Scene & Herd

Photo Ops

Left: Artist Basim Magdy. Right: May Alaa ElDin and Photo Cairo 5 curator and CIC artistic director Mia Jankowicz. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

“EITHER THE COUNTRY is going to collapse or the people are going to explode,” the artist Basim Magdy told me on the opening night of Photo Cairo 5. We were standing in what used to be a small paper factory, squeezed into a narrow alleyway of car mechanics, metalworkers, a theater, a bookstore, a parking garage, a fast-food joint, and a coffee shop whose spread of outdoor seating—all plastic chairs and high metal tea tables—had expanded exponentially of late. Eleven years ago, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, anchor of Cairo’s young and independent art scene, turned the factory space into an exhibition venue but left some of the industrial details intact. For Photo Cairo 5, twenty-one photographs from Magdy’s ongoing series “Every Subtle Gesture” (2012) were wrapped around three resilient bits of drywall, each piece matching an incidental image to an inscrutable caption.

Organized by the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC)—a plucky nonprofit founded by a group of artists, photographers, and photojournalists in 2004—Photo Cairo 5 is a month-long series of exhibitions, film screenings, and symposia threaded into the incredible urban density of downtown Cairo. Ever since early 2011, when eighteen days of demonstrations knocked an aging autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, from his presidential perch after thirty years in power, street life in the Egyptian capital’s dilapidated belle époque district has gone into overdrive. In every direction from Townhouse, young men with tables piled high with sneakers, tracksuits, T-shirts, DVDs, cheap plastic toys, trinkety junk, household goods, and mountains of socks and underwear have crowded out pedestrians. Now they are muscling in on the space of Cairo’s interminable traffic, which moves, on a good day, like molasses.

This thickening of activity, with its blasting sound track of old Umm Kulthum songs and newly knocked-out mahraganat (a splinter-faction of shaabi music whose name means “festival” in Arabic), speaks to the exuberance of Egypt’s revolutionary moment but also to the danger of an overburdened infrastructure that has nearly reached its breaking point. Judging from his work, Magdy has a charmingly sinister sense of humor. But he’s just one among many artists in Cairo who told me the same thing: Everything in Egypt will fall apart before the country can be put back together again. “I’m optimistic,” he said cheerily. “Really!”

Left: Curator Ania Szremski of the Townhouse Gallery. Right: Artist Helena Hasson with curator Bruce Ferguson of the American University in Cairo.

This, in itself, is progress. A few months ago, Cairo’s art scene was in total disarray. Exhibitions were canceled. New projects never got off the ground. Artists were upset or confused or just couldn’t be bothered to work. “The uprisings that began on January 25 were like the detonation of an emotional atomic bomb,” said the writer and political analyst Issandr El Amrani, aka The Arabist, sitting on the balcony of an apartment he shares with the reporter Ursula Lindsey, overlooking the old embassy district in Garden City. “People are still dealing with that. The Egyptians are not like the Lebanese, who take violent upheavals in their stride. We have no such experience here. People are exhausted.”

And yet, to a sympathetic visitor, Photo Cairo 5 felt like a fresh start, even as it picked through notions of exhaustion, collapse, and distraction for ruminating themes. “The situation now is less heavy,” said the artist Maha Maamoun, one of the founders and board members of CIC. “It is as critical”—the draft of a new constitution has to be completed and put before a nationwide referendum in the next few months—“but people are able to relax. Everyone is realizing it’s a long-term process, the changes we’re going through.”

“The summer was a nightmare,” said Ania Szremski, a curator from Chicago who works at Townhouse and helped organize Photo Cairo 5. “Now things are getting back to normal, which is weird, but people have come out of their hibernation and are doing projects again. People are smiling again. But we’ll see. It’s a moment. We still have the referendum coming up.” (This was before Egypt’s inexperienced new president, Mohamed Morsi, made a clumsy lunge at judicial and legislative power, which brought protesters in their thousands back to the streets.)

Left: Artist Shirin Neshat. Right: “On Photography, at Studio Viennoise” in Downtown Cairo.

In the alleyway on that opening Wednesday night two weeks ago, I ran into the artist Lara Baladi, the filmmaker Sherif El Azma, and the curator Bruce Ferguson, dynamic new dean of the humanities and social sciences at the American University in Cairo. Ferguson, in turn, introduced me to Shirin Neshat, who had just given an artist’s talk and was planning to stick around Egypt for a while to work on her second film, about Umm Kulthum.

Mia Jankowicz, CIC’s artistic director and the curator of Photo Cairo 5, rushed by, engaged in a fluster of last-minute logistical details. The photographer Rana ElNemr, also a founder and board member of CIC, flashed a knowing smile. I caught up with Aleya Hamza, CIC’s former curator, and together we walked to the organization’s headquarters, in a rundown, ramshackle building from the 1940s, dodging accidental street markets along the way. In 2008, Hamza organized Photo Cairo 4 with Edit Molnár, CIC’s former director. Ambitious, searching, precise—that edition may now belong to another age, but it still has proven a tough act to follow.

CIC, the Townhouse factory space, and a shop housing a video installation on Mahmoud Basiony Street are the three venues constituting “More Out of Curiosity than Conviction,” Jankowicz’s main exhibition for Photo Cairo 5. An ingenious title borrowed from Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which reassembles the Romanian uprising in 1989 from footage broadcast by protestors who took over the state-run television station in Bucharest, the line jangles with contemporary and contextual relevance.

Left: Artists Mahmoud Tarek, Sarah Samy, Noura Seif, and Sama Waly of the Photo Cairo 5 mentorship program. Right: Artist and CIC cofounder Maha Maamoun.

Early in Farocki’s film, a cameraman’s attention drifts from a speech by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and falls upon an illegal protest. That sense of an accidental glance changing the course of history gives Photo Cairo 5 a strong undercurrent. It also allows for links to be made among the disparate works on view, from Hassan Khan’s Insecure (2002), a series of instructions such as “list ten strategies you use to seduce others,” and Iman Issa’s Illustrations for Future Narratives (2012), an installation of five enigmatic slide projections, to the hyperstylized video The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), by Elizabeth Price, a Turner Prize nominee.

On my way back to the factory, I stopped by Szremski’s opening at Townhouse, “Liminal State,” featuring four videos by three former artists-in-residence who deal more or less explicitly with the revolution. Then I ducked into another opening around the corner, at the grand, disheveled Hotel Viennoise, where the artist Heba Farid, yet another CIC founder and board member, was setting up a fully functional photo studio.

Strangely, “On Photography, at Studio Viennoise,” an exhibition paying tribute to all things archival, is everything that Photo Cairo 5 is not—playful, broadly accessible, and thoroughly devoted to the history and material of the medium. When I asked Jankowicz if she thought it was audacious to include a work like Khan’s, consisting solely of text—or Mahmoud Tarek’s sound installation, or Noura Seif’s sculptures and drawings (arranged around a single snapshot taped to the wall)—in a show about photography, she batted away the question and said: “Everyone knows the history of Photo Cairo and CIC.”

Left: Architects Samir El-Kordy and May Al-Ibrashy. Right: Art historian Angela Harutyunyan.

That may be true if your world is Egypt, or Cairo, or a few downtown neighborhoods—and if you’re OK measuring everyone in dozens rather than hundreds or thousands. If not, what is the history? It’s complicated, but Maha Maamoun sums it up succinctly enough: “CIC inherited Photo Cairo from Townhouse. We didn’t create it. Video started to appear in the third edition. It has developed a different history since then.”

Because Wednesday was New Year’s Eve (according to the Islamic calendar), it was a dry night everywhere except the little known Emad El-Din outpost of the Greek Club, which is where everyone—everyone!—from Photo Cairo 5 ended up. The next morning and throughout the days to follow, I heard plans for new galleries, read through exhibition proposals, looked at new projects, and listened, generally, to the clicks and whirs of Cairo’s most interesting minds at work.

Still, it’s been a rough year, and not everyone or everything was fine. On November 14, a strike shut down the city’s entire subway system for the first time since it opened in 1987. That night, passersby in the posh suburb of Heliopolis noted that a tram had caught fire and was slowly burning down to embers. Three days later, a horrific accident in Assiut killed forty-three children, aged four to six, on an outing from their nursery school, when a train crashed through their bus. “The infrastructure of this country,” one artist mumbled, “is going to kill us all.”

Left: Artists Basim Magdy, Hassan Khan, and Osama Dawod. Right: Mia Jankowicz.

On Saturday, Jankowicz convened a daylong symposium at the Goethe Institute on art, revolution, and representation. Despite fine contributions by the art historian Angela Harutyunyan, the conservation architect May Al-Ibrashy, and the artist-activist Jasmina Metwaly, of the Mosireen collective, the topic seemed already stale, the debates too cautious, and the tendency too easy to make scapegoats of foreign curators—who do not, in the end, make their good or bad exhibitions alone.

After the symposium, I met the photographer Osama Dawod and we jumped in a cab, crossed a set of train tracks on foot, and then hopped in a tok-tok, which brought us deep into Ard El-Lewa, a sprawling informal settlement (i.e., slum) on former farmland in western Cairo. There, the artist Asunción Molinos Gordo had opened a restaurant in a gallery that was equal parts installation and performance. On issues of food security and agricultural sovereignty, the piece was a revelation, and is constantly evolving over the course of its four-week run (from haute cuisine to street food to trash before returning to the soil itself).

As I left the neighborhood and made my way to the art space in Agouza known as Beirut—where the curators Sarah Rifky and Jens Maier-Rothe were hosting a reception for Photo Cairo 5—I remembered something Hassan Khan had said. “I think a lot of the younger artists here are way beyond this point of exploiting the revolution or not. There’s something healthy about the work that’s being done by the people who lived through this thing. I’m not worried,” he said. “Really I’m not.”

Left: Artist and CIC cofounder Heba Farid with curator Beth Stryker. Right: CIC finance manager Mohammed Abdallah.

Left: Artist Huda Lutfi. Right: Curator Aleya Hamza.