Good Clean Fun

Left: Shepheard Hotel in sandstorm. Right: Artist Gregor Kregar and Cairo Biennale commissioner Ehab El-Labban. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THE OPENING LAST WEEK of the Twelfth Cairo Biennale was punctuated by disasters, both natural and cultural. Only the most dedicated made it to the Opera House for the official inauguration on Sunday: A sandstorm buffetted the city with wind that made the hijab de rigueur, if futile. And on a good day it is an endeavor only for the brave and the foolish to wade through the giant mess that is Cairo’s chaotic traffic. While the mighty desert wind blew many would-be VIPs to the opening of the new Mathaf museum in Qatar, a bureaucratic glitch meant there was no government leadership to oversee the exhibition in Cairo, since deputy culture minister Mohsen Shaalan, director of the biennial, had been arrested and then fired as a scapegoat in a debacle regarding a stolen van Gogh.

The question mark that served as the biennial’s title read as a gesture toward the increasing ephemerality of cultural identity. Four Arab-American artists represented the US in “Orienteering,” an evocative multimedia installation curated by Ranya Husami. People kept tripping over Rheim Alkadhi’s Domestic Floor Covering, an infographic of Iraq’s and the artist’s family histories in the form of a filthy, hole-ridden Oriental carpet. “We were a little freaked out when we saw the guy mopping around the works—in the Egyptian style, where they throw water across the floor,” artist Nadia Ayari said. The aroma of food led to the installation by the grand prizewinner, Amal Kenawy, who was serving pasta from a colorfully decorated kiosk, to be eaten at a table adorned with plants. In this Egyptian street–cum-domestic environment you could watch a projection of her piece Silence of the Lambs, part of a show curated by Nikki Columbus last year at Townhouse, “Assume the Position.” The performance stopped traffic at a busy Cairo intersection as people crawled on their knees across the street. Apparently male onlookers thought it undignified and began shouting until everyone got arrested. “I’m really surprised they allowed her to screen that,” artist Melina Nicolaides said.

Left: Jury members Fumio Nanjo, Rosa Martinez, George King, Gioia Mori, and Fulya Erdemci. Right: Artist Amal Kenawy.

A pervasive lack of information made finding the other venues an adventure in orienteering. (To date, the biennial’s official website still bears the hopeful message “Coming soon . . . ”) We managed to track down the Museum of Modern Art, but it was difficult to determine where the biennial contributions, mostly paintings, ended and the collection began. “I thought the Havana Biennial, where I was told to bring my own hammer and nails, was crazy,” artist Joël Andrianomearisoa said. “But this is really special.” We finally made it with an entourage of foreign artists across the road to the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Center, which was the most cohesively curated venue. The Cypriot pavilion contained a seamless group installation of deceptively delicate drawings and sculptures by Maria Loizidou, Lara Alphas, and Eleni Mouzourou, including a giant spiderweb woven out of what appeared to be metal scouring-pad filaments. A highlight in the other building was Mantis City, Tobias Bernstrup’s take on Godzilla using models of Shanghai to depict a battle between two giant praying mantises. Mourad Messoubeur’s beautiful sculpture variegated with evolving patterns of live bacteria miraculously made it through customs. (Dutch artist Pascal van der Graaf was not so lucky: His paintings on MDF were held due to the suspicion of bugs. Nobody had told him about the regulation that wood coming into Egypt must be sprayed.)

Our walk across the bridge to the Shepheard Hotel, where most of the artists were lodged, was slowed by a performance as good as anything we had seen in the show: A lone man with a sponge scrubbed the walkway while another painted the curb, both endeavors erased immediately by the swirling sand carried on the wind. This incessant, futile cleaning was evident everywhere, including the official dinner that night on the Nile restaurant-boat Maxim, where a young man mopped around our table the whole time until Greek artist Jannis Varelas informed him that the smell of disinfectant was not pleasant while eating. Egyptians seem to have a flair for the absurd. The doorman we encountered later at Aperitivo, his pin-striped shoulders about as wide as he was tall, told us we could not enter without reservations. “Is the place full?” Andrianomearisoa asked. “No, it’s empty. But you still need reservations.” Not such a bad thing, it turned out, since the dark and alluring La Bodega was across the hall, and we were welcomed enthusiastically by charming French drag performer Blanche as if we were old acquaintances. Thusly festivities commenced until the wee hours, with curator Katrin Lewinsky keeping the champagne flowing.

Left: Artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis. Right: Artist Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena and curator Power Ekroth.

A flurry of openings around town the next evening was kicked off by a posh dinner reception sponsored by the US Embassy in the Tycoon Room of Le Pacha 1901, another of the boats moored along the Nile. Cultural attaché Haynes Mahoney talked about the potential of art to transcend political tensions, quoting a Syrian artist who said, “An art exhibit is worth a thousand diplomats.” (“Certainly less boring,” someone quipped.) Next I made my way downtown to the abandoned Viennoise Hotel, where “Cairo Documenta,” an autonomously organized showcase of twenty-six young artists, was a heartening lens onto the emerging local scene that the biennial was not. The challenge of finding exhibitions continued, and I ran into visiting artists at every wrong turn looking for the same right places. The nocturnal city nearly upstaged the art exhibitions: Streams of people moved among pastry and kushari shops, all open past midnight, and street vendors loudly beckoned as we wandered past. At Contemporary Image Collective’s new digs, the snakelike tree growing smack in the middle of the entrance mirrored Mahmoud Khaled’s sinuous stack of canvases upstairs. On another floor was Asunción Molinos Gordo’s gorgeous World Agriculture Museum, a replica of a Cairo museum and a perfect fusion of site and subject sponsored by Townhouse. By the time I arrived at the Townhouse Gallery for Hala Elkoussy’s show, it was already shuttered and surrounded by cars being repaired by mechanics, but I ran into former resident artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis among all the hookah smokers lining the street.

I jumped on the subway to the Coptic neighborhood, where the opening for “Fames:Family Vaudeville,” at Darb 1718, had all but died down. There were still plenty of bottles of cobra venom left in the bar set up by artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff, so I made a tentative toast with curator Power Ekroth and artist Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena while the snake watched. I had missed a performance by Hannu Räisa with a life-size puppet, and a planned appearance by Bernstrup had been canceled. “The private and public sectors of the Egyptian art world are in competition,” Ekroth explained. “So the biennial knowingly sent him home this morning.” At least the snowfall that was forecast for that day, which would have been the first since the late 1800s, never happened. “It was an act of God: The sandstorm came just long enough to ruin the biennial’s opening and cleared up for ours!” joked artist Moataz Nasr, director of the space. With that, we all jumped into his Jeep and sped to the Cairo Jazz Club, where we danced the night away as they mopped the floor around us.

Left: Artist Joel Andrianomearisoa and bridge gang. Right: Carl Michael von Hausswolff's cobra.