ARRIVING AT THE CAIRO AIPORT somewhat late on December 17, I barreled through the thick, anarchic traffic of Heliopolis in my friend’s desert-worthy Land Rover Defender and arrived miraculously at my downtown hotel within an hour. Navigating the few blocks to the Townhouse Gallery, one of the fourth Photo Cairo’s venues, however, was not so simple. The concierge had run out of maps, and by the time we arrived at the space, after exploring every dark side street between the hotel and our destination, the exhibition’s title, “The Long Shortcut,” seemed all too appropriate. Set in an alley lined with auto-mechanic shops and tables filled with men sucking on hookahs, the illuminated gallery compound was a welcome sight.
Inside the Townhouse, the most evocative installation easily belonged to Hala Elkoussy, who constructed a sort of shrine—decorated with ornate mirrors and lamps, red curtains, and old photographs—in one of the palazzo’s rooms. In the factory space, Ahmed Kamel mounted a series of photographs critiquing the fetishism of Egyptian wedding ceremonies. Of course, any art exhibition in Cairo must compete with the mesmerizing dissonance of the streets—an onslaught of noise and other sensual stimulations. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I thought. Down in the alley, a neighbor’s door was thrown open to expose a room that would have been at home in the exhibition: makeshift cabinets stacked with pieces of wood and cardboard, an ancient TV and a photographic portrait, a box of Marlboros, a child’s toy car. Adjacent to the gallery’s entrance, a man prepared to paint a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, taking advantage of a rare functioning streetlight next to the building.
I snagged a ride from artist Basim Magdy to Photo Cairo’s next venue (and also the exhibition’s organizing institution), the Contemporary Image Collective. The space was flush with works nostalgic for the imagined glamour of the past, including faux film stills by Larissa Sansour as well as Maha Maamoun’s Domestic Tourism II, a video montage of movie clips using the pyramids as a backdrop. (An homage, perhaps, to Egypt’s recent decision to copyright the wondrous monuments.) Back on the street, I gawked at a fantastic truck piled with several bundles too many; the driver gawked back and called me a piece of candy.
From there, I made my way to the Garden City Club, a decadent midcentury building where the Friends of the Townhouse reception—which served as the Photo Cairo afterparty—was in full swing. I interrupted a card game between the three doormen, one of whom ushered me to the fickle elevator leading to the penthouse. It was like stepping into the setting for a novel: the apartment of an Anglo expat living an incongruously luxurious life amid the ruins of history. After a stop at the intimate wainscoted bar, I walked onto the crowded terrace and straight into a cloud of cigarette smoke. Visiting from Istanbul, Rodeo Gallery’s Sylvia Kouvali gushed, “You’ve got to see Doa Aly’s gorgeous video—it’s the best work in the exhibition,” referring to a work at another of the four venues, the Downtown Apartment, a rented space in a dusty old office building. Notoriously elusive Townhouse director William Wells, organizer of the first Photo Cairo, lived up to his reputation and failed to make an appearance.
For a Mediterranean city, Cairo is surprisingly colorless, a quality exacerbated by the gray pollution spewing from the crush of dilapidated taxis. However, the plain building facades conceal rich ornamentation, producing a striking dichotomy between exterior and interior. Once you enter an opulent mosque or Coptic church, the buildings come alive. Such was the case the following evening at a party given in honor of artist Jennifer Steinkamp by the US ambassador, Margaret Scobey, at her residence in an enormous gated compound on the Nile. I had entered the Old South, where a famous Egyptian opera baritone sang “Old Man River,” drawing a connection between the Mississippi river and the Nile, according to our hostess. Across the smorgasbord feast, laden with a huge turkey, I spotted the members of performance collective My Barbarian, in town to hold workshops for their Christmas Eve performance, Eleven Human Senses, at Townhouse.
Once our car made it past the perfunctory dog sniffing, we arrived at the Marriott (formerly a palace built for a French queen), which was extravagantly decked out with white Christmas decor. At a dinner held nearby at Abou El Sid with the US delegation, which included Steinkamp and MAK Center Los Angeles director Kimberli Meyer, My Barbarian’s Alex Segade noted how surprised he was at the abundance of alcohol: “I expected it would be impossible to get.”
On Saturday morning, over at the Carlton Hotel (where I was being hosted), I awoke to the five o’clock call to prayer, apparently emanating from a speaker right next to my bed. I bided my time until a little before noon, when I set off across the river to the main venue, arriving at the Art Palace (on the grounds of the Opera House) along with seemingly everyone else. Gathered at the entrance in front of Lebanese artist (and winner of the biennale’s grand prize) Lara Baladi’s Tower of Hope were Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni and his bodyguards, the US embassy’s Haynes Mahoney, biennale prizewinner Adel El-Siwi, My Barbarian, and artist Khaled Hafez. Hafez told me that this edition had been completely restructured to promote a more cohesive vision. In the past, artists were selected by their respective countries; this year, all but those from Spain, Italy, and the United States were chosen by a panel of artists.
The show seemed both fairy tale and nightmare. Just inside the entrance was Paman Pereira’s installation of household furniture and objects suspended from the ceiling. A roomful of giant “corporate” wolves in suits made up Wael Darwish’s Team Work, while a striking video by Adel Abidin depicted a mosque made of sugar cubes being devoured by ants, questioning the relative strength of spiritual and physical impulses.
That night, Austrian curator Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein hosted a dinner party at the famous Greek Club, on Talat Harb Square. Formerly an intellectual haunt, the restaurant is located below the headquarters of the liberal El-Ghad party, which was firebombed just over a month ago. Sentimentality reared its head again as a group at the next table broke into a chorus of the patriotic Sayed Darwish song “Ahu da el-Li Sar” (This Is What Happened), led by curator and chanteuse Lana Mushtaq. Just after midnight, the hordes arrived from a party hosted by the Spanish delegation, and we fled the smoke-filled club.
On Sunday night, in the Fustat neighborhood, artist Moataz Nasr opened his beautiful new space Darb 1718 with the exhibition “Crossings,” made up of selections from a show held last spring at Art Paris. From the party on the terrace, we watched Lebanese artist Ninar Esber’s spectacular fiery apparition sing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Arabic from a roof in the distance. A whirling dervish performed on a lower terrace; meanwhile, the gender-bending male belly dancer in Kader Attia’s video provoked horror on the part of a macho Egyptian banker. “It is a shame!” he cried. “And he is even smiling!” Esber’s atmospheric sound piece, in which a seductive female voice pronounces words from Arabic erotic literature, emanated from a ceramic kiln in the garden. In a dark room, another Abidin video showed Iraqi boys training to be barbers by shaving cream off balloons—which inevitably blow up. Children from the neighborhood wandered in; the vibe was nonchalant. “There is so much happening in Cairo now,” Jakob Myschetzky, a Danish activist, argued in between bites of hors d’oeuvres. “Politics is dead, so art is one of the few ways to engage.” Absorbing the Mediterranean winter breeze on the rooftop, I contemplated my day at the pyramids, only recently secured by barbed wire. A few days later, Gaza would erupt in violence, underlining again the fragility of politics.