Wednesday saw artist-filmmakers Sherif El Azma and Gheith Al-Amine in conversation with each other and Dan Jakubowski at Medrar as part of the “soft closing” ceremony of the seventh Cairo Video Festival (CVF).
Jakubowski, a PhD candidate tracking the development of video art in Egypt over the past decade or so, argued that the history of video art in Egypt has to be approached from an institutional point of view. The backdrop of any discussion about CVF has to acknowledge, he argued, that it is a festival run independently from the official state-sponsored Ministry of Culture spaces and personnel.
Since the 1990s there has been a concerted effort to create art spaces to counter what some have come to see as the artistically stifling framework of the ministry. Leaders of this effort include Mashrabia (established in the 1970s), Espace Karim Francis (on and off since 1995) and Townhouse (1998). Many key figures of artists’ moving images today, like Shady Elnoshokaty, Hala Elkoussy, and Medrar director Mohamed Allam, had connections with Townhouse as well as with state-run institutions.
For a while these galleries were arguably the only public spaces for artists who were critiquing the policies of the Ministry of Culture and its official art spaces like the Youth Salon, a launch pad for young artists. Today the art map is more complicated. Places like Townhouse and Mashrabia have themselves now become institutions with their own audiences, ambitions and curatorial visions. They are no longer structurally flexible havens for artists to create and engage people in whatever ways they want. In addition, non-ministry art initiatives like Medrar (founded in 2005) and the Contemporary Image Collective (founded in 2004) have emerged that so far remain relatively fluid in structure, curatorial vision and programming. At times and for some artists this fluidity, grassroots character and non-heterogeneity is appealing. For others, Townhouse’s more institutional structure and resources work better.
This institutional backdrop, Jakubowski noted, is very important for understanding the forces shaping the CVF. Indeed, Amine said that in the current context, CVF’s refusal of a narrow curatorial vision is a statement. This year it showed experimental cinema works like Omar El Zohairy’s Breathe Out (2011) or Summer 91 by Nadim Tabet and Karine Wehbe (2014), narrative-based artist video works like Jumana Manna and Sille Storihle’s The Goodness Regime (2013), and non-narrative works like Malak Helmy’s Records from the Excited State—Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction (2012) or Leila Alaoui’s Crossings (2013). So it crosses the boundaries between experimental film and video (with its history in the “institution of cinema,” in which works are rented out) and artist film and video (which has emerged mostly in gallery spaces and has stronger ties to the art market, with works sold in editions).
Amine raised a crucial point by arguing that spaces like CVF, where moving image artists with their various backgrounds, critics and audiences meet, are key to the development of craft and critical dialogue in the Arab region. CVF’s curatorial and philosophical boundary-crossing should be hashed out and discussed more thoroughly to lead to real breakthroughs in criticism or visual language in video and film. I’d argue that it would tremendously enrich CVF to add a speakers’ list for artists, filmmakers, critics and art historians from the region to meet and talk with each other and the audience. Wednesday’s well-attended panel was an indication of great potential.
Often, artists’ moving images and experimental film in the countries of our region both face similar challenges. It’s worth noting that both Amine and Azma are happy to be called experimental filmmakers and have screened their works in film festivals around the world. I think market demands, especially as played out in Egyptian and Lebanese contexts, have meant experimental filmmakers turn to galleries as exhibition sites for their work as a necessity. Is this peculiar to Arab filmmakers or is there a global trend of experimental filmmakers becoming more flexible in exhibition sites and areas of influence? UK filmmaker and artist Ben Rivers is an good example of successfully operating in cinema and in galleries and biennials. For the Arab region’s artists and experimental filmmakers, is the model that Rivers exemplifies a necessity for survival?
Amine told us how ruthless the art market could be for a filmmaker who does not work in other media besides video. To break into it one has to be represented by a gallery at some point. But exhibiting moving images in galleries and museums has become widespread only since the 1990s, and most pioneers of moving images in galleries were artists working in other disciplines, like painting or sculpture. Amine said galleries sometimes pressure young video and filmmakers to produce a painting to fulfill some quota, even though they have no painting background. The audience laughed – they were mostly Egyptian artists working in other media who had turned later to film and video.
Certainly art circuits are different from cinema circuits, especially in terms of distribution and financial pressures. Is crossing from gallery to cinema and vice versa a necessity for an Arab video artist or experimental filmmaker to make a living, and in other parts of the world just one option among many?
Azma and Amine also talked about how Arab artists working in video and even experimental filmmakers are pressured to cater for “global narratives.” I suppose what this means is that big film festivals and art biennials are more likely to select a work by an Arab artist or filmmaker that addresses the Syrian refugee crisis or the “Arab Spring.” In other words, Arab artists and experimental filmmakers are attractive to a global art or film market in so far as they represent their Arabness and make works that have a social or political argument. Some turn back to their local markets, refusing to become the mouthpiece for a nation or group of nations. But the geography of exhibition spaces in local markets can be stifling.
I think this shows us that before talking about aesthetic or formal innovation in the language of moving images, we need to think about what structures of exhibition and distribution are available in our region and globally. This is also why the fluidity of CVF is appealing, just like other spaces free from ministry influence and clear institutional visions. I’ve always wondered why Egyptian artists and experimental filmmakers seem hostile to the idea of forming an organized artist collective or the like. Now I think I know why. They have been scarred by a history of always having to pick a side. Many felt a pressure to be either part of the “ministry crowd” or the “Townhouse crowd.” All many makers want now, I believe, is a fluid space that resists categorization. They want to be left to do what they do best: disturb the rigidity of givens, whether in terms of space, time, narrative structure or even subjectivity. Only time will tell whether this boundary-crossing ethos will bring us the radical break in visual language we so desperately need, or if it will slow it down.