Studio or Square?
In the spring of 2011, months after a popular revolution in Egypt had toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian artist Shady El Noshokaty was making enemies. El Noshokaty had been chosen by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture to organize the Egyptian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, and he had selected a piece by Ahmed Basiony, a former protégé of his whose conceptual work bucked the trends of previous Egyptian entries. In the past, ministry officials had chosen more traditional artists whose work tended to depict Egyptian culture in traditional media, painting or sculpture.
But Egypt was in a dramatic transition, and Basiony—who was shot and killed by Egyptian police on January 28, 2011, while protesting in Tahrir Square—was a poignant reminder of that. He was also, in El Noshokaty’s opinion, a singular talent. “If we had a fair selection of who should go to Venice to represent Egypt, it should have been” Basiony, El Noshokaty told me when we met in Cairo late last year. “He should have been there a long time before.”
El Noshokaty picked 30 Days of Running in the Place, a video piece in which the young artist, wearing what looks like a plastic space suit complete with a cellophane diving bell, runs in place for an hour, once a day for thirty days, outside Cairo’s Palace of Arts. The suit measures his levels of physical exertion, generating data that are then projected on a multicolored screen. 30 Days of Running in the Place can be seen as a piece about Egypt’s stagnation under Mubarak, who came to power in 1981, when Basiony was still a child. He probably thought, like the majority of Egyptians, that Mubarak would die in office. His piece is about Egypt’s paralyzed politics and future; it is not about the country’s revolution.
Nevertheless, Basiony’s work was displayed in Venice beside videos he had filmed of two days of Tahrir protests. It was a dramatic juxtaposition—the unrestrained emotion of the protests beside the slick manipulation of the art—and it was well received at the Biennale. But back in Cairo, El Noshokaty’s peers, for the most part, found it appalling. They accused him of reducing Basiony’s work to a cipher of the revolution, which erupted nearly a year after the artist made 30 Days of Running in the Place and which, tragically, he had barely witnessed. They worried that El Noshokaty, in his grief, was exploiting the revolution for the posthumous exposure it offered Basiony. “They are concerned about Basiony’s participation in Venice because it’s presenting his art relative to the revolution more than his own practice,” El Noshokaty told me. “Of course I understand that.” They also bristled at the involvement of the Ministry of Culture, which they suspected of grasping for revolutionary credibility through Basiony’s piece.
But the Ministry of Culture wasn’t happy with El Noshokaty either. In the months since the revolution began, it had undergone a dramatic reshuffling, cycling through three ministers before the opening of the Biennale. One minister was forced to resign on suspicion of having colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood. The new minister was keen to establish his fidelity to the revolution through the Biennale, but not as eager to spotlight the “martyr” element of Basiony’s death. In the promotional materials, Basiony’s name was removed from the cover. This infuriated El Noshokaty, and he spoke out in the Egyptian media against the choice: “I suddenly found [the minister of culture] talking about Basiony’s project like it was about the revolution, like [the minister] was always with the revolution.”
El Noshokaty had been close to Basiony—he still chokes up when talking about him—and in spite of criticism from all sides, he hasn’t stopped promoting the work of the artist he calls “brilliant.” Since Venice, he has shown Basiony’s work “thirteen or fourteen” times but still grapples with the presentation, which invariably references the revolution. In principle, El Noshokaty—like his critics from the art world—rejects revolution-themed exhibitions; as an artist, he doesn’t participate in them (in fact, he’s barely shown his own work at all over the past three years). But these exhibitions provide him an opportunity to show Basiony’s work, and El Noshokaty says he feels obligated to promote his friend for two reasons: because he believes in Basiony’s art, and because the artist “didn’t leave anything but his work” to his wife and two children.
We met at Medrar, a new gallery near Tahrir in Garden City. El Noshokaty arrived with eyes red-rimmed from tear gas; he had been caught in a protest near Cairo University on his way to meet me. It was a reminder, among countless others, that things in Cairo hadn’t quieted down after Mubarak’s ouster. “Somehow you have the feeling that nothing happened,” he told me. “Except when you see the faces of friends who died, like Basiony, during the first revolution. That’s the only thing that makes me realize that it happened.”
Medrar was presenting a student show curated by El Noshokaty; the exhibition, and his spearheading of a new conceptual art program at the American University of Cairo, seemed evidence of his genuine interest in promoting the work of young artists. But when it came to Basiony, even he seemed confused by his own motives. “I find myself in this very contradictory position,” El Noshokaty told me. “Should I deal with his work from my own perspective of not being part of any event regarding the revolution? Or should I agree because I have a responsibility to him? I felt this at the Venice Biennale and all exhibitions after.”
* * *
The imagery from the Egyptian revolution was brutal and engrossing, often very beautiful, and protesters quickly realized its power. Tahrir was immortalized by countless photographers and online archival projects, and it was also a venue for film screenings. Graffiti offered running visual commentary about the revolution: street artists depicted battle scenes or skewered politicians on the city’s walls, rousing crowds. Imagery from Egypt quickly became iconic, conveying the struggles of protest and the triumph of revolution by invoking the places where those struggles and triumphs unfolded. Someone who has never been to Cairo might know the location of the Omar Makram Mosque; or which Metro station was spray-painted “Enjoy the Revolution”; or be able to picture the circular median—sometimes grassy, sometimes sandy—where a sit-in became a tent city. And the majority of Cairo’s visual artists—painters, video artists, sculptors, conceptual artists like Basiony—whose work was normally shown in galleries, and for whom representation was a profession, went to the square. After all, it was their country too.
It was also their neighborhood. Cairo’s downtown, which includes Tahrir, and adjacent areas are home to a number of art galleries, a tantalizing coincidence for the growing crowd of journalists during the heady turmoil of 2011. How would Cairo’s artists respond to the revolution through their work? Had artists abandoned their regular practice entirely? Was past work meaningless? Could artists support the revolutionary cause in the studio rather than the square? In the eyes of an artist, what did the revolution look like? Partly at the hands of these curious observers, and partly out of a wellspring of expression in and around the square, a new genre of Egyptian art emerged, work that satisfied one major criterion: it was about or responded directly to the revolution. People looked to art to help explain what was happening. They thought that maybe the art was a revolution of its own. At the time, I edited the culture section of the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian newspaper, and I too was drawn to the idea of art during the revolution.
Egyptian revolutionary art was an international hit. In 2011, at the international fair Art Dubai, the work of Khaled Hafez, who has long addressed issues of Egyptian identity and authority, was highlighted for how it engaged with the revolution, ignoring some greater complexities in the work. One popular piece, a large painting called Revolution—Snipers in the Field, depicts the Tahrir protests but was started before the protests began. The Seventh Berlin Biennale looked to “Egypt in a time of post-revolutionary turmoil.” In London in 2012, a show by the graphic artist Nermine Hammam titled “Cairo Year One” was covered by CNN, and her works were snatched up by museums. The show’s success surprised even Hammam. “I’ve never been political,” she told me over the phone.
Revolutionary art also became a hot commodity, for a time significantly expanding Cairo’s small art market. An online Egyptian upstart called Arts-Mart—which bills itself as the largest online gallery in the Middle East, and prides itself on being transparent and accessible—lets the shopper browse a category called “The Uprising.” Lina Mowafy, a co-founder, was matter-of-fact in her appraisal. “People were very interested in revolutionary art,” she told me when we met on the outskirts of Cairo, in a boardroom crowded with bubble-wrapped paintings. “They wanted to celebrate their fantastic achievement and this historical period.” Offerings include paintings called My Tahrir and Egyptian Pride. An oft-cited Reuters article from August 2011 quoted Mona Said, the owner of Safar Khan, a gallery in Zamalek, an affluent island neighborhood whose watery divide from Cairo’s nearby downtown seemed, during the protests, like a moat built around a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. In March 2011, Said opened a show called “To Egypt With Love,” featuring work inspired by the revolution. “I sold four times what I expected to sell,” she told Reuters. “I shipped all over the world.”
For those Egyptian artists whose work could not be packaged as revolutionary—or whose productivity had waned—the fanfare over revolutionary chic proved bittersweet. On the one hand, the revolution provided opportunities for international exposure, an appealing proposition for artists on the margins. “Ten, fifteen years ago, if you said you’re an Egyptian artist, people don’t even want to see your work,” the artist Paul Geday told me. On the other, the programming ignored the diverse and sophisticated art scene that had long existed in Cairo and the messy reality of post-revolution art in the city, which was less straightforward. Artists had long been promoted in terms of their identities and often expected to address sociological issues in their art, generally ones that interested a Western audience, like gender and religion. They were Muslim artists, Coptic artists, Arab artists, Egyptian artists, artists from the Middle East, female artists from the Middle East. Now they were also expected to be “revolutionary.” A debate about opportunism versus genuine expression was only slightly louder than a debate about the quality of the work that was coming to represent Egyptian art on a global scale. Compared with older pieces—such as Amal Kenawy’s performance work Silence of the Lambs from 2009, in which the artist led people crawling through the streets of downtown Cairo—what was being billed as “revolutionary art” didn’t seem particularly interesting.
One artist critical of this focus is Hassan Khan, a Cairene who was president of the jury at the 54th Venice Biennale. Khan places most of the blame for the Egyptian pavilion on the Ministry of Culture and the art market. “This is the tendency of the global art system,” he told me. “They cannibalize what’s happening in the world. It’s superficial. It’s counterproductive and politically suspect.”
Khan’s own art is varied in form; recent work includes an outdoor sound-and-light installation in Paris and a steel-and-iron sculpture called The Twist that was displayed in a solo show in Istanbul. Khan is prolific and intense, and he has been able to transcend (mostly) the limits of biographical categories, partly because he has been an indefatigable participant in discussion around his work. When I met him, nearly three years had passed since the revolution and the Biennale. We drank coffee in the Adly Street branch of Cairo’s Groppi Cafe, famous in part because its giant Francophile rooms are usually eerily half-empty. A soft Cairo rainfall intensified its otherworldliness.
Early in his career, Khan fought aggressively against marginalization as an Egyptian artist. In 1999, when he was 24, a Swiss curator asked the contributors to an exhibition to suggest a food from their home country that could be served at the opening, an activity to break the ice that Khan saw as reductive. ”I found the most common bread of the region they lived in,” Khan told me. “I sent them a scanned description of eish balady“—traditional Egyptian bread—“and told them to nail it to the Swiss bread.” In his assessment of revolutionary art, Khan has been just as blunt. Two years before our meeting, in an interview with Egypt Independent (formerly the English version of Al-Masry Al-Youm), Khan was asked about the “many artists feeding into the whole ‘revolutionary artwork’ [boom].” He replied, “People are going to exploit this 100 percent in all media. The revolution is not something that we can now neatly shut in a drawer and remember nostalgically. Nothing has been resolved.”
* * *
Townhouse Gallery is located just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, and the events of the past three years—protests, upheavals, killings, betrayals—have played out on its doorstep. On December 1 of last year, Townhouse threw a party to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Tickets were expensive—100 Egyptian pounds (about $14.50 in US dollars)—but after a long spell of political uncertainty, fiscal precariousness and a focus on outreach rather than exhibitions, the gallery needed to raise money and boost morale. There was a table laden with chic servings of traditional Egyptian food: tiny pitas stuffed with mashed fava beans; palm-sized pots filled with a few bites of koshari, the “food of the revolution”; and bowls of hummus dyed hot pink with beet juice. Waiters circulated with cups of Egyptian wine and orange Fanta. A DJ played “Rock Around the Clock,” which got everyone dancing. A military-imposed curfew had been lifted only a few weeks earlier, and people seemed eager to let loose.
Around 9pm, William Wells, who co-founded Townhouse in 1998, gave a speech. Wells, a legend in the Cairo art world, had been attacked in his home sixteen months before, and his recovery had been slow and shaky; Townhouse’s comeback was also his. “Culture is not something that needs to be seen behind glass in museums,” Wells said. “Culture is living. It’s a manifestation of the present moment.” He was emotional, alluding to the difficult but dynamic changes at Townhouse since the revolution—a time when the city, even more than usual, seemed to have fused with the downtown gallery.
“We have a completely porous relationship with our environment,” Ania Szremski, Townhouse’s head curator, told me. Szremski and I met on the third floor of the gallery’s main space, a beautifully renovated building down a narrow Cairo street in the city’s mechanics district. The smell of oil and the din of a car engine being brought back to life ensure that looking at art at Townhouse is only ever vaguely escapist. Its staff is proud of the symbiosis, partial though it is, that they enjoy with the surrounding scruffy, working-class neighborhood. The gallery is also an apartment building and a library; during protests, it has housed a radio station and has also supplied food and medicine to field clinics. “In other countries, where the infrastructure is smoother, it’s easier for an arts institution to operate as an ivory tower. In London, you feel like you can pick up a gallery and move it from neighborhood to neighborhood,” Szremski said. “Here, there is no barrier.” So, when the protests began, “we had no time to think. We can’t work; there is tear gas and fighting just outside.”
The staff of Townhouse welcomed the end of the Mubarak era, entertaining the thought (however remote) that perhaps its role as an art institution would be less difficult. Under Mubarak, skirting censorship had become a well-rehearsed dance, albeit one performed on a tightrope. Szremski joked that the gallery staff would sometimes hope that Mubarak-era police were “too lazy to climb the stairs” and see the exhibitions. Egyptian neighbors who had developed a fondness for the gallery and its employees would tell the police and passersby that the exhibitions had nothing to do with controversial topics, like politics or religion. A teahouse functioned as a buffer between the gallery-goers and the locals, who sat side by side drinking sweet lemonade and smoking shisha. But in 2009—around the time that Kenawy’s Silence of the Lambs was staged outside Townhouse—the regulations tightened. “It became forbidden by security services to do things that would have been very normal,” Wells told me when we met, a few days after the party. “Nothing could be put in the street.”
After the revolution, “it was a vacuum,” Wells continued. The police were gone; the rules were abruptly dissolved but not yet replaced; and as the military and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi battled for power, contemporary art seemed to be off their radar. But censorship was soon replaced by other challenges, ones with which Townhouse had less expertise. Amidst the turmoil, some donors withdrew their support: Townhouse could no longer make the guarantees—that a show would open on time, that it would open at all—necessary to secure funding. Many countries instituted restrictions on travel to Egypt, and a lot of artists, contrary to the uplifting narrative of creativity unleashed during the revolution, were not producing work.
Then too, despite the new interest in revolution-themed art, Townhouse abstained from programming shows around it: the often sentimental and laudatory work about the revolution seemed to ignore what would be a viciously difficult transition, and the narrow focus forced art to assume an awkward functionality. “All of a sudden, there were all of these new grants that had some revolution mandate,” Szremski recalled. “There were a lot of new funds. But you had to have programming that fits within that mandate, and we didn’t want to do that.” For his part, Wells considered the notion of putting on a show about a revolution that was clearly far from over “absurd”: “We were aware right from the beginning that there was nothing to celebrate.”
Instead, in 2011, Townhouse responded with a “revolutionary” exhibition of its own. Dubbed “The Popular Show,” it was curated by Sarah Rifky, Szremski’s predecessor. Rifky put out an open call for artwork, and the response from established artists and beginners alike was overwhelming; she crammed the masses of photographs, paintings and sketches onto the walls of the gallery. The finished exhibition had an effect like walking into the bedroom of a particularly well-connected, art-obsessed teenager. It was an experiment in “radical hospitality,” Rifky told me at the time. (I wrote about the show for Al-Masry Al-Youm.) “There is a criticism that is always addressed to contemporary art spaces as being ‘elitist’ and exclusive. I was curious to see what would happen if this exclusivity was set aside.”
But three years later, “The Popular Show” is remembered by those at Townhouse as a failure. “It was really overwhelming—everything went up on the walls, and there was enough to fill four rooms,” Wells told me in his office. When I asked him about “The Popular Show,” his first response was: “What did you hear?” I told him I’d heard that among those who’d submitted work, the amateurs were thrilled that the revolution afforded them wall space in Townhouse, yet they were upset that the art had been packed on the walls without fanfare. This seemed to please Wells.
“The Popular Show” was an opportunity, but it was also a provocation. It was not simply a show breaking down the walls of exclusivity, but one challenging the post-revolution impulse to do just that. Rifky’s idea was to see how the idealism and populism professed during the revolution manifested itself in art, and the result was overcrowded and not very good. But that’s not why the show had been a flop. For Townhouse, “The Popular Show” failed because, despite its lack of focus or curatorial care—the very things an exhibition is supposed to offer—the public liked it. Few people—gallery-goers as well as artists—had been angered by the show’s haphazard display of work. It was as though Egypt was so delicate that it needed to be constantly reassured, no matter what, that it was doing just fine. Mubarak had been toppled, but the euphoria was thick with anxiety, the only treatment for which appeared to be greater euphoria. “I was expecting an outcry,” Wells told me. “But they were so proud. Everyone wanted a picture with me standing in front of their artwork. There was almost no criticality.”
* * *
Many artists resisted the revolutionary artwork boom, and soon that abstention became a philosophy. When the revolution began in January 2011, Malak Helmy was working at Mathaf, Doha’s Arab Museum of Modern Art. She returned to Egypt, heading north to Alexandria, a Mediterranean city whose beauty is usually described in relation to its decay. Helmy had been working on a series of pieces—video, sound and sculpture—from the north coast, and she was drawn to Alexandria because it was outside the center of revolutionary fervor. There, artists were “not really responding to the political situation, but working out of it,” she said. “They were working together in a really interesting way, very much living in each other’s lives and working from a very messy emotional space. But that was really short-lived. By June or July 2011”—a few months into military rule—“things started to reformulate again. This exceptional moment, where everything was totally loose, ended.”
Helmy and I met in her Cairo apartment, a garden-level home with a style of artsy clutter I came to recognize as singularly Egyptian: generations of framed artwork and books, a kitchen half-filled by a water heater, wood banisters shiny from use. Helmy, who is in her 30s, had injured her knee a few days earlier doing kung fu, and she folded her leg onto the low couch with a grimace. “I can feel every individual bone rubbing together,” she said, and laughed.
Helmy does not make art that directly addresses the revolution; like Khan, she has a solid enough reputation that she can afford to avoid the temptation of revolutionary art shows. Still, she was amazed by the revolution itself and the solidarity among Egyptians it inspired, and in Alexandria she saw a raw creativity that was, at least in part, the result of this new dynamism. But that atmosphere was soon engulfed by the near-instantaneous commodification of the revolution. “The mess of everything that happened is really visible in the fact that Tahrir was turned into a coffee-table book,” she told me. “As soon as that happened, you were like, ‘Oh, this is already over.’” And to this day, she encounters curators who are eager to read politics into her work or writers who want to know how the revolution changed her practice. “Everyone’s dying to do that,” she said. “For a good couple of years, it was impossible to be an artist in Cairo without someone posing that question.”
Last year, Helmy was asked to participate in the Mercosul Biennial in Brazil. She decided that she would return to Egypt’s north coast and record sounds at various places with forgotten historical significance, such as the site of an ancient meteor shower. As part of the piece, she planned to send a homing pigeon from the coast to Cairo, a detail that inspired the curator. “I was invited to relate the work to Twitter, which I found extremely difficult in the context of Cairo, given Twitter was so closely associated to communicating the revolution,” Helmy told me. Instead, she purposely tried to disconnect the work from Twitter. “I wanted to unravel the brevity and speed of Twitter by using it to distribute an excessively long recording that would almost be impossible to listen to fully…or extremely garbled information—the sound of wind, of microphones popping, and environmental sounds.”
In August, Helmy began the piece, called Music for Drifting, with pigeon in tow. On her final day of recording, Egyptian security forces attacked supporters of the recently deposed President Morsi near Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque. “I could feel the ripple effect which eventually reached the north coast,” she told me. “I stopped sending the pigeon because at that moment there’s a super-high paranoia—something like a homing pigeon is going to seem like a spy drone.” The attack also complicated how to frame the piece, which Helmy worried would be overwhelmed by its political context. “I tried to figure out how the work could point to not just the event of Rabaa and its tragedy, but rather more towards the associated conditions of that period—understanding the actual and unknown duration of things when systems entirely change…which I imagine is a bit like a feeling of oncoming dementia, which is, amongst many other things, what you experience during that kind of turbulent period. It’s a strange loss of reference.” Exhibited as a sound installation in a former postal building, the piece became “a broken message,” Helmy said, “one with its bearings unhinged, set adrift.”
* * *
In December, Helmy’s work was being shown at Nile Sunset Annex, a gallery in Garden City, which had been open for nearly a year. The exhibit was called “The Passions of the Trash Drive: A Group Exhibition,” a title that evoked two facts about the Cairo art scene that inspire a lot of eye-rolling: work is often made about the city’s trash collectors, especially by visiting artists, and there is a dearth of solo shows.
Nile Sunset Annex is tiny, consisting of a single room in an apartment shared by a few young artists, but it is as close to an immaculate space as any in Cairo. “Basically, we had this empty room,” said Hady Kamar, who, along with Jenifer Evans and Taha Belal, founded the gallery in 2012. “We were wondering what to do with it, and it just happened to coincide with all these conversations we’d been having about how we’d like there to be more art that we want to see.” This included solo shows, work that is more formal and less issue-based, and work by Egyptian artists that had not been shown in Cairo because of installation issues: “Things malfunctioning. Things being hung funny on the walls, half-painted walls. Cords all over the place,” Belal said. “We felt like a little more attention would have made a lot of difference.”
Nile Sunset Annex is both a living space and a gallery (and sometimes a bar), and it fulfills those varied duties exceptionally well. Adjacent to the area showing Helmy’s work, a small foyer is decorated with a line drawing of the Pyramids and a stuffed and mounted fox. We drank tea and talked at the kitchen table, which was dusty with bread crumbs. The gallery space is as meticulous as the living space is cozy; as in more formal galleries, its plainness creates a calm void for the art to puncture. The white room in the apartment is like a pocket of cold water in an otherwise warm lake.
The eccentric setup is not just convenient; it is crucial to Nile Sunset Annex’s survival. Kamar, Evans and Belal reject traditional modes of funding, having witnessed other galleries compromise their curatorial visions to please donors. The three artists (they don’t like being called “curators”) pay out of pocket, with the contributing artists sometimes pitching in. During the fall, they supplemented their budget with an “Art Bar,” with drinks sold at a slight markup, and with money from their installations at other galleries. All three have day jobs. “We felt like a lot of people are really dependent on funding,” Evans said. “People think of an idea, and then they’re like, ‘Oh let’s get funding and see if we can do it.’”
Revolutionary art is attractive partly because it is familiar; even novice viewers who are at least casual observers of world news have a reference point for interpreting it. “It doesn’t try to make big claims,” Hassan Khan said in his 2011 interview. Egyptian Pride, a piece by Assem Abdel Fattah that sold for $2,229 on Arts-Mart, depicts a woman in traditional Egyptian dress comforting a one-eyed lion, done in acrylic paint. The lion is a copy of the statues on the Kasr Al-Nil Bridge, which connects Zamalek to Tahrir, and the woman is a classical representation of pastoral Egypt. The work is transporting in a direct way. It satisfies a curiosity about the city as it was depicted for those eighteen days in January and February—wounded but proud, redefining what it means to be Egyptian—and it appeals to a certain type of consumer. But it tells only a fraction of the story.
Cairo is demanding: its character dictates how you live and, just as strictly, how you produce and consume art. “You have this Rolodex of different craftspeople,” Kamar told me, each determined through trial and error to be skilled enough to contribute to the installation of an exhibition. Traffic, I was told time and again, was so bad these days that simply getting to galleries was almost impossible, and that was if you were psychologically prepared—or, some thought, brave enough—to face the crush of downtown. It can feel sometimes like the city strips away free will with the grace of spilled paint thinner, leaving only the base elements, like traffic, as possible concerns. Curfews, military checkpoints and emergency law intensify that feeling.
Two of Helmy’s pieces were displayed on the roof of Nile Sunset Annex, and Belal took me up a rusty staircase above a courtyard from which a cat that sounded eerily human screamed at us, to where Helmy’s pieces—two sculptures, one a cube made of pinkish salt—sat near dusty satellite dishes. On a bench close by, the building’s bawab was drying a goat’s pelt. Spaces like Nile Sunset Annex, in their pursuit of a good installation, don’t spurn Cairo. The artwork acknowledges the city, which has changed so much since 2011, without having to depict it. A mechanic’s shop on the street, goat pelts on rooftop benches, uneven walls and dust, sometimes the roar of a protest or the acrid, lingering smell of tear gas: at Townhouse and Nile Sunset Annex, these elements mingle with the art to reflect, not Cairo as a whole, but Cairo at that moment. Visitors are expected to be able to detect where real life ends and the piece begins.
Helmy’s rooftop pieces are evoked in her video installation in the gallery downstairs, which features scenes from the north coast at the end of tourist season, near-empty vistas washed out by a midday sun. Young men sit in white beach chairs, staring at the camera. A lone woman walks on a field of salt, spinning the skeleton of a cube above her head. “In the off-season, things that are left behind start to mutate,” Helmy said. “They start taking on totally different meanings.”
* * *
When it comes to art, the true idealism of a revolution is best expressed in the decision to open new art spaces. Beirut, an ambitious new Cairo gallery a few miles from Nile Sunset Annex, was co-founded by Sarah Rifky, formerly of Townhouse, and is curated by Antonia Alampi. The gallery and offices are housed in a beautiful three-story villa in the relative quiet of Agouza, two Nile bridges away from Tahrir Square. There is no sign by the swinging gate—which, when I arrived, was open, as were the front doors to the villa. Entering felt a little like trespassing.
Beirut is proof that, even in the uncertain political climate, there is nevertheless a need for new spaces to show all of the good art. When I went to the gallery, a show by visiting artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan called “Tape Echo” occupied the three rooms of the ground floor. In one room, glossy color photographs were laid on a light box so that visitors towered over them; in another, tapes of Koranic sermons dubbed over with sounds of the modern city blared from a giant 1980s-style speaker. Like Nile Sunset Annex, Beirut makes use of its roof, although here instead of a noisy corniche there’s the brightly colored playground of a neighboring nursery. Abu Hamdan lectures at Goldsmiths in London, where he lives, and he came to Beirut after Rifky and Alampi approached him. The Koranic sermons featured in his installation are sampled from cassette tapes—a relic of aged Cairo, where such sermons are now available as mp3s. The photos are particularly striking; in one, a magnified image of the felt pad inside a cassette’s mouth looks like coral or, as Rifky suggested, bacteria.
The Beirut villa is far from downtown’s mental and physical strains, and it has views of an apartment building lovingly dubbed the “curator’s tower” because of the number of art practitioners who live there, giving it the feel of a retreat. Rifky calls it “a set of ideas which at this time takes this manifestation,” and she talks about art a little like she’s leading a meditation in which she expects every participant to relax and have an epiphany. She’s intimidating in a way that art-world interlopers might recognize—black clothing, red lipstick, a conversational vocabulary that seems to have been refined around the dinner tables of art professors. But Rifky is warm and, when it comes to art in Cairo, supportive. “Artists don’t push ‘play’ and something comes out,” she told me. “Artists who were creating certain works were not being circulated back into this [revolutionary] narrative.”
“Three years is a lot and a little time,” Rifky continued, settling in. “For art, it is very little time.” Beirut’s exhibitions are complex, but its mission is remarkably simple: to exhibit excellent contemporary art, both local and international. In doing so, Rifky has opened up a channel of communication between artists in Cairo and the international art scene that is arguably more sophisticated—and may prove more lasting—than the enthusiasm for revolutionary art. “I think the moment art ceases to do something and becomes about representing something that is already given, it loses its impetus,” Rifky said. “A lot of the art created during the revolution directly misses out on the tensions. It seeks to freeze a moment.”
Beirut aims to surpass the “small claims” of revolutionary art, but it does engage in work that responds to the current political situation. The most prominent example of this, in a project reflective of Rifky’s subtle but all-consuming focus on her work, is Beirut’s institutional status. Registering as an NGO in Egypt is notoriously difficult. If a gallery is registered, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, living up to its Orwellian name, can more easily censor work, and the institution’s board is required to be mostly Egyptians (a tough order for Cairo’s art spaces, where many of the curators are foreign). The state vets officers and board members. As the conviction of forty-three NGO workers in the spring of 2013 proves, NGO status is not only frustrating but also dangerous.
Beirut decided to register as a limited liability company, and Rifky treated the lengthy and dull process as a “curatorial gesture”—a project that lives, mostly undetected, below the surface of the gallery. Because it circumvents state institutions that aim to stifle expression, the process would be a good way to comment on the art institution as an activist body, one working outside the Egyptian state as a way of protesting it. By acknowledging the process itself and not minimizing it as a technical detail, Beirut is also able to engage in conversations about what it means to be an Egyptian art space; when you’re accused of being elitist in a country limping from years of popular protests, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. The project is also, in the scope of LLC registration, funny. “We appointed two Swedish artists to register for us and used their last names,” Rifky said. “Technically, Beirut does not exist…it’s a conversation starter when it comes to grants.”
Registering as an LLC was one of Beirut’s subtle attempts to start a new conversation about art and authority. The one Rifky and I were having about revolution and opportunism was old; just as protests had consumed the city, discussions about art and revolution have been chewed over by the city’s artists for several years. Now, feeling that very little had actually changed, Egyptian artists wanted to move on. So did local art consumers: among the mostly Egyptian buyers at Arts-Mart, Mowafy told me, interest in work depicting the revolution decreased as soon as Mohamed Morsi was elected president. “They thought the revolution was a hoax,” she said. “They don’t want an image of something they felt had betrayed them.”
The apex of this conversation came in 2012, at a project of Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective that focused on art and representation in the time of revolution. “It will be redundant to recount the too-familiar story of those practitioners who received numerous invitations…to participate in one or another event combining the words ‘art,’ ‘revolution’ and ‘Arab Spring,’” said Angela Harutyunyan, a curator who has worked in Cairo, in a speech at the project’s symposium. “The more these stories of refusal and nonparticipation are repeated, the more they complete the rhetoric of those who want to borrow those voices.” Paul Geday made the same point, more gently, when he teased me in December by observing that the revolution “was a big event, and a lot of people are piggy-backing on it. It’s like you, writing an article about art and the revolution.”
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“I think there was a lot of judgment” about the relationship between revolution and art, Malak Helmy told me in December when we talked in her apartment. “But now I feel like maybe that was a bit unfair. I think that people were just responding…there was a lot of overly representational work, but the thing is that in no way am I actually upset that that happened now. I think people were trying to express themselves in whatever way they could.”
It was in this atmosphere, nearly three years after the revolution, that Townhouse launched the show that marked its fifteenth anniversary, featuring work by Huda Lutfi and Lara Baladi that, very directly and obviously, is about the revolutionary events of 2011. Baladi’s piece—the main component of which is a giant iron-and-leather chastity belt—includes a rock from Tahrir Square on which the word “freedom” is written in Arabic. Lutfi’s work—painting, collage, and sculpture that makes use of both industrially produced objects and meticulous hand-detailing—fills the entire factory space, and features photos of soldiers and police, phrases from newspaper headlines, and allusions to specific events, such as a train derailment that killed more than a dozen army recruits. To some, it was a peculiar choice to mark the gallery’s anniversary. “There is a lot of division about their work here in Egypt,” Wells admitted. “If they weren’t [critical], I would wonder why. Their dismissal would mean that they had lost their edge, which we need.”
In September I had visited Lutfi’s studio, where she was finishing the pieces that would be displayed at Townhouse. She was worried about a lot of things: whether her art would be censored, what the response would be, if it was any good. After the revolution, her production had slowed to one-third her normal pace, she told me, when she started visiting the square with a camera. “I wish I was a graffiti artist,” she said. “But I’m not.”
Lutfi is a small woman, with eyes that seem perpetually worried set behind round tortoise-shell glasses. She wears capri pants that look like bloomers, carries a backpack and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. She is supremely likable, generous to young artists and dedicated to the Cairo art scene. As a person, she seems universally beloved, but her work, as Wells said, is divisive. Some within the art world are critical of her style, which they think is not innovative. They consider it to be excessively blunt and worry that it focuses too much on issues—years ago, women’s rights; these days, the revolution—at the expense of form.
But no one I spoke with accused Lutfi of exploiting the revolution. Her work seemed genuine; it had taken her a long time to make; and she was showing it in Cairo. I wondered if, just as “The Popular Show” had been a comment on populism after the revolution, the anniversary show could be a comment on the dismissal of revolutionary art, and how that dismissal had become a lecture. “I don’t like this idea of this dogmatic thing,” Lutfi told me, showing me a painting of policemen killed in the train derailment, each ascending to heaven holding a loaf of eish balady and wearing angels’ wings. “If there’s sincerity, then that’s what’s important.”
A couple of days after Lutfi’s show had been installed, Wells noticed two strange men enter the factory space and immediately pegged them as undercover police. Graffiti was in the process of being criminalized, and no one knew how Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s government would approach art, so Townhouse had worried about displaying overtly political work. But the policemen were simply befuddled, and in their confusion seemed amiable. “They were looking at the piece with policemen and shadows. They didn’t get it; they couldn’t see how it could be threatening,” Wells told me. “One was asking, ‘Are these policemen, or are they military? Is this graffiti? Are they just using the space instead of the street?’”
It was preferable to the situation four years earlier, when Mubarak’s police were tightening a vise around Townhouse. They were incensed by work they didn’t understand, Kenawy’s as well as a piece by Ayman Ramadan, who had stenciled the streets near Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square with a picture of a street cleaner—a comment on the poor and ignored in Egypt, including those who sweep the constant accumulation of trash and dust from Cairo’s streets. The piece struck a chord among Mubarak officials: “Without realizing it, [those street cleaners] were leading everyone to Talaat Harb, which is where the opposition headquarters were,” Wells recalled. “They were accused of trying to clean the country of Mubarak.” It was a simple misreading, but there was meaning in it. Mubarak couldn’t have known that he would be driven from office the following year, but he was clearly nervous about the opposition. “In 2010, we were under enormous pressure,” Wells told me. “Someone had interpreted [the work], and had the idea that this was an artists’ revolution.”