A beginner’s guide to downtown’s alternative art scene
مقهى الحرية - Courtesy: Kevin Dean

Downtown Cairo has long had a strong relationship with the arts.

It boasts the capital’s largest cluster of theaters, cinemas and intellectual cafes, and is one of very few places that is almost entirely architecturally preserved – even if its infrastructure is in a state of decay.

Arts and political activity have inevitably had a long history of going hand-in-hand here: Tahrir Square – downtown’s epicenter – hosted protests against British rule and later other protests, and many government buildings are nearby.

In reaction to the censorship, bad management and weak curatorship at state-owned spaces, the 1990s saw an alternative art movement proliferate from the city center.

Little information is available on this scene’s past activities. There are articles here and there, but many link to websites that are no longer running, and spaces’ archives have almost no public access. There is a crisis of documentation: Journalists and researchers writing about it are limited in numbers and scope, and the artists and spaces themselves cannot sustain documentation efforts on their limited resources.

Contemporary art take-off

Townhouse Gallery

Townhouse Gallery. Courtesy: Townhouse Gallery

The early 1990s saw various gallerists running profit-driven downtown spaces focused on contemporary visual art. Stefania Angarano opened Mashrabia Gallery in 1990, followed by the late Renata Jordan’s gallery Cairo-Berlin, and then Espace Karim Francis in 1995.

When William Wells established Townhouse in 1998, he was thinking big. He noticed that many Egyptian artists were creating large-scale works, but most galleries were in low-ceilinged apartments. The 1890s building accommodating Townhouse on Nabrawy Street was spacious and cheap to rent. Wells and his team collaborated with their neighbors – mostly mechanic workshops and handy-men – to make the space exhibition-ready.

These new contemporary art spaces had the common goal of bringing diverse audiences to their shows.

Al-Nitaq Festival, which took place in 2000 and 2001 before halting due to internal struggles between its organizers, was a collaboration between Wells, Francis and Angarano. A spectacle of exhibitions, concerts, lectures, performances, short films and talks, it utilized spaces in downtown in new ways: abandoned buildings such as La Viennoise were used for exhibiting for the first time, as well as shop fronts on Talaat Harb Street, hotel rooms, balconies, bars, restaurants, internet cafes and local coffee shops.

The first edition was the first time in Cairo that a festival, run independently from any funding (artists each paid for their own productions), transformed an entire neighborhood into a bustling art show.

Wells says the second edition, which received funding and ran parallel to the state-run Cairo Biennale to capitalize on already existing infrastructure, was more important for contemporary art.

“Careers were made during the second Nitaq,” he says, adding that the off-biennale setting allowed for a new dialogue between regional artists.

“Opening night of the Nitaq Festival, itself an installation of sorts, was a ‘production’ blurring the lines between art and life, theater and the quotidian, private space and public space,” wrote Youssef Rakha and Nur Elmessiri in Ahram Weekly at the time of the second edition of Nitaq. “Downtown Cairo, magnanimous as ever, allowed it all to unfold, festively and unobtrusively at the same time.”

Through the two editions of Nitaq, downtown was confirmed as the center of the contemporary art movement. The neighborhood transformed into a melting pot of diverse cultures from the city — many remember people adapting together remarkably quickly.

PhotoCairo, initiated in 2002 and now having gone through five editions so far (the last in 2012), was also a starting point for the artist collective that two years later established the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), a go-to place for young photo enthusiasts to learn photography but also home to an array of stimulating exhibitions and talks. It started CIC in Townhouse’s annex, moved to Mounira, then in 2010 to downtown’s Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street.

Townhouse and CIC also played a role in inspiring a new generation of artists to start Medrar for Contemporary Art in 2005, in order to accommodate younger artists and focus specifically on video and interactive-technology arts.

This vibrant scene saw many exhibitions, festivals and talks. It also helped provide a springboard for many contemporary artists to show their works abroad. Other large-scale projects worth highlighting include Occidentalism, curated by Karim Francis in 2007 at the Swiss Hotel, which brought together 20 artists working on their perception of the west, and CairoDocumenta, a non-curated artist-run exhibition that occurred in parallel to the 2010 biennale and again in 2012.

Theater and the coffee-shop culture

Compared with visual arts, which usually require a more solitary engagement, theater is about the collective and the group. Such collectivity has entirely different needs to visual arts, but also finds a home in downtown.

In the 1990s and early 2000s the Cairo Opera House’s Hanager Theater was the main home of the city’s alternative theater troupes, but this changed by the mid-2000s. The ceiling of freedom in government spaces was lowering and many troupes were opting to rehearse and perform in independent spaces.

Many ended up in Townhouse, along with musicians, using its third floor as a rehearsal and workshop space. Townhouse’s large next-door exhibition space, the Factory – which has terrible acoustics – was also used, in between and during exhibitions, for performance. Eventually, a next-door space became available and Wells established Rawabet Theater. Although under the same umbrella, Townhouse and Rawabet cater to different needs. While Townhouse is heavily curated, Rawabet is often open and available for anyone to book for workshops, concerts and performances. This makes it a unique venue that many in the independent theater world, struggling for space, opt to use.

Salam Yousry, founder of Al-Tamye Theater Troupe and the Choir Project, tells me that since Rawabet opened in 2006, he hardly ever performs anywhere else. As for rehearsals, his troupe sometimes uses Rawabet, but also book in El-Tanboura, Warsha and most recently at Karima Mansour’s Contemporary Dance Center in Mohandiseen.

Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, in northern downtown, also emerged in 2005 as a valuable rehearsal and workshop space. Its founder, playwright Ahmed El Attar, also took over the management of the American University in Cairo’s Falaki Theater after the campus was moved to the suburbs.

For theater director Hany al-Metenawy, the local cafes on the street are a rehearsal space. He meets his troupe Shanta regularly at cafes to discuss ideas and write scripts.

The few cafes in downtown that are frequented by artists make up the informal sector of its alternative art scene, along with restaurants and bars. They are spaces where many ideas occur and develop, and they serve as meeting points for these artists since most do not work from offices or studios.

For Yousry, downtown’s cafes have changed a great deal over the past 15 years. It started to be socially acceptable for women to sit in them, he says, and there are now more families. Even cafes’ infrastructure has changed, from wooden chairs and tables to plastic ones that can be more easily stored, allowing them to expand when necessary .

Cafes have been the subject of many artworks. Historian and visual artist Huda Lutfi is often photographing them for her collages, Omar El-Negdy has painted a café, and at one point Yousry was set on reconstructing the theater experience in a cafe for a performance dubbed Fantasia al-Ahwa (Café Fantasia), which was never shown.

“Cafes constitute almost the entire relationship we have with public space,” says Yousry.

The revolution and its aftermath


Just as the revolution opened new opportunities for a different political future, the freedoms gained with it not only stretched the margin of freedom of the alternative art world but attracted a new audience eager for something new and different.

Graffiti boomed during the 2011 revolution and in the couple of years after it. There was also motivation to start new spaces in 2011, such as 10 Mahmoud Basiouny and Mosireen, both now closed, and the thriving music space and studio 100Copies on Talaat Harb Street.

The freedoms gained in the revolution also allowed for more performance art in public space. Theater troupes and musicians performed in downtown’s streets on multiple occasions, and a collective of artists also established El-Fan Midan, a monthly one-day event in Abdeen Square that featured multi-disciplinary art with a revolutionary flavor, but recently had to halt due to licensing problems.

In 2012 a modern-day equivalent of Nitaq emerged: Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), run by Attar. The festival includes curated programs in theater, visual arts, film and music in a multitude of venues. Part of the festival’s purpose is to rediscover spaces for performance in downtown, such as streets, passageways, abandoned buildings and even government-owned theaters.

Now entering its fourth year, the festival involves a collaboration between Attar’s Orient Productions and Al-Ismailia for Real Estate Development, directed by Karim El-Shafei.

Since the late 2000s, Ismailia has been acquiring buildings in downtown in the hopes of renovating them and renting out their apartments and shops at more expensive rates. They also own and rent out many of the downtown art spaces, such as Townhouse’s Factory space, CIC and Hotel Viennoise, in an attempt to continue attracting people of certain socio-economic backgrounds to downtown.

Perhaps one of the most successful post-2011 additions to the downtown art scene is Zawya. An art-house cinema tucked away on a side street off Talaat Harb, it has attracted many viewers outside the usual alternative art community, refreshing the scene at a time when morale was low and space after space was closing down or limiting its activities.

Opportunities and challenges

One of the most attractive elements of downtown is its diverse socio-economic make-up. Most neighborhoods in Cairo each almost exclusively host one homogenous social segment. However, due to its history, location, economic set up and many other aspects, downtown allows a wide assortment of people to run around shoulder to shoulder and somehow make it work for themselves.

This diversity of backgrounds allows for certain social taboos to be broken faster than in the rest of the city, giving a certain freedom.

Many see space as a challenge to the further development of the scene. As it grows quickly, in terms of both audiences and artists, more spaces are needed for performance, exhibition and screenings. And with the issues facing foreign funding, existing art spaces may have to find alternatives for paying for rent, staff and programming.

“Private local investors have to take responsibility to contribute to the cultural movement in Egypt,” Lutfi points out. “The state also has a role to play in supporting independent projects.”

Both Karim Francis and Stefania Angarano say that collaboration among alternative spaces is a must for the scene’s growth. Wells, meanwhile, believes there is a crisis in art education and that peer-to-peer learning is the way to overcome it.

But perhaps the most pressing point is made by Metenawy: He says no developments can be made in downtown’s art scene if security forces maintain such a strong presence. They scare people from the area and interfere with artistic processes.

“When I see strong presence of security forces in downtown, it proves that this is an inspiring place that gathers people together,” he said. “And that makes them uncomfortable.”

This article was published in Arabic in Cairobserver‘s downtown special issue. The publication will launch in a series of documentary film screenings about Cairo at Zawya on March 9,10 and 11.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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