"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.