To mark the 10th birthday of the Contemporary Image Collective, an exhibition space, library, photography school and photographic facility, Jenifer Evans, Mada’s culture editor and Nile Sunset Annex co-founder, sat down with Andrea Thal, CIC’s new artistic director. They looked at a fairly arbitrary selection of the posters for CIC’s past events that NSA has gathered in its growing poster archive.
Jenifer Evans: An interesting thing about CIC is that it deals with visual culture in general, and photography specifically. During political turmoil art spaces felt they needed to respond to current events, and often stopped operating or started coming up with special programming, specifically in 2011. Because of CIC’s broader mandate — it’s not just a contemporary art space – it was able to continue its normal programming in a way. It didn’t feel forced and it actually worked really well. Maybe that’s one reason NSA has more CIC posters from 2011 than any other year.
Andrea Thal: Another special thing about CIC is that it changes. The founders moved to the board, and some left. There’s not one person that stays in charge, or a group that continues. So while what you just said was happening there’s also been regular changes. I don’t see that many spaces in Cairo operating like that.
JE: Look, this World Press Photo (WPP) poster has an extra strip of poster stuck on its bottom. They must’ve had a printing error.
AT: Can we see what the error is?
JE: It’s stuck on with glue. They probably left off a funder’s logo. It’s from 2005, so must be one of the earliest ones, and it wasn’t actually at CIC.
AT: They got the space in Mounira in late 2004 or early 2005. At the time CIC was a group of nine people. Today the board is smaller: Rana ElNemr, Maha Maamoun, Heba Farid, Paul Geday, Thomas Hartwell and [Mada editor in chief] Lina Attalah, who joined more recently.
JE: I thought it noteworthy that this is the earliest CIC poster we have, and it’s photojournalism. It’s a touring exhibition of WPP winners, and CIC must have organized its hosting at El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek.
AT: From what I understand of the history of CIC, but also the larger cultural scene in Cairo, CIC started at a moment photography became more important. Certainly in the art context, but in general there was more of an emphasis on photography.
Interestingly, one project that happened just as I arrived, organized when CIC didn’t have an artistic director last year, was with WPP. It was a CIC library project, a series of workshops in different regions for young photographers. The generation that started taking pictures during the revolution, really. So in Egypt it included Mosa’ab Elshamy, Mohamed Ali Eddin and Ahmed Hayman. They each realized a project in the course of it. It was a longer, ongoing thing.
It’s quite interesting that within 10 years WPP got from that show to last year’s project, which involved a number of young practitioners, whose projects are very far away from the image on this poster, an image I find quite problematic.
JE: The second item is a booklet called Studio Incident #1. It says “This publication is partially supported by CIC.” It’s “a collection of critical texts published parallel to five days of concerts, performances, installations, videos by Adham Hafez, Ahmed El Attar, Bikya, Hassan Khan/Mahmoud Refaat, Wael Shawky, Zeinab Khalifa, held at Hassan Khan’s studio in the Townhouse building in September 2005.” It’s telling that this and that WPP poster are completely different. This is so “contemporary art.”
AT: The names are interesting – they’re in quite different places today, but were united in this event.
JE: The text is by Bassam El Baroni and Khan. The design is by Osama Dawod. And it’s an interesting text. The fact that it’s totally different from the WPP show sums up the broadness of what CIC was doing right from the first year.
AT: A lot of these names still have a connection to CIC. Khan continued to appear in CIC projects, Dawod too, and he has also taught at CIC. I didn’t expect to find that much consistency. I quite like the design, I have to say.
JE: Obviously there were many projects that posters weren’t produced for, such as two criticality workshops Hassan Khan co-organized in 2008 and 2009. There’s only one thing about this online, so it’s kind of lost, almost. Though I assume knowledge was produced.
AT: It seems like through the last 10 years there were quite a few critical writing workshops, and not just at CIC. Throughout this whole time there’s been this idea that something needs to be done about that discursive aspect of things, people writing about contemporary art or visual culture.
JE: One thing you’re doing at the beginning of your artistic directorship is talking to a lot of people about what’s happened, specifically in the PhotoSchool, in the past, so you can figure out what to do in the future. Did you come across that critical writing workshop in the discussions?
AT: I did these meetings alongside Dalia Suleiman, managing director of CIC, and they were about the school but also general CIC history. We spoke to those who ran it or were involved in it, working there or exhibiting as artists, or people who just seem to know the scene well.
And there were quite a lot of those writing workshops. Edit Molnar told us that that they did a couple of them at the time, because when they started to do photography courses they quickly realized they also wanted to do workshops on critical discourse around images, or even just discuss images. There were some of those workshops at the beginning, and recently CIC did one with Ismail Fayed. What happens to all these people who go to these workshops? I’m not really sure. There still seems to be many more artists, photographers and filmmakers than people writing.
JE: Do you have records of the texts discussed and attendees?
AT: We’ve employed someone to work on the archive, so she’s actually getting all this together. For the moment she’s going through all the hard disks and so on, but to find out what texts were read we’d probably have to talk to the people involved.
JE: Is this the first time anyone’s tried to put together that kind of archive?
AT: I don’t think there was ever one that started from CIC’s beginning until now. At one point the website crashed.
JE: And a lot of the information was lost with it?
AT: Yes, a couple of years back there was more information. The current website was only meant to be very temporary, but it’s still there.
JE: The third poster is Swiss Video-Film Series, screenings on March 17 and 18, 2007. So we’ve actually skipped a year — NSA doesn’t have any CIC posters from 2006. This is interesting because you’re Swiss — a series of short videos and experimental films curated by Thomas Isler.
AT: He’s an artist and filmmaker who teaches documentary making and art. Both subjects.
JE: Like CIC.
AT: He’s been to Cairo quite a lot, and made films here. The brochure is the colors of the Swiss flag! There were a lot of screenings going on at CIC then. There were also early collaborations with Medrar for example — their first video festival, in 2005, was at CIC. Edit Molnar was director at the time, and she’s still very much in the film curating field. So this poster is representative in a sense.
JE: So Edit had joined by 2007?
AT: Yes, Edit was director from 2007 to 2009. She came at a time when the group thought it would be good to have a curator.
JE: The next poster is Homeland Lost, also from 2007. It looks like photojournalism. It’s a “photographic exhibition by Alan Gignoux” co-sponsored by the British Council and A.M. Qattan Foundation. It’s the first poster we have for something actually hosted at CIC. “Portraits of individual Palestinians and their families exiles juxtaposed with present-day images of the places they left in in 1948.”
AT: Well, it’s certainly a topic I’m interested in. Before I came to CIC I was working for two years with Uriel Orlow on the Unmade Film project in Palestine.
AT: Maybe this points to one of the notorious questions around the “independent” contemporary art scene. I mean what you can get support for and from where.
JE: And what impact that has on the work. After that we have Tales Around the Pavement, which is a nice name. It’s a big poster, for “a multi-staged contemporary art project curated by Aleya Hamza and Edit Molnar,” and this is the poster for Chapter 2, in January and February 2008.
AT: It’s now described as a kind of predecessor to PhotoCairo4. Through it, Edit and Aleya got to know a lot of people. It was simple: They’d go meet artists and ask them to recommend other artists. Mahmoud Khaled told me that he had the impression that Edit, during her time at CIC, did a lot of studio visits. I find it a beautiful way of getting to know a place, and building from the artistic practices of the people you meet, local production.
JE: It’s got an interesting mix of people. Hany Rashed, who now shows at Mashrabia Gallery. Mahmoud Khaled, whose work it’s now difficult to imagine in the same space as Hany Rashed’s. Mohamed Allam, founder of Medrar. Some foreign people I haven’t heard of. Also Randa Shaath, who’s a photojournalist, and Tarek Hefny, a cinematographer who did the cinematography for Ahmad Abdalla’s films and El Ott among others. It’s funded by Pro Helvetia, Goethe Institut and the Hungarian Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange.
AT: And Ganzeer made the poster. It’s interesting when you look back at an art scene at a certain point: This is a good example of a group show bringing together people who later go down different paths. What’s interesting is that most of them still have practices in the cultural field.
JE: Next we’ve got PhotoCairo 4: The Long Shortcut. It had a publishing arm overseen by Motaz Attalla, Sarah Infanger, Ganzeer and George Azmy.
AT: The PhotoCairo issue a lot of people refer to now as being a very exciting one.
AT: That’s also something interesting about Edit – she started this connection to the Hungarian center and showed work there. They also set up residency programs, and there were a lot of residencies for this PhotoCairo.
Beside that, this PhotoCairo was huge, and of course when you put a big thing out there you have people who don’t like it, who criticize it, and my feeling was they didn’t just have an easy time.
JE: Do you know why?
AT: Because this broad approach you mentioned of course also creates ruptures, or people think one thing should be more represented than another. The broadness can be productive, but it can also be controversial.
Another special thing about this PhotoCairo, from what I understand, is that there were two symposia. And it seems like both attracted a lot of people, some travelling for them. That created momentum. I like that it says “exhibitions, screenings, presentations, residencies, a workshop and a temporary publishing house.” You can really feel that, because a lot of publications came out of it.
JE: And the books are really special, all different visually and in terms of content.
AT: From what I understood, they let the designers work very freely. They’d give them the contact details of the artists involved and just let them work. So there was a lot of trust. And it worked very well — the publications are exciting.
JE: The next poster we have is A Fantasy for Allan Kaprow, curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Philippe Pirotte, both connected to Objectif in Antwerp — Mai was then its director.
AT: By then Philippe was running the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland — one of many Swiss connections. The show’s a collaboration with Kunsthalle Bern and Objectif.
JE: Mai, who’s originally from Cairo, is coming back very soon to curate the visual arts part of D-CAF, six years later. I visited CIC’s space in Mounira just after the show closed, and you could see parts of this exhibition on the staircase going up to the top floor where CIC was. It was beautiful.
AT: At the time I was working at the art school in Bern. I saw invitations that looked like this in there.
JE: I guess I wouldn’t expect to see Can Altay’s work in Cairo.
AT: You’ll be doing a show at NSA with Dina Danish in a couple of months.
JE: Right, and this was in 2009 and I’m not sure she’s shown here since then. And Allan Kaprow.
AT: So why would this thing take place in Cairo at that specific time?
JE: That’s one of the things I like about it. With exhibitions in Cairo, normally you mostly see Egyptian artists or artists who do residencies in funny places. You don’t normally see “big” foreign artists.
AT: So you’re led to believe that this might be content-driven. But is it really though?
JE: This is a show that could happen outside Egypt — I don’t feel that often here.
AT: I know what you mean. But doesn’t that also mean that it could kind of be anywhere? It’s a bit non-specific?
JE: You don’t like it being nonspecific to the locality?
AT: Well, I have a lot of questions. Why Allan Kaprow? Why is the name of this one male artist so important in all this? His scores for “happenings,” probably. Maybe the curators wanted to carve out a space for those practices in Cairo?
JE: He was a Fluxus founder. The poster has a lot of information. It has biographies of the people involved, and a very long one of Kaprow himself, who had died three years before, talking about the “un-artist” and “rejecting the mechanisms of the world of exhibiting without making this a goal in itself.” Which is all rather exciting I think. It’s funded by Pro Helvetia, the British Council, Mondriaan Foundation, Ford Foundation and Flemish Community.
The next poster we’re going to look at is Raffle on the Roof — a fundraising event.
AT: People still talk about it. The old rooftop in Mounira and the events on it came up frequently in the 10-year anniversary celebrations.
JE: Raffle on the Roof was “the third annual CIC photography exhibition and tombola.” You buy a ticket for 350 LE, at CIC or the Cellar Door bar bistro in Maadi, check the artworks online, make a note of your preferences and come to the CIC roof terrace on June 3, 2009. As each ticket is drawn the ticket holder announced can choose a work from what’s available at the given time. There’s a long list of artists, from Osama Dawod to Ayman Farag to Paul Geday to Thomas Hartwell, Tarek Hefny, Malak Helmy, Ahmad Hosni, Iman Issa… Elisabeth Jacquette, who’s a translator. And Graham Waite, star of Hassan Khan’s video G.R.A.H.A.M (2008).
AT: Edit told us it was ultimately more for social reasons than actual fundraising — Involving people through donating images and so on. Look — “financed partly by Cilantro.”
JE: I wonder who the poster was designed by. It’s a fun design.
AT: Yeah there’s something I like about it. The colors seem to be from another time.
JE: The next poster is for Francesc Ruiz’ The Paper Trail in October 2010. You’d pick up a section of a comic book story starring characters like Tintin and Donald Duck at a location in downtown Cairo, like a kiosk, and it gave you a clue to where the next one was. It was one the of the first shows Mia Jankowicz‘s artistic directorship, and the second at CIC’s new building on Abdel Khalek Sarwat Street. Mohamed Abdelkarim worked on the project with Francesc, who came to Cairo twice, for quite a long time. It was funded by the Spanish Embassy, ACID and Oficina tecnica Corporacion.
AT: This is the turquoise you still find at CIC — but the doorframes and so on used to be painted that color. I wonder if there’s a connection.
JE: The next poster is from 2011. We get to the big year. Cairo Photo Marathon happened on January 15, 10 days before the revolution. Participants had to go round taking photos for a day. It’s themed “Gender in the Egyptian metropolis” and co-organized with Townhouse, Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute, Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Diwan bookstores and International Media Support.
AT: It would be interesting to see the photos. There were other iterations of the marathon.
JE: Even one this year — it still happens. The next poster is Propaganda by Monuments, curated by Mia and Clare Butcher, from March 23 to April 23, 2011. There was also a publication and events program.
AT: I think this show was meant to open more or less exactly when the revolution started, and was moved. When I came to Cairo in the end 2011 a lot of things were still being rescheduled or cancelled due to uprisings and out of respect for what was happening on the streets. The situation had an impact on programming and on whether people could come or not. In retrospect, as you said, it’s extremely astonishing how many things actually took place.
Propaganda by Monuments — it’s an interesting topic right? Especially if you think about this being planned before the revolution.
JE: It’s somehow totally fitting for what was going on.
AT: Supported by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
JE: And the British Council and Spanish Embassy. Because CIC exhibitions have often dealt with news media images, it’s naturally more prone to dealing with —
AT: The circulation of images, and questions of representation. It also depends on how you start thinking about it when you start working there, as artistic director. I would say that’s what makes the place exciting — that it goes beyond contemporary art, and it’s not just photography or photojournalism. Like previous CIC artistic directors, I see the potential for this in how it can deal with important social questions and representation and still be aware of how art production doesn’t have to take the most direct route.
So you’re always dealing with both things at the same time if you’re interested in activism, actual issues and the way the things you do relate to social questions and the political, yet also try to be aware of how visual language is always more complex than just bringing one statement across. In an ideal case, this brings together very important elements that can be problematic when kept apart, but there’s also a tension. For me that tension is quite productive.
CIC’s PhotoSchool was set up during that time, with Silvia Mollicchi managing it, and there was a general explosion of photography that year — citizen journalism and so on. It was the height of that moment where everyone takes a camera and takes account of what’s going on.
JE: Was the PhotoSchool founded in response to that?
AT: No, Mia Jankowicz and then finance and operations manager Mohammed Abdallah started working on it in 2010. It was implemented in 2011.
JE: Another example of things fitting in with what’s going on.
AT: Yet at the same time not only was it very difficult to plan, it was also difficult to believe in what you were doing, because there was things going on that questioned everything you had done before and the way you went about things. It’s interesting to look back and see that it actually wasn’t so far apart.
JE: So was it Mia who set up the PhotoSchool?
AT: From the very beginning of CIC there were courses. When it was in the first location, the courses took place in another building — there were two buildings. When they moved to Abdel Khalek Sarwat there was this idea to make the two sides closer and create an actual curriculum. Of course it’s not only the school, it’s also the facilities — a little bit later the digital lab was set up. There had been a darkroom, but the digital lab has scanning and the big printer. So it really expanded through the planning of Mia and Mohammed.
JE: I feel like that broadness, or the fact that CIC deals with several different disciplines, is particularly appropriate for Cairo where the contemporary art isn’t generally seen as being very important. It also impacts the audience reached.
AT: It’s very interesting to see how depending on the programming it reaches a different audience.
JE: So the next poster is Working Title: What a Building Wants to Be..
AT: It’s a collaboration with Megawra, and includes Ramy El Dahan, Samir Kordy, Shahira Farid. This reflects that there was a lot going on at that time around urbanism and the right to the city and it’s public spaces. This was in the time when walls went up all around downtown.
AT: Yes, I really liked it too. There was also a very exciting symposium and a publication.
JE: The opening and symposium had to be postponed. The line-up was interesting — Iain Chambers is a writer, Annie R. Gardner is in migration studies, then artists Ayed Arafah, Bouchra Khalili, Uriel Orlow, Otolith Group, Xaviera Simmons, Take to the Sea. As well as Lawrence Weiner, who seems a bit out of place there. But I remember his piece in the stairwell of the new CIC building. The show was scheduled to open on November 4, 2011.
AT: The symposium addressed issues such as maritime migration from North Africa and the siege on Gaza — this was the time of the flotillas. So there was a lot of urgency around this — with the revolution focusing on local issues, on Egypt, very important issues like people losing their lives crossing the Mediterranean or Gaza were slightly less in the center of vision. So this project was an attempt to insist on connecting what was going in Egypt to other political struggles. That’s something I really appreciated about this project.
JE: The catalogue is also good. The next poster we have, moving to 2012, is the Parenthesis show. It came after a mentorship project led by Doa Aly, Ahmed Nagy and Osama Dawod. The artists were very young, and people were excited about the show.
AT: That’s a good example of Mia’s emphasis on art education, not only in the way she set up the school in a more consistent way. She had a good understanding of the benefit of a mentorship program, setting up a project like that and going through with it — not just people realising work but taking it to the point where it’s a very carefully executed exhibition. Education was insisted on by Mia at that point in the institution’s history. It’s something that’s important to maintain.
JE: Here’s the poster for the next PhotoCairo. Also an interesting one — at many venues: Townhouse, CIC, Hotel Viennoise, a little space on Mahmoud Bassiouny Street, Goethe Institut, Beirut and Cimatheque. It was a great mixture of very young artists like Sama Waly and older, established artists like Basim Magdy and Hassan Khan. The catalogue is online. This PhotoCairo was called More Out of Curiosity Than Conviction, after a Harun Farocki film. Beirut’s contribution was to do a workshop and screening series with Farocki himself.
AT: It was a very exciting workshop, from what I heard.
JE: Yes. And the poster’s nice, designed by Lisa Kreutzer. It’s a rock but looks like a nose. Here’s the next poster, a shiny one.
AT: Objects in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear.
JE: NSA installed this one. It was curated by Aleya, who came back for this show.
AT: This was the Tate collaboration.
JE: There were some really interesting works in it. All video works, and at least three came from Auguste Orts.
AT: How many CIC shows did NSA install?
JE: This was the first, and we did one later when Alec Steadman was artistic director. We don’t actually have any posters from his period. We installed his Auto Italia South East exhibition, Viewing Copy, which was interesting because I’d once worked with Auto Italia in London. Alec invited NSA to give a presentation during the show — December 2013. I really appreciated that he gave us that chance because he didn’t really know us very well and it was the first presentation we’d been asked to give here.
AT: I like the photos — the wallpapered images in the show behind you contrasting with the things you had on your heads.
JE: We had colorful props that we’d painted. Viewing Copy was another unlikely exhibition for Cairo — obviously you can draw connections between a show and the place it’s in whatever it is, but this was a different kind of image from those in the shows we’ve been talking about — high-definition advertising and stock imagery. It was somehow completely off the wall yet still in keeping with what CIC is doing. Do you want to say anything about your plans, in relation to that?
AT: I’m focusing on the potential of that broadness we’ve discussed. The space I ran before and the work I’ve done have always brought together activism, critical history, people working in media and critical theory, and contemporary art, photography and moving image. To me this diversity is not a strange thing and it’s very related to my biography — I studied photography initially, before doing a masters in contemporary art with a strong critical theory component. It makes sense.