Posts tagged downtown

La Viennoise Hotel: Art From Sandouk El Dounia to DCAF

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.

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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

Kafein: Global coffee culture fused with the taste of Cairo

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To the pleasure of many seeking a delicious coffee downtown in a friendly and laid-back space, Kafein is a new café that is quickly becoming a meeting point for friends like it has been there for years. Dina and Nadia, the entrepreneurs behind the new venture, are clearly doing something right. Cairobserver sent them some questions to introduce us to Kafein and the concept behind it. Make sure to stop by Kafein, where not only can you consume delicious coffees and tees but also read the latest Cairobserver print magazine. Visit Kafein’s Facebook page and “like” it to stay connected.

Kafein is located at 28 Sharif Street in the pedestrian alley behind McDonald’s

Tell us about Kafein, what is the concept, where is it, what’s on offer

Kafein is brand new café/gallery space in Downtown; actually it is technically located in Abdeen. We serve a wide selection of artisan coffees and premium loose-leaf teas, seasonal juices, and will soon have a small selection of tasty sandwiches and treats on our menu. The walls of Kafein also serve as a gallery space for local artists to exhibit their works. Our vision is to add a new element to the café scene in Cairo—a particular seriousness about caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages paired with a commitment to creating an atmosphere that inspires thinking, creativity, new friendships, and dreams. The concept behind the space is to really fuse global coffee and tea culture with the spirit and tastes of Cairo.

How does it fit in Cairo’s café culture?

Cairo’s café culture is very rich and diverse; there are literally cafés in every nook of this city. As café frequenters, we tend to avoid or actually boycott the chains for political reasons. On the other hand, we regularly go to particular ahwas in our neighborhood in Abdeen as well as more up-scale cafés in Zamalek and occasionally other areas of Cairo. As customers, we were frustrated by the lack of cafés in Downtown, the absence of affordable and good quality spots in general, and the gap between ahwas and the overpriced joints in Zamalek and other areas.

The politics of Kafein are informed by our personal likes and dislikes with Cairo’s café culture. Kafein is also a burgeoning art gallery, which we think is important in order to enhance the visceral experience of being in the space as well as to have art be part of one’s mundane activities, such as grabbing a coffee. Our first exhibition, “The Visual Meal,” was curated by Art On The Go and featured works by Menna Genedy, Amal Salah, and Amy Arif, who also helped in many stages of the café’s preparation.

Egyptian ahwas are both an inspiration for the design of Kafein and helped to inform our decisions about our menu. By using several items from the Egyptian vernacular in a modern composition, we aimed to create an atmosphere that is simple, oddly familiar, and a little quirky. We thus combined unstained wood, recycled steel chairs, water pipes, tawate2, wedding-like strings of lights with labeled jars of tea and coffee, hand-stamped paper items, chalk-board menus, etc..

In terms of the menu, Egypt has so many herbs that it grows itself such as chamomile, hibiscus, sage, anis, lemon grass, mint, etc.. You find some of these items in their loose form at ahwas and some cafés sell tea-bag versions. While we have imported a range of hand-blended artisan black, green, and herbal teas, it was important for us to also feature these local products. For example, we serve al-‘aroosa tea in an enamel-painted teapot from Aswan with dried mint from Siwa. We also offer what could be considered the summer drink of New York City—cold-brew iced coffee.

The other way in which we are trying to break the boundaries between ahwas and cafés is in terms of accessibility. We want Kafein to be a space that anyone can go to; this was a priority when we set our prices. While we understand that not everyone can afford to pay five pounds for a cup of tea, we hope that having regular ahwa items such as tea and Turkish coffee at the same prices as neighboring spots will help to make the space more inclusive. We are also really excited about the fact that people who do not normally come to Downtown are making the trip to sit at Kafein, and thus our space is actually bringing people to this area.

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Kafein has a sister establishment nearby, Dina’s Hostel, how did you go from the hostel to the café?

Dina opened Dina’s Hostel in December of 2009, since then the hostel flourished, starting with four rooms and growing to eighteen. Due to the political unrest in the country, however, tourism has suffered; thus we decided to create a new business. More significantly, however, we wanted to create a space that we felt was sorely missed in Downtown. Kafein is in many ways an extension of the philosophy of Dina’s Hostel Art Space, which is founded on the belief that we need more spaces in Downtown and elsewhere for people to gather.

Why did you choose to open your café in downtown over other parts of the city?

We come from two very different places. Dina is from Alexandria and Nadia is from New York. For the past four years Abdeen has been a home to both of us. Thus we both had the feeling that we wanted to create a particular kind of space in our own neighborhood. Downtown of course has its own historic establishments in addition to the ever expanding cafés in the streets surrounding the Borsa. Yet investors and business women and men alike seem to be flocking to more residential and more affluent places like Zamalek, Maadi, and newer areas outside of Cairo in 6th of October and New Cairo. As entrepreneurs, however, we wanted to create a space to bring people once again to Downtown.

This space is a labor of love, how did you go about the design, the branding and all the elements that make up Kafein

The initial inspiration for the design was to mix different elements of particular New York City cafés and Egyptian ahwas, both spaces we are intimately familiar with and love. Using this as a starting point, we began to design the space, menu, and concept of Kafein. All of our friends helped with their expertise. We are especially indebted to the very talented Valerie Arif who brilliantly designed our logo and worked with us in creating the identity of Kafein. And to Angela Smith who offered her expertise in Australian cafés to help us to create and standardize the drink menu for Kafein. It’s a new place, so we are still actually creating the brand and developing its own distinctiveness. Prior to opening our doors and during this “soft opening” period we have received so much great feedback and assistance from family, friends, guests, and passerby’s, and we are extremely grateful for everyone’s generosity and support.

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What was the most challenging aspect of getting the place up and running?

Instead of using a contractor or engineer, we did all of the construction work on our own with individual craftsmen and laborers. In hindsight dealing directly with laborers is extraordinarily difficult. Further, while we have familiarity with the field of hospitality, this is a very new business for both of us and there is a huge learning curve. From small decisions about what size and shape cup a latte should be served in and whether a cappuccino should have chocolate powder on the top to learning how to train and manage café staff in order to offer the quality of service that we envision, we have our hands full. It’s an ongoing process and we are still working out the kinks.

Why do you think young people haven’t been able to translate their creative energies into more spaces such as Kafein? Is it the finances? Red tape?

There are probably hundreds of reasons why one would not want to open a business such as Kafein. If we were to specifically speak about “Downtown,” there is a great deal of stereotypes about what you can and cannot do or what would work in terms of particular types of businesses in this area. While some people, including guests, have commented that Kafein is out of place, we think it’s actually in the perfect space. When we took the place we did not do the classical business plan and research the location, calculate a forecasted profit, hire consultants, etc.. We saw potential in this old-clothing shop and decided to go for it. Our neighbors are mostly men’s clothing shops with interesting-styled displays that are irregularly frequented since Shawarby Street is no longer the shopping center that it once was. In some senses it makes sense not to put a café/gallery in the midst of such shops, but we rather like the idea that Kafein is in the middle of all of this. Each day we have pedestrians stare at the café and the guests sitting in our open-air space. Shouting out and telling them that they are welcome, “etfadalou,” however, breaks down the initial shock from the unfamiliarity of the space and actually changes their entire interaction with it. This interface and the slight discomfort accompanied by the meeting of spaces and people is actually a bit exciting.

What are your plans for the future?

We are actually currently working on opening up a second branch in Zamalek. We did not intend to open two cafés, but by chance we found an amazing spot in Zamalek that could not be left. The space there is a bit larger and we will have a descent-sized kitchen, which will allow us to have a full food menu beside the beverage one. We know that Zamalek is overburdened with cafés so we are designing the space to be both a café and a particular type of cultural center. We also hope to be producing more of our own products such as bakery goods and juices in the near future. For Downtown, we are looking forward to our upcoming art exhibitions and a continued engagement with our community.

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Hassan Khan Exhibition and Kodak Passage

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.

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A historical perspective and urban context*

Pedestrian passageways are a prominent feature of downtown Cairo, having been influenced by the Parisian arcades of late nineteenth century.  Today many of these passageways and gaps between buildings have been transformed into back alleyways, housing multiple activities and uses that are often invisible from the street. Coffee-shops and bars, restaurants and food-stands, crafts and small workshops, mosques and prayer corners, stationary shops and bookstores, galleries and antique stores have taken up occupation, while many passageways remain closed, uninhabited or dilapidated.

Kodak Passage is both an exemplary and exceptional space. What used to be a narrow dead-end service alleyway between Adly and Abdel Khaliq Tharwat Streets, through a 1920s art deco ensemble (now owned and managed by al-Ismaelia), was turned into a pedestrian passage as part of a larger experiment of pedestrianized zones Downtown during the 1990s. Kodak store, labs and garage/warehouse used to occupy the western flank of the passage, while Café de Brasil occupied the central bay of the eastern side, and remains today, though shuttered.  Surrounded by a number of emerging art, film and design spaces (CIC, Cimatheque, and CLUSTER), the passage was identified by CLUSTER as a rare opportunity to introduce to this end of Downtown a pop-up gallery space, and to engage art interventions that may serve as a catalyst for urban development and revitalization of surrounding buildings, shops and passageways.

The current exhibition space occupies four different storefronts along the western side of Kodak Passage, ranging in their size, clear height and physical conditions. Setting up these spaces required major architectural renovation and upgrade of the infrastructure, in addition to installing the necessary exhibition walls, lighting system and other audio-visual elements. The exhibition curation, design and architectural renovation were undertaken by CLUSTER and the project was produced by Orient Productions and Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). The two-month long renovations included the input of different national and international installation crews, as well as direct input from the artist. The Hassan Khan exhibition was designed and curated by CLUSTER to present a procession of exhibition spaces, interjecting the artist’s ouevre amidst the public and pedestrian activities of the arcade.

Hassan Khan exhibition opening: March 30, 6pm

Exhibition schedule: March 30 - April 26, 12pm – 8pm

Koday Passageway, 20 Adly Street, Downtown Cairo

For more information: http://d-caf.org/event/category/visual-arts

The Hassan Khan exhibition is part of this year’s D-CAF Festival. D-CAF has over the past two years worked diligently to reinvent public space, changing perceptions, and as a result drawing in the public for a renewed interaction.

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*Text and Photos courtesy of CLUSTER

Zawya: a downtown screen for arthouse cinema

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.

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Zawya is a brand new screen in downtown bringing an exciting program of films that would not be showing at the city’s commercial multiplexes. This year Zawya is also a venue for some screenings that are part of Downtown Contemporary Art Festival’s program. The screen is located in the back of Cinema Odeon off Talaat Harb Street. Look out for the entrance with colorful zigzag lines superimposed with neon lights depicting Zawya’s beautiful logo designed by Valerie Arif. The entrance and lobby were given a makeover designed by Yazaan El-Zo’bi. Cairobserver sent Youssef Shazli from Misr International Films some questions to get a sense of what the Zawya space is about and how it fits within the city’s cultural landscape. 

Tell us about the concept of Zawya, how did it start and what is it about.

The idea was there a long time ago but the execution started roughly a year ago. Marianne Khoury’s dream was to have a permanent space to screen alternative films all year long. A lot of people might not know but there was a first attempt a few years ago called Cinemania in City Stars. It was basically the same idea but wasn’t very successful. Maybe the timing wasn’t right, neither the location. But with 6 successful editions of the Panorama, we felt like it was finally time to give it another try. The idea was to have a permanent space operating all year long that screens films that do not have access to the commercial market. The goal is simply to have these films seen on the big screen and to encourage people to start going to the movies again. We started with one screen - Cinema Odeon - but are hoping to expand in the future and have many Zawyas across the country.

Tangier has had a great success with Cinematheque de Tanger, is it on your radar at all as a reference or is Zawya trying to establish a different model?

I don’t know much about Cinematheque de Tangers to be honest. But from the little I know I’d say we have a slightly different model. We are just a cinema with the sole purpose of having films screened whereas cinematheques in general are multipurpose spaces and offer other services related to the cinema. I’d say maybe that what Cimatheque is doing in Cairo is closer to that.

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How did you end up in Cinema Odeon and how does Zawya as an initiative tie into the cinema’s regular program/space

When we decided to really make this happen, the first step was to find the right space for it. We felt that it was very important for us to be based Downtown, at least in the beginning. The first venue that came to mind was Cinema Odeon. When I went to re-visit the space, I immediately saw the potential. The fact that we could have our own space, cafeteria, ticket booth and entrance/exit was a great plus. So we tried convincing the owners to give it a shot and it worked. We did a few renovations and tried to create an atmosphere that could go well with the nature of the project. We also tried to make it look like there aren’t two other screens operating on the other side. In terms of programming, our screen acts independently from the two others. We have our own program and they have theirs. 

Tell us more about the physical space in the cinema run by Zawya 

The space we are using was completely untouched for years. It was supposed to act as the cinema’s secondary cafeteria but was not running. The entrance/exit doors we are using were originally the cinema’s emergency exits but were locked for years. As I said, we did some minor renovations to change the general feel of the space. But there were a lot of constraints (financial) but also because we do not own the cinema and there are things that we weren’t allowed to change. The theater we run has a capacity of 170 seats, which is decent. Bigger theaters can be intimidating sometimes.

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Zawya comes to downtown at a time of increased cultural activity, you’re already partnering with several others such as D-CAF.. How does Zawya fit within downtown’s transforming arts and culture landscape and what future plans or ideas for further collaborations do you have

We are trying to partner up with as many spaces/institutions/initiatives/groups as we can. D-CAF came at a great time and will hopefully be the beginning of a long term partnership. As much as downtown spaces have been contributing significantly to the theater, visual art and music scene, we hope that Zawya can do the same for the film scene. Aside from our own program, our theater can serve as a venue for many others, which is something very much part of our plan. We are also working closely with similar initiatives such as Cimatheque who are planning to open soon.

Downtown has many unused cinemas, particularly the Emad Eddin area; do you think alternative programming could be one way to salvage these unused historic structures?

It might be too early to answer this question. I’d wait and see how it goes in Cinema Odeon before reaching any conclusions. But what is sure is that as opposed to multiplexes, some of these old cinemas are beautiful (as opposed to Odeon which was renovated in the 90s) and would serve as great venues for arthouse cinema. The problem is that it would be very costly to renovate and equip these theaters with the latest digital technology.

Tell us about the program for the coming period, what should we expect this year?

The program is basically split in two: we have the theatrical releases, which is the main bulk of our program. It basically means that films are screened on a regular basis for a minimum of a week and a maximum of three weeks (depending on the box office) as regular cinemas operate. The second part of the program is dedicated to special screenings/events. These would normally see film screened once or twice and are usually followed by a discussion or a Q&A session. We also have our Education & Cinema program, which encourages schools and universities to attend our screenings and adopts a more pedagogical approach (workshops and masterclasses are always an option). We are trying to create a balance between local/Arab and international films. We are also planning for 2 or 3 big events, which we are very excited about.

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To learn more about Zawya visit the site of Misr International Film and “Like” Zawya’s Facebook page to stay connected.

Urban Visions program brings contemporary dance to the streets

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.

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PRESS RELEASE

23.3.2014

Consistently one of D-CAF’s most popular programs, Urban Visions returns this year, bringing new choreography to public spaces in Downtown Cairo and Alexandria. Working to increase the visibility and appeal of contemporary dance in Egypt, the program aims to engage the general public by placing contemporary art within an everyday urban landscape. Unsuspecting passersby become curious audience members, who are presented with work that challenge their ideas of what contemporary art is, and where it fits in our modern lives.

The program kicks off this year with a performance choreographed by Egyptian dance studio Ezzat Ezzat. Invisible Boundaries toys with the idea of a third dimension, and deals with the abstract, literally invisible boundaries that we confine ourselves to, or sometimes create for ourselves.

Back for the second consecutive year, Dutch duo The100Hands have created a new, site-specific piece, Running Nucleus, which deals with the concept of resilience and looks at communities, connection, and dependency. The piece will be performed along with Egyptian dancers, who have been rehearsing with The100Hands during the weeks prior to the festival.

Dealing with the intricacies of love, Remind Me, Choreographed by Lotte Sigh (Denmark) expresses the humanity, brutality, and tenderness of the relationship between a man and a woman. The piece features two dancers, and premiered in 2008 at Dansecenen in Copenhagan.

A more complex performance follows, with Ex Nihilo’s Mashy (France), about a group of men and women who become involved in a game of challenges, pulling in passersby who become part of the performance. The show is a co-production of Ex Nihilo and Nassim El Raqs, and has been created with the cooperation of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC) and the Institut Francais Egypt as well as the Institut Franceais/Ville de Marsaeille.

The final piece of the program, an Egyptian- American collaboration titled I’ll Dance While You’re Dancing and We Will Have Danced Together,  uses handheld technology to allow the performers to respond to one another’s movements across time and space.

This year’s performances will take place in front the Egyptian stock exchange (Borsa), one of last year’s popular locations, as well as Alfy Bey street, and the American University in Cairo’s GrEEK campus on Mohammed Mahmoud street. For the first time this year, these performances will also travel to Alexandria, where they will be performed at the statue of Ismail, beside the Roman Theatre.

All performances will take place on several nights, allowing for more exposure of the general public to these works.

For more information on our programs, visit our press website, d-caf.org/press

Main website: D-caf.org

Facebook: Dcaf.egypt

Blog: D-caf.org/blog

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Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival: Press Release

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.

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Bringing in artists from all over the world, unearthing local and regional talent, and featuring six diverse programs, the third edition of the Downtown Contemporary arts Festival (D-CAF) promises to fill the three weeks between 20th March and 11th April with an eclectic selection of independent art events catering to all tastes.

A production of Studio Emad Eddin, D-CAF works to reinvigorate Downtown by bringing all genres of arts to its street corners, entering and revitalising spaces and venues that have been neglected for years, and acting as a catalyst for the creative energy increasingly emanating from this part of the city.

This year’s inaugural event will feature a screening of Salma El Tarzi’s film “Underground/On the Surface,” which shows glimpses of the lives of Shaabi Musicians on the rise, Okka and Ortega, followed by the first act of D-CAF’s music program, a performance by Dutch-South African duo Skip&Die.

The festival’s six programmes – Performing Arts, Music, Visual Arts, Film, Urban Visions, and Special Events, will feature world premieres, international collaborations, as well as a special visual arts survey show.

Curated by D-CAF’s artistic director, Ahmed El Attar, the Performing Arts segment of D-CAF 2014 brings dynamic international and locals performances to the Falaki Theatre and Hotel Viennoise, amongst other venues. These include the dance installation Art of Movement, which will prompt audiences to question their perceptions of reality and C’est du Chinois, a performance that challenges language barriers. Stemming from the region, It Happened Tomorrow by Syrian theatre company, Damascus Theater Lab (DTL) will show at Talee’a Small Theatre, while Violence Lointaine, directed by Omar Ghayatt (Egypt) will make its world premiere at Talee’a Large Theatre. Egyptian choreographer, Mohamed Shafik, will also present his piece An House Empty of Hospitality for the first time in the Arab world.

On the hunt for musicians who draw on different music structures and genres to create new sounds, D-CAF’s music curator, Mahmoud Refaat, has compiled a music programme that offers experimental, psychedelic, new pop and electro shaabi concerts. Kasr El Nil theatre, once a platform for such renowned singers as Umm Kulthoum, will host this year’s music program highlight, a concert by Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, followed by the sounds of vocalist Fayrouz Karawya and music producer Ismael, who will be debuting their new collaborative project. The theme of collaboration features heavily in this year’s music program, with a concert by London’s RINSE.FM and Cairo’s 100Copies, performing under the name ‘Cairo Calling.’

Internationally celebrated Hassan Khan dominates the Visual Arts programme this year, with a major survey of his work exhibited within the Kodak Passage on Adly Street, which underwent extensive renovations by CLUSTER in preparation for its debut as an exhibition space. Curated by Beth Stryker, the exhibited works range from the start of Khan’s career in the mid 90s until today. The exhibition, which opens on March 30, exemplifies what D-CAF strives to accomplish; bringing art into public spaces and, through that process, applying new perspective to the streets of Downtown Cairo.

The shorts film programmer at International Francophone Film Festival of Namur (Belgium), Hervé Le Phuez, will curate D-CAF’s 2014 film program; his selection of strictly francophone cinema, made up of five features and nine shorts, hail from a number of countries including Romania, Switzerland, Canada and Portugal.

Bringing site-specific dance performances to Downtown’s streets, the Urban Visions programme has been a unique, and highly successful, feature of D-CAF in past editions. This year, the festival welcomes back last year’s Dance duo, The100Hands (Netherlands) debuting their collaborative piece, Running Nucleus. D-CAF also happily welcomes contributors to the 2012 edition, Ex Nihilo (France) with their piece, Mashy. The programme will also feature the choreography of local talent, Ezzat Ismail, who will present his piece, Invisible Boundaries.  Taking place in front of El Borsa (the Egyptian Stock Exchange), on Alfy Bey Street and at the GrEEK Campus, most of these performances will also be presented in Alexandria. 

Finally, the Special Events programme offers a mash-up of events ranging from a concert by the French group, Jazz Nomads, titled La voix est libre, to a four part discussion series under the banner of Is Art Important? (Iraq/Syria).

In a bid to encourage local aspiring filmmakers, D-CAF’s smART Mobile Film Festival will showcase the culmination of a series of workshops held in four cities across Egypt, where participants produced one to three minute films. A selection of the best films will be screened in special booths around Downtown during the festival.

D-CAF’s final week will bring the focus back to regional artists. Dubbed ‘Middle East Focus’ the week spanning 3-7 April will feature Arab artists from all over the region with the purpose of showcasing regional talent in all its forms to international festival programmers, who have been invited to D-CAF expressly for this purpose.

On the brink of its third edition, D-CAF continues to engage with, and contribute to, the independent arts scene both locally and regionally, and for the three weeks of its duration, it will transform Downtown Cairo into a cultural buffet of visual art, music, dance, theatre, and film, waiting to be consumed by eager audiences.

You can find further information on D-CAF through our online platforms:

Main website: D-caf.org

Facebook: Dcaf.egypt

Blog: D-caf.org/blog

Twitter: @dcafFestival

Instagram: DCAFFEST

Lara El Gibaly

PR Officer

Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF)

20th March - 11th April 2014

Frank Lloyd Wright Visits Cairo

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[Frank Lloyd Wright accompanied by his wife at the time in the center of a group of architects and the head of the Architects Society, as well as the head of public buildings at the Ministry of Rural and Urban Affairs.]

In May 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright, 89 at the time, visited Cairo on his way back to the United States from Iraq where he spent a week. FLW was in Baghdad, the site of his proposed building for a new opera house as part of the “Plan for Greater Baghdad.” The plan was in the service of the ruling regime during its final days, an attempt by power to create a new public image for itself using its oil money and with the service of world renowned architects. Upon closer inspection the plan includes many entertaining details such as decorative themes derived from the 1001 Nights and a large statue of Haroun ar-Rachid with a good sprinkle of camels and other orientalist motifs. For FLW this was the Iraq he knew and given a blank check to create his master plan and architectural designs he must have thought he was digging deep into the historical treasure trove of the Iraqi past recovering “vernacular” and local references and images.

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[Schematic drawing of the Greater Baghdad Plan, the Opera House is seen on an Island in the Euphrates given to wright to design a cultural complex that will put Baghdad on the international cultural map. At the bottom of the image and on the tip of the island is Wright’s monument topped by Haroun ar-Rachid.]

There were a few Egyptian architects who traveled to the US to study in FLW’s Studio including architect Kamal Amin. Wright’s trip to Egypt was part curiosity and part research, wanting to see more of the Middle East before building his first project in the region. The visit was organized by the Architects’ Society which together with Egypt’s Society of Engineers organized a reception at its main building on Ramses Street near Cairo’s downtown. The reception was attended by many of the country’s practicing architects and their wives to entertain Wright and his wife.

Prior to the reception Wright was given a tour of Cairo, which apparently was off putting as the city’s buildings did not conform to Wright’s expectations. During the reception Wright made a speech in which he was quoted in the press as saying:

It saddens me to tell you that what I have seen of your work in the streets of Cairo, and this is my first time in this city, was far beyond my expectations. I never expected that Egypt, which taught humanity the meaning of civilization, would be home to such cheap architecture built by its own architects and engineers. The many examples of your work I have seen during my speedy tour have no spirit, artistry or dignity. These structures are commercial and pedestrian, never have I seen such architecture for profit as I have seen in Cairo, except perhaps in Johannesburg.

Dear architects and engineers, you are responsible for the architecture of this and future generations. Where in your work is the collaboration between the architect and the structural engineer, between the architect and the artist and artisan, between the architect and the sculptor? Building must result from all these collaborations, otherwise architecture becomes what you have built here, empty, cheap and single-note show pieces. If your architecture shows anything it shows that you built with your minds but not with your hearts. Architecture is not only physics and science, it is life, hope and feelings.*

He then turned his back to his audience and said, “this is enough, I have given Cairo a lesson you should never forget.”

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[Frank Lloyd Wright at the residence of one of his former students Salah Zaitoun, looking at images of recent projects]

It is not clear from the published report on the visit what buildings exactly triggered Wright’s disappointment. Nor is it clear where in Cairo exactly he toured, although given that the reception was at the Society of Engineers building, it is most likely that Wright’s tour was mainly around the city’s downtown area with its many early twentieth century blocks and a smattering of more recent buildings.

There is much to be said about Wright’s observations of architecture in Cairo but for the purpose of this blog post here are a couple of points. First, Wright was seen in Egypt as the father of العمارة العضوية or “Organic Architecture.” However, this approach to architecture had little reverberation in Egypt where a structural modernist idiom was dominant. Second, underpinning Wright’s critique of architectural design in Cairo is Wright’s expectation of local practice in Egypt to be informed by tradition or, to use a less loaded term, local references. This is clear in Wright’s own work such as the Imperial Hotel in Japan, in which local architectural references were incorporated, although perhaps only in an additive fashion and in ornamentation, into his design. Egypt, like Japan, is an ancient place with layers of historical architectural traditions that for Wright would have been necessary elements in his view of a modern Egyptian architecture. This was of course not the case as the prevailing architectural aesthetic in Egypt for several decades already before Wright’s visit was what is known as the “International Style,” preceded by a period of eclecticism drawing decorative references from a wide variety of sources. Third, if indeed much of what Wright saw was the architecture of downtown’s early twentieth century overlaid on a 19th century “Parisian” city plan of radial squares, then Wright must have been shocked by what looked to him nothing like the “east” he expected. This might explain his comment that many of the buildings he saw were “commercial.” Whether Wright’s dismay was pointed at ornamental downtown “Belle Époque” buildings or plain modernist buildings, both of these architectures must have looked out of place for wright. Egypt must have had its own Haroun ar-Rachid to dig up, dust off and put on a pedestal.

The following day after the reception, Wright was taken by a group of architects on an excursion north of Cairo to the Qanater, an area of Nile-side gardens and famous barrages which opened to the public in 1868. This excursion was led by the head of the Architects Society at the time, Tawfiq Ahmed Abdel Gawad, who wanted to show Wright one of the most admired works of architecture and engineering, the barrages. During the trip, it is reported, Wright told Abdel Gawad that he had visited the Egyptian Museum earlier that morning. The museum, Wright said, was more of a storage facility that is not suitable for the display of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Wright then proceeded, in the business fashion of a true global architect, to lobby the head of the Architects Society to get him a commission to build Egypt a new museum so that “he can leave his mark on the East.”

* Cairobserver’s translation of the quote originally published in Arabic.

Ouzonian Building, 1950

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Cairo is full of excellent examples of modernist architecture, many landmark buildings hidden in plain sight. Months ago Cairobserver highlighted one such building, the Ingi Zada building in Ghamra. Here is another modernist landmark, the Ouzonian building on Talaat Harb Street (formally Soliman Pasha Street), built around 1950 and designed by architect Sayed Karim.

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The Ouzonian Building is located directly next to the famous art deco Metro Cinema and is flanked on the other side by a six-story early 20th century beaux art/classical apartment block. The building occupies 800 sq/m out of the 980 sq/m plot. The first nine floors equate in their total height to the six floors of the classical building next door, however from the ninth floor upwards the floor area shrinks as the building sets back incrementally until it reaches a floor area of 270 sq/m on the seventeenth floor. The seventeenth and eighteenth floors are together the villa designed for the owner of the Ouzonian Building.

The building’s program is varied, it is a great example of Sayed Karim’s mixed use building designs. The basement floors include a garage as well as mechanical and storage spaces in addition to a laundromat. The ground floor consists of 8 shops fronting Talaat Harb Street with the entrance to the building tucked to the far left and through a corridor away from the busy traffic of the street. The building was designed to be occupied by various functions, including office spaces (ranging in size from one room offices to seven room offices each with service spaces including an “archive room”) as well as an 80 room hotel (with 50 rooms with bathroom and the rest with shared bathrooms), serviced apartments (these one or two-bedroom apartments each have a bath and small kitchen and they were meant to be managed by the hotel), a terrace on top of the hotel floors with a restaurant and bar, as well as other reception and salon spaces functioning as common area for the entire building and finally the owner’s villa on top with views over Cairo from all directions.

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The building’s main facade is designed with concrete Brise Soleil to reduce direct sunlight, create visual rhythm and to distinguish between the lower floors occupied by offices and hotel from the upper floors with the serviced apartments and the villa. The top three floors are accentuated by a vertical volume with extruded lines which contrasts with the horizontality of the several floors below occupied by the serviced apartments.

It is not clear if the hotel component of the design is still in use, however by the appearances of the external facade today it seems that most of the building is occupied by offices with perhaps a few apartments still used by residents.

The Ouzonian Building is one of several downtown buildings designed by Sayed Karim from the same period sharing many architectural features such as the setback and the contrast between horizontal sweeping lines and vertical accentuations above.

Resident Perspective: Abdeen

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods.

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Where in Cairo do you live?
I live in Abdeen. Located down the street from the Ministry of Interior, it is just past the pseudo cosmopolitanism of downtown, edging into the more “popular” neighborhoods of Lazoghly and Sayeda Zeinab, where prices are cheaper and the area is more, but not exclusively, working class. Its proximity to Ministry of Interior means there are always police everywhere, in every shop and cafe.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.
Positive -close to downtown/Bab el Loq, where I spend most of my time Negative- too many police.


How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?
Metro and taxi mostly, sometimes microbus or bus. I’d like to see more and free public transportation, dozens more metro lines, reducing the number of cars and the amount they can pollute, changing abuse of car horns.


How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?
Central, if the Ministry of Interior and its pigs and walls were gone it would be perfectly on the edge of Bab el Loq and Sayeda with all both neighborhoods have to offer.


What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

Traffic, pollution, corruption. The city needs free mass public transport, a “revolution.”


What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

Feeling of community in places like the ahwa (cafe), the popular ahwas and bars in Bab el Loq. Favorite places are the corniche in Manial, the ahwa by bayt el oud, Sudanese restaurant in downtown.

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

Somehow, the romanticized cosmopolitan Cairo of old haunts you through the decaying architecture, and somehow feels connected to the middle class artist types, halfway intellectuals, revolutionaries, and expats that are always around, in Bab el Loq at least. But other areas that have the same architecture, Mohamed Naguib for example, don’t have that same feeling. I don’t have much of a sense of its history, despite having studied it! I could say that (I have civic pride), maybe.


Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

No idea. (it would be) 1000 times better (if community was involved in urban management)!


In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Crowds, suffocation, stress.

Green Space/Parks: How some streets in Bab el Loq actually have a lot of trees and are beautiful in those rare moments when no cars are on the streets, but that rarely happens so we never notice, it feels like the trees aren’t there.

Gated communities: Fuck ‘em.

Museums: Not interested.

Informal areas: Still don’t know where those start and end, I like how narrow streets move, the feeling of walking in them, something organic, not cold (thinking of area in Bulaq).

Downtown: Love, hopelessness, lost people, nice bars, good conversations.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?
I would not move, but thought about Manial because it is close to downtown and very quiet, nice standard of living but not too expensive.

*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Cairo’s 19th century transformation in 7 points

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Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.

The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:

1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.

2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.

3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.

4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.

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5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.

6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.

7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).

These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.

Artists as Urban Catalysts in Downtown Cairo

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Last December the Geothe Institute hosted a panel discussion titled “Artists as Urban Catalysts in Downtown Cairo.” The event was organized by Beth Stryker and Omar Nagati (Cluster) and supported by the Ford Foundation. Invited panelists represented two types of stakeholders in downtown: property owners (Karim Shafei, CEO of Al Ismaelia Real Estate Development, and Bruce Ferguson, Dean of the School of Humanities representing the American University in Cairo), and representatives of cultural organizations (founding member of the Contemporary Image Collective Heba Farid, Townhouse Curator Ania Szremski, filmmaker and co-founder of Cimateque Tamer El Said). The panel was moderated by Mohamed Elshahed (Cairobserver).

The panel aimed to bring together the above mentioned representatives in an open public discussion to re-examine what the organizers called “the classic appropriation of artists as catalysts for urban regeneration by real-estate developers seeking future gentrification,”  asking how things might play out differently in Cairo. However, a key word in that sentence is difficult to translate into Arabic: Gentrification. Although the discussion was held in English (with Arabic translation available), it was important to note the untransability of the conversation’s central concept. The unavailability of a direct translation of the term/concept doesn’t mean the processes of gentrification do not exist in Cairo but it points to the need for analysis and theorization grounded in the Egyptian context.

AUC’s downtown campus, much of which is no longer in use, could potentially act as an anchor for cultural activity downtown and provide much needed space for independent artist organizations as well as to its own students to maintain the link between the now suburban university and its downtown urban past. The university has not taken an active role in realizing that potential, however it has made its Falaki Theater available for public performances and events. Al-Ismailia on the other hand is actively engaged with arts and culture in downtown; not only do several arts organizations rent space from the company, Al-Ismailia is also the main sponsor and organizer of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival.

The three arts spaces represented (CIC, Cimateque and Townhouse) while they rent the spaces they presently occupy, their relatively short-term leases mean insecurity and potentially being forced out of their premises due a variety of economic factors. In other cities, particularly in Europe, similar arts organizations were able to negotiate deals with municipalities in which long-term leases were granted, sometimes with no rent, which has helped such organizations thrive by focusing their funds into their creative activities while catalyzing the regeneration of their urban contexts (which municipalities are interested in). Such a process is not possible in Cairo as the state; the governorate (the closest Cairo has to a municipality) does not seek artists as catalysts for areas it manages where underused buildings could be transformed into cultural centers. Nor does the Cairo governorate have a development plan or vision in which independent culture plays a key role in transforming the city. Thus, Cairo’s independent artists and the cultural organizations they establish depend on their relationship to private property owners when it comes to establishing a space. The three speakers on this side of the debate explicated the opportunities and challenges they face in this matter.

It is important to note that Egypt has a massive centralized Culture Ministry with an immense budget and numerous spaces including nearby downtown at the campus of the Opera and in downtown such as the National Theater. However these spaces are often inactive and unwelcoming not only to audiences but also to artists. The ministry’s budgets mostly go into paying wages, not into programming.

Two competing voices emerged from the audience; on one hand some applauded the work of Al Ismailia and its support for the arts in downtown. One audience member argued that as artists “no one owes us anything” and that artists must find ways to establish their spaces without relying on support from private interests. On the other hand, others voiced concern with those sentiments and argued that in the Egyptian context when contemporary art lacks cohesive institutional support, private developers and property owners have an increased responsibility to support artists with affordable spaces.

The panel discussion revealed the need for a mediating entity between the various and sometimes conflicting interests of stakeholders. As moderator I suggested the need to establish a “Downtown Arts Council,” an independent body that incorporates members of the various stakeholders on its board and which acts as a mediator, organizer, advocate and promoter of the arts in the district. Such councils have been established as non-profit organizations in cities around the world for several decades and they have had a key role in the stimulation of cultural and artistic life in those cities. An arts council for downtown Cairo will allow artists to focus on their creative work and not be burdened with logistics while acting as a buffer between the two co-dependent yet unequal (in financial terms) main players in this scene: the artists and the property owners/developers. The institutional structure of arts councils differ around the world and their relationships to the states and ministries of culture also differ and range from direct support by the state to parallel operations and autonomy. Cairo’s downtown arts community and other stakeholders will need to sit down on many occasions besides this panel to decide on which model works best for Cairo’s context.

To this end the organizers staged the panel around the critical questions: “How is Cairo different from other cities, such as New York and Beirut, where such cycles of gentrification have taken place? What role may the underutilized AUC campus play in providing a  cultural anchor Downtown? What are the advantages and downsides of private sector partnerships between real estate stakeholders and independent artists and arts organizations?” They created this initial forum seeking “to explore potential local strategies for sustaining artists’ access to the generative contributions they make to urban development.”

The arts can be an engine for urban regeneration and development while urban development and investment can enrich the arts, but striking this balance without repeating the mistakes of other “creative city” experiments will be difficult. This panel discussion was an important first step in starting a meaningful conversation. Cluster organized the panel discussion as the first in what they are developing as an ongoing series of stakeholder meetings related to the arts and urban development in Downtown Cairo. Maintaining that conversation, evolving it and reaching useful conclusions and outcomes will be work that the stakeholders will have to carryout for themselves and in cooperation with one another, otherwise such panel discussions risk becoming ephemeral one off events with little tangible impact on the issues discussed therein.

For more information and for a video of the discussion click here.

 

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