A SNAPSHOT FROM CAIROJoseph Banh In conversation with Moataz Nasreldin, Mia Jankowicz and William Wells The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 34.4 (September 2011). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.
As the revolution continues to unfold here in Egypt, it is clear that any celebratory posturing is premature, if not entirely delusional. However, recent events have undoubtedly created a rupture in the social, cultural and political landscape whereby, for the first time in decades, previously suppressed debates and discussions about issues of public concern are happening in local ahwas (coffee houses), work places, online, in the streets and in public squares. The revolution has, at least for the moment, destabilized the state’s ability to control public discourse and the circulation of ideas.
A striking aspect of the Egyptian revolution is the frenzy of creative response and accelerated cultural production that has gripped Cairo and other parts of the country. The creativity and sense of urgency expressed in the streets continue on as competing groups give voice to their visions for the country’s future. However, the question remains what legacy the revolution will have on the country’s cultural organizations, artists and art production.
Egypt’s cultural scene has been dominated and officially administered by the Ministry of Culture, which acts as both patron and censor, since it was established in 1952 following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military coup and rise to power. Matters of taste, aesthetics, and what constitutes appropriate art and culture for the public (and, therefore, what would be funded or exhibited publicly) have been tightly controlled by the state. Despite this, a number of independent arts organizations have been gradually established outside of the purview of the Ministry of Culture, including Cairo’s Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center; the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC); and the Townhouse Gallery.
Such spaces play a significant role in the advancement of contemporary art and cultural praxis by making space available for local artists to produce work, and by reframing the interlocking discourses of art, culture and politics beyond the control of the state. Independent art organizations also serve as a much-needed supplement to an (art) education system that has been neglected by the state, and is, therefore, out of sync with current issues and ideas that circulate in academe and the international art community.
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Joseph Banh is a Canadian cultural consultant, visual artist and writer currently based in Cairo, Egypt. He is interested in the dynamics of global cultural flows as expressed through contemporary cultural production.
Moataz Nasreldin, founder of Darb 1718, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1961. He lives and works in Cairo. Reflecting the processes of cultural complexity currently under way in the Islamic world, his work goes beyond the particularities and boundaries and gives voice to concerns. The sense of a geopolitical and cultural context and the need to maintain a link with his land of origin are the key elements of the life and work of the artist. Using a variety of media, including sculpture, photography, video and installations, his work speaks of Egypt—its traditions, its people, its colours—without ever falling into the exotic or creating distances.
William Wells started his career in the arts in 1980, as one of the co-founders of London-based Unit Seven Studios, a multi-disciplinary artist-run collective. He also served as an educational advisor to Britain’s Arts Council and Crafts Council. In 1985, Wells moved to Cairo, where he worked for development agencies before returning to the curatorial and arts management fields, setting up art programs and agencies throughout the Middle East. In 1998, Wells established the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Mia Jankowicz is the Artistic Director of Contemporary Image Collective (CIC). She studied visual cultures and curatorial practice before running the international residency programme at Gasworks, London. She has contributed texts to various magazines, catalogues and readers. With Anna Colin, she has collaborated on the ongoing, independent curatorial project Disclosures.
In 2012, she will curate PhotoCairo 5, CIC’s large-scale, contemporary visual arts project.
Image Credit: Claudio Curciotti and Eleonora Trani, Egypt Reborn, 2011. Musical performance. Commissioned for the opening day of the exhibition accompanying Darb 1718′s “Art of Illustration” workshop. Image courtesy of Darb 1718.