Rebuilding a Space for Thought in Cairo

CAIRO—At the end of a small alley in Downtown Cairo, past car mechanics’ workshops and the bright plastic chairs of outdoor coffee shops, stands a strange building. Half of it dates back to the 1890s; the other half is being rebuilt, and for now consists mostly of exposed red brick.

The building is the home of Townhouse, a gallery of contemporary art and a cultural landmark in Cairo. Established in 1998, the gallery was instrumental in fostering the city’s independent art scene. In 2006, it opened a theater, Rawabet, next door.

In addition to art exhibitions, Townhouse offers a library, artists’ residencies, and a wide array of educational initiatives and public talks. It continues to do so today, despite having been forced to close twice in recent years—first when it was raided by the authorities in 2015, and then when part of the building collapsed in 2016. It’s that half that is under reconstruction today.

It’s hard not to read the building’s current state—damaged but not destroyed, re-emerging under difficult circumstances—as a metaphor for cultural life in Cairo.

On a recent visit, I met Mariam El Nozahy and Sarah Bahgat, two program managers at the gallery. We sat in a large warehouse space across the way from the old building. The gallery moved all of its activities here in the spring of 2016, after a portion of its main building, built in the 1890s, crumbled to the ground.

Police forces arrived on the scene and said they had an order to demolish the building. There was a mad scramble among the gallery’s staff and friends to contact the municipality and have the building listed as a heritage site.

It was “a week of ups and downs,” Bahgat remembers. “We were going home every day not knowing if the building would be there the next day.”

Townhouse is undergoing repairs after part of its building collapsed in 2016. (Photo @Townhouse)

But the gallery’s near-demise led to an outpouring of support, says Bahgat. The demolition was prevented. Residents and workshops in the building and street banded together to pay for repairs.

Today, the warehouse space—known as the Factory—hosts the gallery’s exhibitions, offices and 400-volume art library. The library we are sitting in is furnished with blackboards and chairs and tables made from repurposed wooden crates. It hosts book launches and events showcasing the work in progress of young Egyptian artists. Anyone can wander in, take a seat and browse.

Now that the gallery is “literally on the street,” says El Nozahy, it gets a wider demographic of visitors and curious passersby. “There is no longer a staircase that acts as a barrier. We see people come in and interact with the exhibition and space.” At the same time, the openness raises privacy and security concerns for some events.

Like many cultural venues in Egypt, Townhouse has had to navigate an increasingly repressive political environment.

After the raid by state officials in December 2015, the building was shut down. No warrant or charges were presented. Eventually, after many months, the gallery reopened.

Under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the authorities have tightly restricted freedom of expression and assembly, and the organizers of cultural venues in Downtown Cairo, a neighborhood that was the epicenter of the 2011 protests that toppled the government of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, say they have been regularly harassed.

The gallery’s regular movie screenings have been suspended because getting the censor’s approval—a requirement for all public screenings now—has proved too difficult.

“When you face so many restrictions, it is not easy, it’s exhausting,” says Bahgat. Sometimes dealing creatively with the restrictions can lead to exciting work, she added. But the challenge, El Nozahy and Bahgat say, is figuring out how much the gallery should compromise to continue operating, without losing its sense of mission or identity.

Since late 2014, the gallery has hosted the Townhouse Salon, a monthly series of informal conversations led by guest writers, artists, and critics who often share critical texts and other works with the public. Salons have featured the novelists Nael El Toukhy talking about the use of colloquial Arabic in literature; the poet Iman Mersal; the Moroccan author Omar Berrada discussing race and migration; and the historian Alia Mossallam presenting her thoughts on “the stories we wish we could have told, and those that tell themselves despite ourselves.”

In fact a lot of the gallery’s current initiatives seem to explore an interest in narratives (how to understand them and how to build them) and a hunger for critical reflection.

The gallery recently offered a seminar, called “(Re)Writing Criticism,” that sought to broaden the scope of critical conversations about contemporary culture in Egypt despite the restrictive atmosphere. Over 150 people, from many different academic and professional backgrounds, applied for the dozen spots available. From February to August 2017, the “budding local thinkers and writers” who were chosen to participate attended intensive sessions with established artists, art critics or writers for discussions on topics like how to “understand and decode” the language of criticism.

A  goal of the seminar was to come up with “a viable lexicon for cultural criticism.” Today, El Nozahy notes, “even language is restricted,” and terms such as “government,” “political,” or “censorship” have to be avoided. But her response to the restrictions is: “So let’s devise a new language, let’s find a way to thwart this.”

Townhouse will put out a publication next year featuring writing by the seminar’s participants, edited by their mentors, alongside images of selected artworks that were discussed.

In 2018, Townhouse will celebrate its 20-year anniversary. Its staff hopes that the old building will be fully renovated by then. After their brushes with disaster, they are working on preserving the gallery’s legacy. Next year they will launch a platform to digitize contemporary artworks, starting with Townhouse’s own archives but open to other works.

Perhaps more important, the gallery is focusing on the future, determined to continue to offer people a place to meet, share and think out loud.

“If you don’t have space, thoughts don’t manifest,” says El Nozahy.


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