Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival

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My overall review of D-CAF for frieze (which can be read here also but you need to register).

There are two places in the world where cats seem omnipresent: the internet and downtown Cairo. At the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), street cats were everywhere: there was the one that specifically targeted the feline sculpture in Hassan Khan’s delicate mixed media work The Agreement (2011); the one that helped itself to refreshment from the table during Nida Ghouse’s talk, The Artist as a Portrait of a Young Man; and the one that weaved through the dancers’ legs during a performance by the ensemble The100Hands, Running Nucleus (2014).

The article here has been revised to reflect a factual error brought to me after submission: the text originally said ‘a delegation of international technical specialists’ when in fact one technician was flown in. The article was also modified to more accurately reflect the decision making process around Hassan Khan’s show. A thorough fact-check was made prior to submission. 

There are two places in the world where cats seem omnipresent: the internet and downtown Cairo. At the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), street cats were everywhere: there was the one that specifically targeted the feline sculpture in Hassan Khan’s delicate mixed media work The Agreement (2011); the one that helped itself to refreshment from the table during Nida Ghouse’s talk, The Artist as a Portrait of a Young Man; and the one that weaved through the dancers’ legs during a performance by the ensemble The100Hands, Running Nucleus (2014).

D-CAF comprised programmes in cinema, performing arts, contemporary art, music and discussions, as well as commissioned works and workshops. Pulling off a programme of this kind in the city’s public spaces is no mean feat, as demonstrated by the organizationally disastrous inaugural D-CAF in 2012, which – utterly reluctant disclosure – I bore the brunt of as curator of the visual arts programme that year. However, in 2014, effective coordination and plentiful audiences suggested that the festival has since found its feet.

The trailblazer of the unofficial D-CAF feline programme was a ginger tom that streaked beneath the screen before the festival’s opening film, Salma El Tarzi’s Underground/On The Surface (2013), to appreciative applause. The film is a low-budget documentary following two musicians, Oka and Ortega, during their breakthrough moments in the mahraganat scene – an intensely raw electro-pop genre that is just beginning to gain mainstream recognition in Egypt. The film’s strength lies in the relationship of obvious trust between El Tarzi and her subjects, but the social, cultural and political context remained largely unexplored. The film was nonetheless met with cheers for bringing deserving attention to the scene, fuelling much-needed optimism in a night that ended with a heaving crowd dancing at Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy’s gig in the King Farouk-era ballroom of Sherazade nightclub.

Each of D-CAF’s programmes is the separate fiefdom of its curator – a notable strategy in the usual authorship-free format of festivals. D-CAF took a chance by presenting a solo exhibition of Khan’s work curated by Beth Stryker, as the only contemporary art contribution. The project involved the wholesale renovation of four spaces on Cairo’s pedestrian Kodak Passage, masterminded by CLUSTER, the urbanism office co-founded by Stryker; plus the flying-in of a technical specialist and (as local mutterings noted) likely enough money to keep the lights on at one of Cairo’s small-scale art institutions for a good while. But the installation standards were laudable. The exhibition was far stronger and more precise than Khan’s recent survey show at SALT in Istanbul. In this most resonant Cairene context, we witnessed the encounter of Khan’s most powerful strategies: on one hand, the painful, literary, observational accuracy of his text-based works; and, on the other, his almost platonically perfect, unexplained sculptural works.

The Urban Visions programme, which placed performing arts in various outdoor and public contexts, was the most curatorially ambitious – and probably least successful – part of the festival. Interacting with dancing bodies in downtown Cairo – where your own body is potentially more vulnerable to physical assault, arrest, protest or robbery than you’d like – is a profound, worthwhile challenge. Perhaps it was inevitable that the dance works remained at a remove, quietly gated by their audiences and security staff. Lotte Sigh’s Remind Me (2008), performed in the semi-private space of the GrEEK Campus, was an apolitical duet narrating a heterosexual couple’s relationship through movement. Descriptive and generalizing works such as this threaten to simply relocate longstanding heteronormative concerns to the streets, rather than acknowledging the complexities of how these spaces are gendered, sexualized, policed and hacked.

The programme at the Falaky Theatre attempted a more hard-edged approach. The highlight here was An Empty House For Hospitality (2014), in which choreographers Mohamed Shafik and Laurence Rondoni combined dance and theatre in a long work that transposed the concept of hospitality into deeply unsettling regions. Set in a post-apocalyptic darkness, the work’s six characters are maddened souls who relate to each other as parasites, temporary seductions or inconveniences – presided over by a manic, motor-mouthed host. These ludicrous encounters between needy, broken people created a sense of horror that is more crucial to the work than any coherent narrative.

Festival Director Ahmed Al Attar (who curated both performing arts programmes) argues for the importance of contemporary culture in Egypt, even at times like the present. Such convictions might seem platitudinous when 638 Egyptian citizens were recently sentenced to death behind closed doors in a kangaroo court. Despite variations in quality throughout the festival, a piece like An Empty House For Hospitality seems as good a way as any to reflect this, ensuring that the space of culture never remains too comfortable.

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