This is an edited version of a conversation that will appear in the Nile Sunset Annex publication for Mahmoud Khaled’s exhibition “It’s Never Too Late to Talk About Love,” to be launched this September.
It is an important historical moment in Egypt, when people’s relationships with the state, their environment, their professions and each other are shifting. The future is uncertain, and in the arts, as in other fields, people are questioning what went before. For contemporary artists, there’s a feeling that more than ever it’s time to take the initiative: Make one’s own exhibitions, fund one’s own projects and write one’s own histories, as opposed to relying on existing structures — largely supported by governments, whether the Egyptian state or the local offices of foreign cultural centers — and letting the outside world dictate what Egyptian art will be visible. Five arts practitioners who live and work in Cairo sat down to talk about artist-run spaces and ask what this city can contribute to the career of someone making art.
The conversation was held at Nile Sunset Annex, an experimental artist-run space in a spare room in a Garden City apartment, which produces monthly exhibitions and publications. Mahmoud Khaled is an artist whose solo exhibition at Nile Sunset Annex, called “It’s Never Too Late to Talk About Love,” closes on July 6. He was involved in running the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), an artist-run space founded in 2005 which closed on January 1. Doa Aly is an artist and writer whose solo exhibition “Desire, Deceit and Difficult Deliveries” at Townhouse closed on June 7. Maxa Zoller is a writer, curator and lecturer specialized in moving image art. She is an associate curator at no.w.here in London, an artist-run organization that produces film and critical dialogue about contemporary image making. Taha Belal is an artist, and in January 2013 he co-founded Nile Sunset Annex. Jenifer Evans is an artist, Mada Masr writer, and a co-founder of Nile Sunset Annex.
Taha Belal: To start, it would be nice to hear why Mahmoud thought it would be good at this point to show at Nile Sunset Annex.
Mahmoud Khaled: I liked the freshness of the way things work with the space. I sent you an email and then we sat down together and talked about the works. We thought ok, we can do it, and then it happened. This kind of freshness is missed in institutions.
Jenifer Evans: By freshness you mean spontaneity, or the ability to make a decision quite quickly and act on it?
Khaled: I also mean commitment. Instead of waiting for a deadline to submit an application and then wait for the funds, we can do a show the way we want. You guys came up with an idea to approach friends to contribute [which materialized in terms of texts written about the works and some financial support], and we worked together to install the show. Also a sense of community that I really miss here. I share a lot of things with a very small amount of colleagues — the community should be larger.
Maxa Zoller: What are some of the factors that might play into this lack of community?
Doa Aly: I think that the division between the public [sector] — the huge number of artists who work mostly with the Culture Ministry — and the so-called independent scene [art spaces that describe themselves as independent include the Contemporary Image Collective, Townhouse and Artellewa, which are non-profit and rely on funding from cultural organizations] is quite a major factor. Also there are many divisions now within the “independent” scene itself, between generations, different practices and beliefs.
Belal: Mahmoud, when you say that you miss an artist community, you’re referring to your experience in Beirut [participating in the Home Workspace Program, an artist residency and study program at Ashkal Alwan]?
Khaled: Beirut doesn’t have any infrastructure. Even here in Cairo, we have more infrastructure in terms of basic things like electricity — and it’s cheaper. But not having a state, not having a history of art institutions, actually makes things easier in Beirut. For example, when they talk about art education they are not struggling with specific academic institutions; but here, whenever we think about it we reference the faculties of fine arts. There are lots of lessons to be learned about how things circulate there, how the scene sustains itself, keeps looking for alternative ways of sustaining itself financially, how they build bridges between artists and collectors instead of between artists and the Ford Foundation. And in Beirut very established artists visit studios of very young artists. They feel that is their responsibility. This notion of generosity which becomes part of your professional position contributes to the whole environment.
Evans: I wonder whether if there was more work being shown here, people’s tolerance levels would be higher and it would be easier to see someone’s work without thinking about what they stand for.
Aly: But there’s a huge amount of work being produced every year under the auspices of the Culture Ministry in the national exhibition or the Youth Salon. You always have many commissions, a lot of young people are invited to submit and to produce new work, and this production is totally unsupervised. There’s no criticality at all. Anything goes and the level of tolerance is rather too high.
Zoller: Whenever I ask my artist friends here why there isn’t more collective work — more short or long-term artist-run spaces, why more established artists don’t give back on the educational level — they explain the gap of generations, how once you have your career outside Egypt you stay outside, the lack of infrastructure, lack of this and that, yet they’re not able to overcome this. We can see the problem clearly, yet there’s a deep effect of 30, 40, 50 years of erosion of education, critical thinking, agency, self-worth.
Khaled: I’ve felt the importance of asking myself these questions now more than before. Before your position was quite clear, you were trying to be alternative, there was a structure to react against, but now everything is failing you have to reposition yourself, question things in a different way. This moment is important not just on a political level but also on an artistic, professional level and personal level. Our position toward the environment we’re working in has really shifted in the past two years. Now the way we understand the city itself is different. Professional relationships have shifted, everything has changed.
Aly: To me it is really layered and complicated. A whole history was accelerated. You’d see many more collectives in London or wherever art history has taken a more or less regular course. Whereas here, up until the late 1990s the art scene looked totally different, art was autonomous by default. Then there was the emergence of the “independent” spaces such as Townhouse, and then the introduction of contemporary art and dealing with the language of contemporary art. So to assimilate all of this and then teach is a process that should take time. When an artist decides to teach he needs to be very clear about his motivation and position — why he’s teaching, what and how — how being a huge question. In a way I’m glad there are not more artists teaching, if the mentor can’t help the mentee find their own language, it is best to leave them to their own devices.
Khaled: Professional artists also have problems, not only the young students. The question is how to continue in such an environment, and I think this is partly because in the last years we have been talking about art education as if it’s the major issue and all the attention is on this. Young artists are having to ask how they can continue working. Having to ask such a question in such a scene means there’s a problem, there’s a vagueness.
Aly: There’s detachment from motivation — why we’re doing this, and what does it do for you as a person?
Belal: That question wouldn’t come up as much if there were more artists working professionally or just a variety of examples, so when you graduate you can say, I like what this person is doing, I’m going to try and emulate or aspire to something like that. Maybe get in touch, maybe do an artist assistantship, find out more about that practice, about what it’s like to be in the studio, to fill out an application, to talk to a gallery, what it’s like to be part of an auction.
Zoller: For very different reasons there’s the same problem in London: Young post-graduate artists don’t know how to sustain their practice. But here the problem is an absence of an art scene, and in London it’s an oversaturation and the pressure of the market. Of course the solutions might look the same — both Cairo and London need more diverse, process-based, collective, grassroots practices. In terms of money artists have got to have a job, and in their free time they have to do their artist-run space, their curating, and their art production — they have to manage somehow.
I have a question for Egyptian artists. The Art Basel fair just closed and Christie’s auction house made half a billion. What does that mean? It means that the money goes into a field where the price can be produced arbitrarily: You can regulate the art market more easily than the gold market, because you just make up the price. The extremism of this kind of industry is going to collapse. On the critical side, the academic side, people talk about the end of contemporary art, of neoliberal art — which started after 1989 under the conditions of a new global economy. How will Egyptian artists fit into this? Will you follow the sinking titanic — will you suck from it what you need and leave the rest to the West? Maybe you don’t even want to take the word “contemporary art” into your mouth because you know you’re on a different timeline? What can Egypt offer Western artists given the open structures here? Or maybe you just don’t care about the Western model. You just want to make work?
Khaled: I think the way we understand alternativity is different here. When I had just graduated I took a grant from Pro Helvetia [the Swiss Arts Council, funded by the Swiss federal government] to go to Switzerland and I saw how Swiss artists think about their careers. It is a very structured system that they have to follow, they have to get the award, there’s proposals and applications they have to submit. That’s 60 percent of their studio work. When I came back I was thinking about artist-run spaces, the idea that your role as an artist is not just to sit in the studio. Here you don’t have a system. You produce work because that’s what you want to do in life, but in the meantime you play other roles to make this happen. In the 1990s when the downtown scene was born this alternativity came up with a structure, which relied on Western money, but was completely different from the West because we have different political mechanisms and struggles culturally to deal with. Now this so-called alternative structure has failed to fulfill the needs of artists and that’s why it’s a moment for us to stop and think, both as artists and institutions.
We have to do more than produce works, we have to contribute, to build institutions, teach, write, talk, moderate things, organize events. So there is space and power to change things, build things. This is what I care for. I’m not very much concerned with something bigger than how to sustain my practice professionally and how to keep this power.
Aly: There are many points here [in Zoller’s question]. Language literally and metaphorically — because we really did have to learn a new language, we had to learn the language of art and also the English language in which we write our applications. And that took a while. It was very clear to me, graduating from the Fine Arts Faculty, that I never wanted to see anybody from the institution again in my life, I never wanted to see anyone from the Culture Ministry again. What alternatives do I have? In order to produce work you get acquainted very quickly with the system, applying for funds and proposing projects, because Townhouse and Mashrabia are not your regular commercial galleries. It’s not like you’re going to be a painter with a gallery and that’s it, you have to do other things as well.
I would like to hear from you guys about Nile Sunset Annex.
Belal: It was a result of conversations that Hady [Aboukamar], Jenifer and I had. Hady and I were thinking about what to do with the spare room in our apartment, and we had a desire to look at things in relation to each other, to see shapes, colors, and forms and then take them down and put something else up, look at it, talk about it, see what we think.
Khaled: This need for exhibition making — why did you think it was time to do it now?
Evans: A lot of things came together. There was a spare room, we got to know each other and realized we had some concerns in common. I missed talking about art with people, seeing new work, and wanting to respond to it by making work myself. We also felt that there were not that many variations in terms of spaces, so adding something slightly different to the mix was going to benefit us and other people — just a different-looking space, and one that can make decisions very quickly, because it isn’t dependent on funding or applications. A lot of the work we saw [exhibited at the time] was very much issues-based and specifically issues to do with Egypt. I was seeing a lot of work that was very justifiable [for example, artwork based on research into social phenomena, which can be easily explained and is likely appeal to funders interested in cultural outreach], and we talked about seeing art that was made for no worthy reasons, but just because someone wanted to make something.
Khaled: In Alexandria we started the artist-run initiative ACAF. As artists practicing in a city that has nothing to do with contemporary art, we had two choices: To leave, or to stay and make the city a place we can relate to professionally. So Bassam [El Baroni] and Mona [Marzouk] started ACAF, and I joined them, based on a very personal dream to see new names coming out of the space every year or every other year. Partly because we didn’t manage to build a community, to sustain a practice or an atmosphere for critical thinking in a way that fulfilled those dreams, we decided it was time to stop and do something else.
Aly: I think the reason ACAF did not fulfill what it started was because new names are not really made in Egypt. This brings up the idea of writing history, of who writes history and who is responsible for creating the role models, for making certain people famous. Maybe creating ACAF in Alexandria was basically trying to work backwards and make the names here. You need writers, you need art critics, art historians, infrastructure, spaces. How do you make a name?
Zoller: This writing history can be done. You create a space with a long-term vision, over the years you build up a constituency, you create tools for a kind of ping pong between reception and production. And then education comes in as well — we can decide to create regular writing workshops on a grassroots level here in Cairo. You invite different speakers and use different pedagogical exercises for a fixed group of people. There has to be commitment — nobody gets paid but we do it once, twice a month, and see how it goes.
Aly: I completely agree, but that remains one part of the structure. You have the education and you have writers producing writers, but where does all this production go?
Zoller: You make your own magazine.
Aly: But also there needs to be collectors from here.
Khaled: There must be bridges between artists and – rather than funding institutions or bodies – individual collectors and different ways of funding and sustaining the scene.
Zoller: Don’t you think the problem with many institutions here is that they’re not artist-run, they’re top-down rather than bottom-up?
Evans: Right. The main places where you can currently see contemporary art exhibitions in Egypt — Townhouse, Contemporary Image Collective, Mashrabia, and Beirut in Cairo — are not run by artists. ACAF was artist-run, but it no longer exists. And Medrar for Contemporary Art is obviously important but has very few exhibitions. Darb 1718’s space is rented out for shows, so comes in a different category. There’s not really a tradition of art graduates opening up initiatives.
Zoller: And this comes from the funding situation. I think this goes with what you were saying — it must be artist-run, collective and grassroots, long-term. If you are a strong collective of say 13 people it doesn’t matter if one person leaves because another will step in. It’s not one person steering the boat; it’s a very different dynamic. And artists identify with other artists, so already you have your audience.
Khaled: Art centers and institutions all over the world think about their outreach program, about audience, some even count how many people come per day. But the way we solve this problem actually shows a lot about our vision for art. Townhouse has a very strong outreach program, a huge percentage of its budget is going to it, and it means street children and refugees, but it doesn’t mean university students, art collectors, families, business owners, for example. Our colleagues and friends who work in cinema, writing, fashion design, architects, filmmakers — they should be added to the outreach program.
Aly: That has to do with funding as well. I had this long conversation with Cathy [Costain] from the British Council about this. They really don’t have much choice in the end — the project has to take on this development tinge.
Khaled: This is also one of the big problems — this mix between what art institutions should do and what a community charity center should do, as well the mix between art and activism. I have a problem with the idea that contemporary art is a Western product and when it comes to Egypt it won’t have any audience, even in the intelligentsia. It’s because it was not introduced as a cultural product that we should celebrate and interact with as a cultural product that comes from the bourgeois level.
Zoller: Maybe it helps to bring in again a crisis in thinking that’s happening in the West at the moment. At the end of postmodernism we don’t know what we’re going into, so everyone is looking for this new term. The problem in the discussions is often dialectics, the post-enlightenment philosophy of dialectics that we still depend on; a Cartesian body-mind split, if you like. One idea that sometimes gets juggled around is to think about “and, and, and,” rather than “and, or.” Maybe you could use this little idea and not define your outreach program in terms of this or this, like street children against collector — maybe there is a way of creating a weird kind of hybrid that is something for both. I think Beirut [a recently founded contemporary art initiative in Agouza, Cairo] should start to sell their art. It would be a good start for a collector’s base. You should touch the collectors but at the same time not reproduce the mistake we did of separating the audience into the intelligentsia, the people with money, and the people who need education. Bring up a different kind of form.
Khaled: There is this potential and power that I was talking about earlier. I want to highlight the word power, because people think artists are powerless in this context but actually we’re really empowered in doing many other things, while producing work. It’s difficult but there is potential and space for building.