Just as the weather gets warmer, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival returns for three weeks of arts programming. Running from March 31 to April 22, it opens at the Horreya Garden near the Cairo Opera House with D-CAF’s largest ever concert, featuring Egypt’s Dina El-Wedidi and Morocco’s Khansa Batma.
Established by playwright Ahmed El Attar with his company Orient Productions, D-CAF takes place in downtown Cairo art venues, pedestrian passageways, street corners and abandoned spaces, many contributed by founding D-CAF partner Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, which has been steadily buying up buildings in the neighborhood since 2008.
D-CAF is a chance both to experience various art forms and enter downtown Cairo buildings that are generally not publicly accessible. Some have criticized the festival’s role in gentrification due to its partnership with Al-Ismaelia, which also rents spaces to several downtown arts institutions.
But despite the real-estate controversy, some organizational hiccups and perhaps inevitable criticisms of its programming, D-CAF has set itself up as a recognized player among the region’s multi-disciplinary festivals, with a particular focus on performance, and it attracts an audience of thousands.
The program is always divided into performing arts, music, visual art, film and “urban visions” (site-specific and public space performances). This year, a new literature component run by novelist Ahmed El-Aidi (On Being Abbas Al Abd) involves a free masterclass on adapting literature to film, a roundtable on thrillers and a series of cafe readings of contemporary literature by three actors.
The fifth D-CAF also brings back the Arab Arts Focus, which previously appeared in 2014. It invites dozens of international arts professionals (whose identities are yet to be announced) to attend a condensed week of the festival’s programming that starts April 14, some of which is not open to the public. The aim is to help develop a sustainable regional contemporary arts sector while exposing young artists to the invitees.
As part of the focus, D-CAF hosts performances in Beirut, Lebanon to allow Syrian artists to show work. Previously, Syrian artists were often not issued Egyptian visas in spite of the festival’s efforts.
Sadly, no D-CAF activities are happening outside the capital — past editions have ventured to Alexandria and Assiut, and with contemporary arts so centralized in the capital, those efforts were a positive move.
But the programming is rich this year, and you’re likely to find more than one event you’d like to attend. Below is a brief summary of each section — and be sure to watch out for our upcoming critical D-CAF analysis.
The festival’s flagship program does not fall short of expectations this year, with weighty topics and the names of local big hitters — although unfortunately a couple of the headliners are not public. Curated as always by Attar, some works focus on audience participation, while others are theater productions that work closely with documentary sources.
Egyptian theater director Laila Soliman, whose work has been widely shown internationally, premieres a new work but it is invitation only (reservation only, email [email protected]). Like her previous works, Zigzig brings to life archives and recorded testimonies — in this case, from an investigation cast aside for the sake of politics into an incident in which British soldiers raided a village and raped women. Four performers examine the relationship between this story and their own experiences of today’s rape culture in Egypt to ask if much has changed in the last 100 years.
A work in progress directed by storytelling master Hassan Geretly, who heads Egyptian theater troupe Al-Warsha, and written by Syrian writer Wael Qaddour will also be shown for the first time, but is for Arab Arts Focus invitees only.
Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali?, directed by Lina Abyad and written and performed by Raeda Taha, received great acclaim in Lebanon last year and requires a reservation (starting April 4 you can email [email protected]
Tania al-Khoury’s Gardens Speak is an interactive sound installation collecting oral histories of people buried in Syrian gardens during the ongoing war. Many bodies of activists are buried informally by their colleagues and families to protect their identities, and thus not allow their deaths to become instrumentalized by the regime.
On the lighter side is the quirky-sounding Diespace by PIPS: Lab, from the Netherlands, which invites viewers to be part of an online social network for the dead, as well as sound performance In the Shadows of the Waves by duo Kristof K.Roll, which invites attendees to lay back and listen to dream stories mixed with music.
Finally, contemporary dance gets a closer focus. Algerian dramaturge and documentary filmmaker Nedjma al-Hadj is curating two dance evenings featuring three works by local and regional artists.
D-CAF’s public space and site-specific performance program is all free, and perhaps its most popular. Last year, Cairo Contemporary Dance Center students performed inside Attaba’s grand old Sednaoui department store, attracting crowds of viewers. This year, another show is staged at Sednaoui: Madeeh (previously named Into Magnificence), by European choreographer Michael Kliën in collaboration with Jeffrey Gormly and Vitoria Kotsalou, will be shown once on April 17.
As security presence has increased in downtown, it has become more challenging to stage public performances, and most of last year’s program was hosted inside the Greek Campus.
This year three performances are planned to happen on Alfy Bey Street and Shawarby Street, but licenses are still pending. These shows are a dance by D-CAF regular Mohamed al-Deep, a collaboration between Japanese artist Aya Kobayashi, Lyon-based dancer and choreographer Anna Pearce and UK-based Stopgap Dance Company, which creates productions with disabled and non-disabled dancers, and local puppetry troupe El Kousha, who regularly show in public space, even at protests.
Over the past handful of years, North Africa has become a dominant force in contemporary music production from the region, while also boasting a bustling line-up of major music festivals such as Morocco’s VISA FOR MUSIC, the Festival Mawazine, Gnaoua Festival in Essaouria and the International Festival of Carthage in Tunisia.
This year D-CAF’s music program, curated as in previous years by Mahmoud Refat of 100Copies, presents a small but exciting selection of bands from our neighbors in North Africa, including rocker Khansa Batma from Casablanca and an electronic performance from Tunisian artist ARABSTAZY. Later in the festival, we get Egyptian shaabi stars Islam Chipsy (who also played D-CAF in 2014) and Abdelbaset Hammouda, and emerging local acts such as Ahmed al-Sweasy and Studio Stella.
Dina El Wedidi returns to D-CAF, having first performed in the program in 2014. It will be exciting to hear her growth over the past two years with new songs in her repertoire, like Rouba3iya and 3adi. In the time since she released her latest album, Tedour w Terga3, she has maintained her collaboration with the Nile Project as well as the mentorship of famed Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, and is currently collaborating with several musicians from Ethiopia.
The music program is D-CAF’s most expensive, with tickets costing between LE30 and LE70.
D-CAF’s film program is usually overshadowed by its music and performing arts. This is not due to poor programming — on the contrary, the festival usually shows a careful selection of films that have not been screened before in the city — but perhaps because cinema is more available in Cairo.
In any case, this year’s program, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” features six films selected at the Cannes Film Festival. According to a statement by curator Rémi Bonhomme — a programmer at the Cannes Critics Week and a board member at Beirut’s Metropolis Art Cinema — the selection is “a cinematic exploration of life on the fringes of society, in all its social, political and romantic dimensions.”
There are three French dramas. Philippe Faucon’s Fatima is said to be a moving portrait of a hardworking, Moroccan-born single mother living in France who writes letters in Arabic to her daughters. Party Girl (by Samuel Theis, Marie Amachoukeli and Claire Burger) is about a semi-fictional bar hostess coming to terms with aging, while Alice Winocour’s Maryland (Disorder) is a paranoid thriller about a home invasion.
Kamen Kalev’s Eastern Plays follows two Bulgarian brothers, one of whom joins some young racists in attacks on a Turkish family. Alice Rohrwacher’s drama about a hippy-ish family of beekeepers in rural Italy, The Wonders, has been called mezmerizing by more than one critic. Acclaimed writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, shot just before the recent military coup in Thailand, speaks of trauma and ghosts. The films are all at Zawya, each is screened twice, and tickets are LE25.
The visual arts section of D-CAF has also not tended to a be a central element, which means some years it has appeared to lack proper resources and support. But we remain hopeful. Under the curatorship of Gypsum Gallery’s Aleya Hamza, the exhibition spans three locations and is titled Sounds as if. It focuses on sounds, and specifically the hot topic of sampling, but largely in a clever variety of non-literal ways, and aims to foreground art’s capacity for emotional and physical experience.
The show includes new and old work by a solid line-up of artists. Doa Aly premieres her intense new film, House of Rumor, which includes multiple performers and writers, at the main French Consulate space. Ahmed Badry is making a large new sculpture in his white The Provisionary that Lasts series specifically for Al-Ismaelia’s shopfront space on Mohamed Bassiouny Street.
Basma al-Sharif is represented by her hypnotized single-channel “performance film” Deep Sleep (2014), Magdi Mostafa is creating a new iteration of his industrial dough-mixer sound installation Elements of the Unexpected (2012), and Ahmed Sabry presents a new series of paintings.
Artist and composer Joe Namy utilizes the Kodak passageway space that CLUSTER renovated for Hassan Khan’s D-CAF show in 2014 for the text and photography work 28th Color (2013-14), which has not previously been shown as an exhibition. Free entry to the visual arts.
This year’s three-day symposium (April 15, 16 and 17), which focuses on production and distribution challenges and opportunities in performing arts (three sessions) and visual arts (three sessions), looks ambitious and genuinely international.
It’s organized by performance and theater curator Jumana al-Yasiri (Syria/Iraq) and visual arts curator Lara Khaldi (Palestine). The full lineup is yet to be announced, but includes artists Rheim Alkadhi, Yazan Khalili, Hemali Buhti/Shreyas Karle, curators Aneta Rostkowska and Nida Ghouse, and Nile Sunset Annex.
This article was updated with extra details from the programmers on March 25.