Cairobserver.com is a media partner in this year’s D-CAF. During the festival several posts will appear on the blog covering some of its venues and events.
The building known as La Viennoise, standing at the corner of Mahmoud Bassiouny and Champollion Streets in downtown, has become a sort of an alternative art institution for over a decade. It is difficult to construct a complete history of the building, as for many others around the city, without access to municipal records and in the absence of a proper institution concerned with archiving and documenting the history of Cairo. Nonetheless there are bits and pieces of information that can begin to help us understand the origins of this property.
La Viennoise was built in the 1890s; a decade, which witnessed a construction boom in Cairo, particularly in what became today’s downtown area. According to the website of al-Ismaelia, the building’s current owner, it was commissioned by an Englishman. Based on the building’s design and façade details and on the fact that it was built during that particular period, it appears as though its architect was most likely French. Behind the eclectic neo-classical/neo-Renaissance façade of the corner building are three stories of high-ceiling apartments with generous spaces fit for high-end turn of the century downtown Cairo lifestyle. The building has two entrances, one on each of the streets it overlooks, each entrance leads to a stairwell with elevator and each floor is flanked by two apartments.
The layers of over a century of life are visible throughout this structure thick with memory and traces of its many lives, a true urban palimpsest.
La Viennoise is the host space to some of this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival’s events, namely Bill Cowie’s “Art of Movement,” video above, “a 30 minute dance work choreographed by Billy Cowie incorporating live and virtual 3d dancers.” The piece premiered at the Kyoto Experiment in September 2013. The building was also the location for a workshop by the Baladi Lab, part of their “Take a coffee with your heritage” series of meetings.
In addition to hosting art events as part of D-CAF, La Viennoise has been the site of other iconic art exhibitions and experiments in recent years, but how did it all start?
Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
[Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, El Nitaq Festival, Cairo, Egypt. 2001. Copyright Lara Baladi]
The first art event in La Viennoise took place in 2001 as part of al-Nitaq Art Festival when artist Lara Baladi welcomed the pubic to view her photographic installations, which were shot and shown in La Viennoise.
Baladi’s family owned the building at the time, it was inherited by five sisters from their Lebanese-Egyptian businessman father, who purchased it in the 1940s. During the period of nationalization the Egyptian government confiscated the property. It was only during Sadat’s mandate that it was returned to them. After years of lawsuits, the five daughters, in their 80s then, were able to get back, amongst other parts of the building, an entire floor, until then occupied by a hotel, the Pension Viennoise. Some of the other apartments in the building, as well as the shops, were rented by the state to tenants from the time when it was confiscated. Further lawsuits were necessary to get those individual tenants out. By the early 90s many of the lawsuits were settled and most of the building, except for the shops, was in the hands of the five daughters of Abdallah Mirshak, Baladi’s great grandfather. Thus, her choice of the building as the site and object of her installation was not ad hock. When she searched for a location to execute her Sandouk El Dounia (the world in a box) “La Viennoise was not a priori ideal, although it turned out to be, but it was accessible.”
Baladi shot and exhibited her photographic project in La Viennoise. The artist asserts, “The ‘box’ was in fact La Viennoise. My work was both the space and in the space.” The main piece was a large-scale collage upon which the viewer would stumble after losing oneself and strolling about the corridors. The collage was installed in a green room that was once one of the bedrooms in the pension. Sandouk El Dounia intentionally blurred the boundary between the space, the artworks that were exhibited, the photographs that composed the collage and the art happening orchestrated by the artist in the space on the opening day. The space was transformed into a world of its own, a backstage of an archetypal city in which unfolded a theatrically staged morality tale. Baladi arranged a mise-en-scène that involved the visual artworks mixed with the characters photographed in the space walking around and performing the photographed characters, amid the spectators. While people ambulated through the spaces and bats were flying above their heads, a street seller, who Baladi had agreed with to participate to the opening, distributed inflatable pink plastic rabbits (one of the character’s accessory), offering them a trace of the world Baladi set up in the box of La Viennoise.
This artistic intervention initiated La Viennoise as a unique space for art and exhibition. La Viennoise was and remains everything the white cube gallery space is not.
Baladi’s family offered the Townhouse the space for more exhibitions. The Townhouse Gallery managed the space for eight years when it was used for various exhibitions such as those during the two Nitaq Festivals. Nitaq Festival opened the door for artists to explore downtown Cairo as a space for reflection and artistic creation. In that period of extensive art production in the Cairo art scene, the Townhouse played an bigger role than it had until then by encouraging increased artistic production and artistic collaboration.
About Nitaq, Negar Azimi wrote: “An initiative of three independent galleries (Karim Francis, Mashrabia and the Townhouse), the downtown arts festival was unprecedented in the degree of excitement it created in the city, and importantly, the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an “off” version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.”
Artistic interaction with particular downtown spaces such as Baladi’s Sandouk El Dounia opened the door for artists and galleries to investigate the potential of creating art with and about Cairo’s spaces, exploring different vocabularies and mediums in ways that actively engage with specific sites in the city.
In 2001 Karim Shafei rediscovered downtown Cairo because of the Nitaq festival. Lara Baladi’s show at La Viennoise drew Shafei’s attention to the building and the urban heritage it belongs to. The neglected, dusty and decaying condition of La Viennoise’s grand interiors inspired the conception of al-Ismaelia, a real estate venture aiming to dust off properties such as La Viennoise, many of them abandoned or underutilized with little or no impact on the local economy. Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate and Development acquired the building in 2008 and has since managed it. While the company envisions refurbishing the property in a way that preserves the architecture and interiors, the scale of the building and of its rooms limits possible options for adaptive reuse. Because La Viennoise is a listed heritage building its transformation must follow strict guidelines. Given the particular grandeur of this property it will most likely be reincarnated as a nostalgic boutique hotel. However, there are no concrete plans for such a renovation and in the meantime the company has continued to open the doors of La Viennoise as a space for alternative artistic adventures.
Since its acquisition by al-Ismaelia La Viennoise has hosted several acclaimed exhibitions such as the Cairo Documenta exhibitions in 2010 and 2012. More recently the building was the home of the exhibition Studio Viennoise, a “tribute to the history of studio photographic practice in Egypt” which ran from 14 November to 16 December 2012. And in 2013, a “Museum to the Revolution” was set up in La Viennoise as part of an exhibition titled “Horreya/Kharya,” a word play on “freedom” and “shit” which in Arabic are distinguished by a dot.
While these recent exhibitions and performances such as Bill Cowie’s “Art in Movement” keep La Viennoise an active artistic space, what’s next? What is to be learned from Cairo’s singular experiment with art in abandoned/decaying architecture? Cairo is awash with other similar structures in a variety of locations, from Helwan’s abandoned mansions, to Bulaq’s unused industrial warehouses. Rather than becoming laboratories for artistic production while they await their fate to be determined, by the market or other forces, these buildings remain empty and inaccessible. While many such structures are in private ownership, many others are state-owned. Could the Cairo municipality learn from the experiment at La Viennoise and develop a strategy to open abandoned and underutilized historic structures to artists to activate them and bring attention to them? On the other hand, have artists working in Cairo approached such structures as generative elements contributing to the artistic process rather than simply treat them as new venues to show the same art that would have been shown in a white-walled gallery? Is there another fate for decaying buildings in Cairo?
Note: Thanks to Lara Baladi for her generosity and for sharing her work on Cairobserver.com