong," as the scholar Bernard Lewis put it in the title of his best seller about Islam. But for Egyptian artists, the need to work within the context foreigners delineate for them may just be an awkward intermediate stage in a longer process.
At least I hope it is, and what gives me hope is that I have seen this cycle play out once before. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 1990’s, before moving to Cairo, and watched as the world discovered mainland Chinese art—in particular, the pop art of the post-Tiananmen Square generation. This work, too, was first regarded as an improbable novelty; later, it came to be seen as an act of political defiance in the face of dictatorship, even when it dealt with apolitical subjects. At that time, though, the West’s interest in China itself was primarily political, so that became the lens through which many Western curators, collectors, and critics saw Chinese art. But that has now faded: Chinese artists have established themselves on the international art scene and are now judged on their work rather than on their nationality.
Egyptian artists today are probably somewhere between the novelty and political stages, which is why so many feel boxed in by expectations and misrepresented. Egypt will always be known first for its antiquity: 5,000 years of history cast an inescapably long shadow. But while the dynasty that built the pyramids has long since died out, and the medieval bazaar now has more tourists than merchants, the contemporary art scene has never been more alive. As Nasr says, "This is the peak. Someone should document this moment, now, because I don’t know what will happen after."
WHEN TO GO
Winter is the peak season in Cairo and also the most comfortable time to visit. Summer can bring unbearable heat.
United Airlines flies from major U.S. cities to Cairo with connections in Frankfurt. Delta flights connect in Paris. Due to the region’s uncertain political situation, travelers should visit www.state.gov for advisories when planning a trip to Cairo.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel at Nile Plaza
Offers breathtaking views of the Nile and the sprawling city. Ideal central location for business travelers.
1089 Corniche El Nil, Garden City; 800/332-3442 or 20-2/791-7000; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $270.
Mena House Oberoi
Luxury property with views of the Great Pyramids.
Pyramids Rd., Giza; 20-2/ 377-3222; www.oberoimenahouse.com; doubles from $190.
Talisman Hotel de Charme
Boutique hotel downtown with 24 individually decorated rooms.
39 Talaat Harb St.; 20-2/ 393-9431; doubles from $102.
WHERE TO EAT
15 Hoda Sharawi St.; 20-2/ 392-2833; dinner for two $25.
157 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-0543; dinner for two $36.
WHAT TO DO
Located east of downtown, this old quarter of narrow alleys and soaring minarets (which dates to the Fatimid period) is the city’s traditional center of culture and commerce. Don’t miss the thousand-year-old Al-Azhar Mosque or the 14th-century Khan el-Khalili market, a humming labyrinth where vendors sell perfume, carpets, precious stones, and just about anything else out of 1,001 Nights.
Cairo Opera House
El Borg, Gezira; 20-2/739-8144; www.cairooperahouse.org.
Best in Cairo for English books.
158 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/736-2578.
ART IN CAIRO
2 Karim el-Dawla St.; 20-2/574-6730.
1 El Sherifein St.; 20-2/391-6357; www.karimfrancis.com.
8 Champollion St.; 20-2/578-4494; www.mashrabiagallery.com.
Museum of Egyptian Modern Art
An often-overlooked gem in Cairo, with an impressive collection that reflects modern Egyptian culture. El Borg, Gezira; 20-2/736-6665.
10 Nabrawy St.; 20-2/576-8086; www.thetownhousegallery.com.