Art in Cairo

Have you ever had one of those moments when all you can think is “paging black hole for one” in the hopes that it would just suck you in and save you from swallowing yourself whole, having already started on a foot and made it to mid-thigh?  I had one of those moments last night.

I had just described a favorite photograph of the Egyptian revolution, which was on display in The Townhouse Gallery’s Pop Show in Cairo, to my dinner companions. The image is of a protest in Tahrir Square.  In the middle of what appears to be the cacophony and dissonance of dissent are the faithful at prayer.  I mentioned the photograph – Ta7rir Prayer –  and the photographer, Karima Khalil, as well as how powerful I thought the image was to the man seated to my left, Max Rodenbeck of The Economist and author of Cairo, The City Victorious. His response was something along the lines of: “I’m glad you think so, I’m married to the artist.”  D’UH!

According to Lucy, a friend who recently received a grant through the American U in Cairo and the Ford Foundation to study aspects of arts and culture here, art in The Old Egypt had a full stop at Modernism.  She discussed art and culture in Egypt with me as we walked through Tahrir square to two independent galleries. Apparently, the former minister of culture was versed in all aspects of modernism and had not opened the door to postmodernism.  Under the system in Old Egypt, artist relied heavily on patrons for support, and the biggest patrons were closely tied to the government.  Some art schools had segregated seating in classes, and most stopped live modeling.  “Schools final shows,” said Lucy, “would be the artists vision of Egypt.”  Without a doubt, the heavy governmental support led to a nationalist vision of art.

Lucy had been part of the team which start The Townhouse- one of the first places in Cairo, and Old Egypt, which fostered independent art, setting up a foundation with the support of places like the Ford Foundation, for foreign artists to do a residency in Cairo, and for community and cultural outreach into its neighborhood.  While New Egypt is fostering more art across a wider spread, she laments the restricted access to art in New Egypt.  Galleries and art stores have popped up in high-end malls and upper class suburban locations, removing immediate access to a wider vision of art from the people.

The Pop Show at The Townhouse Gallery was in response to this.  The exhibition is what the public submitted in response to advertisements for art, any art.  This resulted in a semi-curated breadth of genres, from autodidactic collage to the amazing photography of Khalil.  Several pieces stuck out, including one by the artist in residence.  The piece was the edition of  Al Ahram (a pro Mubarak paper) for the day after he left office.  Every word had been removed in blocks, leaving a grid of sections layered over each other in a precise architectural manner – an architectural order, which Cairo itself does not reflect.

The second stop on the tour was the Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo and its exhibition, Propaganda By Monuments (the link is to news coverage of the exhibit with pictures). The following is the brochure description: “Through an exhibition, a series of events, and a bilingual publication, Propaganda By Monuments is an exploration into the unexpected narratives of reconstruction. Inspired by the eponymous short story by South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, this project reflects broadly on the long-term roles of nostalgia, statecraft, cultural transfer, humour, and political ambition, in the reconstruction of spaces – nation-sized or just headspace – after upheaval and revolution.”  The best image, to me, was that of the Angolan aeronautical mission to the sun, in 2007.  The rocket used looked like something that would make Fritz Lang salivate.

A lot of Cairo is a reflection of Modernism.  The majority of city buildings were built in the late nineteenth to twentieth centuries.  The walk to The Townhouse from the Tahrir Square Metro station passes architectural styles from  slightly before Beaux Art to a socialist modernist minimalism.  Cairo, with its turns, endless traffic and mash up of architectural styles from the almost prehistoric to socialist minimalism, seems to wear its history in its architecture, and not in its art.

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