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Off biennale: Cairo’s independent art scene grows

This December, Cairo is hosting more than 15 art exhibitions alongside the 12th International Cairo Biennale. In addition to established independent art spaces–such as the Townhouse Gallery, Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), Espace Karim Francis and Mashrabeya–that have turned Cairo’s downtown area into an arts hub, newcomers, including Artellewa, Darb 1718 and Medrar for Contemporary Art, will also contribute exhibitions.

Cairo Documenta, a group exhibition opening tonight at downtown’s Viennoise Hotel, is organized by the 26 participating artists with minimal institutional support. Aleya Hamza, of the hamzamolnar Curatorial Collective, sees this as a reflection of the increasing decentralization of Cairo’s independent art scene. Rana al-Nemr, Maha Ma’moun and Doa Aly, who have all shared a studio in recent years, present a diverse program of talks and panel discussions. Medrar, an artistic initiative founded by Mohamed Allam and Mohamed Abdelkarim, has grown into a sustainable institution with a diverse program of workshops and talks. Medrar also started Cairo’s first Video Festival, which has been running annually since 2005.

The trend of organizing shows on the periphery of the official biennale began in January 2000 with the launch of the first Nitaq Festival, a co-curated program that showcased exhibitions, concerts, plays and film screenings across various downtown spaces. Despite criticism from the government, the festival was lauded for promoting a group of young Egyptian artists working with new media who might have been sidelined by the biennale. Capitalizing on the international artists, curators and critics, who visit Cairo for the biennale, such events were successful at a time when the Egyptian contemporary art scene received little international attention.

PhotoCairo followed suit in 2002. This time, the show focused on a specific niche, seeking to bring attention to the photographic medium's potential as a tool for self-expression. In 2008, with its fourth edition, entitled 'PhotoCairo4: The Long Short Cut,' the show expanded to include video art, comic book illustrations and experimental publications. These shows were often accompanied by talks and panel discussions.

Because they coincide with the official biennale, these shows are often billed as "alternative" events, further polarizing the art scene between the “establishment” and the “independent” arena. Such a binary framework is reductive, explains Townhouse Gallery Director William Wells, as it interprets the activities of the independent art scene as a mere reaction to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. Hamza, who co-curated PhotoCairo 4 along with Edit Molnar, has purposefully postponed the 5th edition of PhotoCairo until mid-2011 to avoid such an interpretation.

Fortunately, this binary framework no longer holds. Lebanese-Egyptian artist Lara Baladi, long associated with the independent art scene, won the grand prize at the 11th edition of the Cairo Biennale in 2008 for her piece "Tower of Hope." Over the past few years, government spaces have been inviting artists such as Wael Shawky, Huda Lutfi, Khaled Hafez and Amal Kenawy with increasing frequency to participate in their exhibitions. And yesterday, Kenawy won the grand prize at the 12th International Cairo Biennale for her video installation piece "The Silence of the Lambs."

With the independent scene overlapping with–and even benefiting from–the influx of art connoisseurs into the city for the biennale, the Cairo art scene as a whole has shown itself to be more smart than polarized.

The hope of garnering greater international visibility represents a major reason why openings are often scheduled to coincide with the biennale.

This year, success in these terms for local artists faces a new challenge as Doha, Qatar positions itself as the arts capital of the Arab world. On 14 December, before opening to the public later this month, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha will host a preview. With a massive budget and an impressive collection of modern Arab art, the museum is able to attract prominent artists, curators, critics and journalists from around the world, including several Egyptian gallerists and artists.

But those on the ground in Cairo have nevertheless adopted new initiatives. One interesting project hoping to make the local art scene more accessible is the Cairo Art Map (CAM), a publication put together by Egyptian artist Hamdy Reda, founder and director of the Artellewa art space, to publicize exhibitions opening in December. Nine art spaces agreed to be part of the map, for which they contributed LE500 for production and printing. The CAM is now being distributed at various art spaces in Cairo, including those hosting the biennale.

CAM is an excellent example of collaboration, yet there is still a need for more coordination between local art establishments in order for the peripheral shows to succeed. Some artists, for example, are being shown at more than one space simultaneously. Khaled Hafez, who is exhibiting at the biennale, is also participating in the Cairo Praxis exhibition at the Cairo Atelieur and the Edge Sentiments show at Masar gallery. Hany Rashed, meanwhile, is having his solo exhibition, "Beware of the Chili," at the Mashrabeya Gallery, while also participating in a group show entitled, "Fames: Family Vaudeville at Darb 1718." Mohamed Allam, for his part, is participating in Cairo Documenta at the Viennoise Hotel and in AUC’s "A Survival Guide."

Such diversification may seem positive, but such a policy–which poses the risk of prioritizing quantity over quality–is not always in the best interest of those involved. According to Wells, this kind of overkill is more characteristic of art fairs than biennales. Furthermore, the artwork can be jeopardized due to the lack of sufficient supporting infrastructure–such as curators, critics and writers–who work with artists on developing their work, adds Wells.

Despite existing limitations, the December exhibitions remain promising. They seem to create an organically constructed festival, which would help encourage local audiences to further engage with the work, as it makes them feel part of something bigger, explains Egyptian artist Mohamed Allam. The exhibitions also allow artists, curators and the general public to get an overview of the contemporary Egyptian art scene within a few weeks, explains Hamza, and makes it easier to delineate the prevailing themes, media and discourses.

Exciting as these months may be, concerns remain about the Cairo art scene over the rest of the year, when the pressures and opportunities associated with the biennale inevitably fade. Whether or not the momentum of artistic production achieved during the biennale translates into sustained excitement and support of Cairo’s dynamic art scene, both independent and establishment, remains to be seen.

Cairo art events in December 2010:

Stories of the Photographs by Marwa Seoudi: Old and new photographs as well as written or recorded stories collected by the artist from the residents of el-Faggala.
Opened: 3 December, 2010
Venue: Jesuit School, 15 al-Maharny Street, al-Fagalla

About Spaces: Systematic Objects and Issues of Reduction, a solo exhibition of the work of Egyptian artist Hazem el-Mistikawy. It tackles the socio-political question of North-South, East-West, Orient-Oxcident, and investigates the spaces between.
Opened: 5 December, 2010
Venue: Karim Francis Contemporary Art Gallery

A Survival Guide Art Exhibition. A collaboration between young and rising artists based in Cairo who experimented with the concept of defense mechanisms developed to confront the cumulative risk and constant pressures of the hectic mega-city.
Opened: 9 December, 2010
Venue: Sharjah Art Gallery, AUC New Cairo

Edge Sentiments presents work by Hamdi Attia, Khaled Hafez, Haytham Nawar, Mohamed Radwan and Karim al-Qurity showcasing the practices of five contemporary Egyptian artists currently living and working in Cairo. The title of the exhibition, Edge Sentiments, is inspired by Lila Abu Lughod’s book "Veiled Sentiments," in which the author observes and documents how people express certain personal feelings in subtle manners through folk chant, scriptures or short poems, exploring and questioning along the way the relationship between the Bedouin poetic discourse and the discourse of ordinary social life.
Opened: 11 December, 2010
Venue: Al Masar Gallery for Contemporary Art, 157 b, Baehler’s Mansions, 26th July St, Ground floor, side entrance, Zamalek

Cairo Praxis Urban Aesthetic, Street Alphabet and Other Codes includes work by Wael Darwish, Ramy Dozy, Waleed Fathy, Khaled Hafez, Ibrahim Khattab, Amr Mounib, Mohamed el-Masry and Ahmed el-Shaer.
Opened:  11 December, 2010
Venue: The Cairo Atelieur

The 12th International Cairo Biennale opened with the theme "The Diversity of All and Everything Possible" at the Cairo Opera House grounds, exhibiting the work of 80 artists from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Two satellite exhibitions under the titles Contemporary Egyptian Photography and Arab Artists in Diaspora are also curated by the biennale committee.
Opened: 12 December, 2010
Multiple venues

The Photographic Memory of Egypt (PME)’s exhibition, "Reading History: A Glimpse into Egypt’s Photographic Heritage," seeks to introduce new ways of understanding photography and collections in Egypt.
Opening: 13 December, 2010
Venue: CULTNAT gallery and cafeteria

Untitled 3 (WAM): WORLD AGRICULTURE MUSEUM Part 1 (CAIRO), an exhibition by Spanish artist Asuncion Molinos Gordo and curated by the Townhouse gallery, borrows the legacy of the Egyptian Agricultural Museum to propose an alternative look at the current agricultural condition.

Opening: 13 December, 2010
Venue: Townhouse Gallery
22 Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street, Downtown

Myths & Legends Room; First Story: the Mount of Forgetfulness by Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy, which refers to al-Mokattam hill in Cairo, seeks to shed light on stories that are in danger of dying out.
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: The Townhouse gallery’s factory space

In Refuge: Five Cities Portfolio, from Rotterdam-based photographer, Bas Princen, presents a photographic survey of critical sites of urban change in five cities: Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, and Dubai.
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: The Townhouse gallery’s first floor,

Open Lab Egypt, curated by Medrar for Contemporary Art, is an exhibition based on a series of workshops organized by Medrar and Hangar to promote the use of Open Source (FLOSS) tools for digital creation. The participating artists are Ahmed El Azma, Emma Bennany, Ahmed Ezz, Dalia Hassan, Nork Zakarian, Mohamed Mansour and Wensh.
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 20:30
Venue: The Viennoise Hotel in downtown Cairo.

Fames: Family Vaudeville is a group show with an opening night performance by Hannu Raisa (Nasty Puppets in Cairo Finland); Ahmed Bassiouny (Electronic music performance); Tobias Bernstrup. The show is co-curated by Power Ekrot, Juan Pedro and Fabra Guemberena. Participaying artists include Nermine el-Ansari (Egypt), Lotta Antonson (Sweden), Ahmed Basouni (Sweden), Tobias Bernstrup (Sweden), Nabil Boutrous (Egypt), Loulou Cherinet (Sweden, Ethiopia), Juan Pedro and Fabra Guemberena (Uraguay, Sweden), Khaled Hafez (Egypt), Bjorn Kowalski Hansen (Norway), Goran Hassanpour (Sweden), Carl-Michael von Hausswolff (Sweden), Sabah Naim (Egypt), Motaz Nasr (Egypt), Hany Rached (Egypt), Hannu Raisa in collaboration with Amira Eid (Finland, Egypt), Egill Saebjornsson (Iceland)
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: Darb 1718

Hany Rashed’s new solo exhibition Beware of the Chili, includes paintings inspired by advertisements, cartoons, video animation, pop surrealism, urban and street art.
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art, 8, Champollion Street, Downtown

Cairo Documenta: Visual Arts Exhibition in Downtown Cairo is the initiative of a group of young artists to organize an exhibition not supported or organized by any foundation or association. Participating artists include Ibrahim Saad, Asmaa Elkolaly, Hend Elkolaly,  Ahmed Kamel, Amr Ali, Ola Saad, Ahmed Basiony, Marwa Elshazly, Mohamed Allam, Ahmed Sabry, Ahmed El Shaer, Magdi Mostafa, Mahmoud Hallwy, Amr Elkafrawy, Sarah Samy, Ahmed Talal, Mahmoud Hamdi, Ganzeer, Mohamed Abdelkarim,  Jasmina Metwaly, Kareem Lotfy, Ahmed Nagy, Marwan Fayed, Ahmed Badry, Hossam Hodhod.
Opening: 13 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: The Viennoise Hotel

When Meanings Face Glossy Surfaces, a solo exhibition by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled, curated by Aleya Hamza, brings together five artworks produced in the last three years: The Studio as a Work of Art (2010), Google Me / Duplicate Self-portrait (2010), Niche (2009-10), Safety Zoom (2008-9) and This Show is my Business (2008).
Opening: 15December, 2010 at 19:00.
Venue: The Contemporary Image Collective
4th Floor, 22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat, Downtown

The One and the Multiple is an exhibition born from residency exchanges between institutions in Spain and Egypt during 2008 and 2009.  It seeks to deconstruct cultural and artistic preconceptions, showing the unity of the Mediterranean and the individual diversity of its artists. The inauguration will feature concerts in the street by participating artists Nork Zakarian and Magdi Mostafa, as well as a session by Sylvie Astié, a.k.a DJ Saasci , from France and a 4 piece Sudanese band, Al Wazza. The participating artists are Alvaro Sau, Hamdy Reda, Sameh Ismael, LaFundició, Magdy Mostafa, Mahmoud Khaled, Nork Zakarian, Pablo De Soto, Shady El Noshokaty, Tarek Hefny, Vahida Ramujkic, Wensh.
Opening: 14 December, 2010 at 20:00
Venue: artellewa + noshokaty foundation. 19 Mohamed Aly El Eseary – Ard El Lewa, Gizah, Egypt

Futuropolis, curated by Paul Ayoub-Geday, is a group exhibition attempting to reflect on the future city as it is being decided today from a Cairene perspective. The participating artists are Ahmed Nosseir, Alessandra Respini, Anne du Boistellin, Frederick Mouillé, Heba Farid, Maie Yanni, Nermine El-Ansari, Paul Ayoub-Geday, Tarek Hefny, Tarek Ma'amoun, Xavier Puigmarti, Xenia Nikolskaia.
Opening: 14 December, 2010
Venue: Saad Zaghloul Cultural Center
2 Saad Zagloul St., beside the mausoleum and the metro station, Mounira

Halawa, a video installation by Amanda Kerdahi Matt, explores halawa as an object and its use in hair removal.
Opening: 15 December, 2010 at 19:00
Venue: AKM Studios
19 Amin Samy street, off Kasr al-Aini St, Al-Mounira

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