Getting the Institutional Hiccups: Cairo’s emerging spaces.

A very light overview of the Egyptian art scene as viewed from early 2013, written for Turn On Art, a now-defunct blog launched by Ivory Press.

For fairly obvious historical reasons, the general opinion in the Cairo contemporary art scene is that one measure of institutional credibility runs in inverse proportion to your association with the state*. Thus, ‘independent’ is one of the most cherished words in the Cairo art lexicon – though it doesn’t follow that there is anything like a shared understanding of what that means. In the mission statement of the beholder, you could be independent of:

– the state/cultural ministry (claim made by: everyone)
– institutions (claim made by: artists)
– public funders (oddly, never private ones)
– ‘the independents’ (established spaces like Townhouse, CIC and ACAF)

Essentially it’s a multi-purpose expression for ‘we want to do what the hell we like’. While that’s not a critical position, it’s really a signal of this: that Cairo claims a solid, non-state-connected set of funding channels**, institutional norms and professional practices (boring but important); and that people now want to experiment more. Celebration!

For long enough now, the checklist of institutions you’d hand to visiting researchers was fairly static. You start at the Townhouse Gallery, founded fifteen years ago by William Wells; you walk five minutes from there to Contemporary Image Collective (CIC); and then you step on the train and visit the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF). And the list goes on. The response of the ‘independent-of-the-independents’ has always been an exciting mix of artist-initiated temporary projects – such as the sarcastically titled but pretty essential exhibition series Cairo Documenta, or Le Caire Mon Amour, the orientalist expat initiative that just won’t go away. These pop-up projects are hard to map and are more exciting for their energy than their stance on formal institutions. In a precarious place like Egypt, stability (as our good friend Hosni Mubarak has insisted) is important. While temporary projects slake the thirst for the rapid presentation of new work, they don’t add up to a dependable basis for opportunity, infrastructure, and ambitious artistic and curatorial practices.

And hiatuses in the rhythms of the more established spaces are prompting more involved responses by new institutional efforts. At time of writing CIC is searching for a new director (a position I recently vacated); and sadly, ACAF has decided to close its doors. The Townhouse Gallery is understaffed, but amongst their continued activities they are wearing their ‘incubator of Egyptian institutions’ hat.  They’re providing fertile space for various activities, including the Hal Badeel (Alternative Solution) initiative. Organised by Saber ElSayed and Mido Sadek, it was a free events series to promote the renovation of more permanent spaces, and was hosted by Townhouse in March 2013.

Perhaps, as I suggested to the founders of Nile Sunset Annex, the most sincere form of institutional independence here is committing to your own high standards of good art, criticality, and fun, but never solidifying into a ‘mission’ and limiting your association with those who would ask you to. Artists Hady Aboukamar, Taha Belal, and Jenifer Evans run this diminutive new one-room space out of a shared apartment in Garden City. They draw a clear line between the flat and the exhibition space, which is bright white and cube-shaped. But in this context, it feels more like they’re quoting the white cube rather than conforming to it. And this is how their projects unfold, tactically using institutional forms but not getting too concerned with them. In their recent exhibition What Are You Doing, Drawing? ***, artists and non-artists were asked to submit objects that could qualify as drawings, a show whose light tone did nothing to undermine its criticality.

On a more international pitch, the ridiculously busy Sarah Rifky has teamed up with German curator Jens Maier-Rothe to found Beirut (art space, not city). Behind the scenes they’ve been commissioning artists Goldin+Senneby to research the foreign company registrations necessary for Egyptian art spaces to channel most available funding streams. Accordingly, the Beirut is registered under Goldin+Senneby, an institution-as-artwork. It’s a response to an astonishingly dull aspect of having a space and receiving funds in Egypt, toying with the very basic mechanisms of being institutional. Based in a pretty villa in Agouza, Giza, Beirut has been running seasons of exhibitions and events such as The Magic of the State,**** inspired by the writings of Michael Taussig.

I don’t care for the cliché of old guard versus young turks. Instead, what makes me optimistic is the broadened conversation, a sense that the diverse scene we all want is beginning to unfold.

* Nothing has changed for the better since the beginning of the revolution, despite sterling advocacy work and the creation of draft policy from the scene.

** That’s problematic, because nearly all funding of Egyptian contemporary art is foreign – but this really needs a post all of its own.

*** Reviewed by me here.

**** Which will be reviewed by me in the May 2013 issue of frieze.

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