Cairo is a very confusing city. It is a hub of contradictions and it can repel diversity. That’s why it can be an overwhelming context in which to practice life, from the simple act of walking in the street to something more complicated like self-expression.
Self-expression in particular can be refused by the city’s general context — in some cases it is accepted, but more often the context just doesn’t give a damn about what you’ve got to say.
This is where art comes in, as it starts off as an urge to self-expression that pushes the artist to produce art, then the artist takes the often personal and vulnerable work that results and tries to get it out to the public context to engage an audience.
Art and Cairo have always been engaged in a turbulent relationship, and art has sometimes won: like Mahmoud Mokhtar’s public sculpture Egypt’s Renaissance, graffiti sprayed on a wall built because of a unilateral decision to close off a street, or an arabesque window on an old building in one of Cairo’s older neighborhoods.
But what about art that is not related to this daily urban and architectural context, art that tries to forge a place for itself and proposes the importance of art that is not a byproduct of self-expression and its ability to engage Cairenes living their confusing reality?
The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), running from March 17 to April 8 at over 12 locations in downtown Cairo, secured with the help of Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, turns downtown annually into a mecca for those looking for fun concerts and performances to attend, in keeping with its main sponsor’s aim to revive downtown Cairo.
On a more serious note there is CAMOCA (Cairo Museum of Contemporary Art), a visual arts program curated by Berit Schuck for D-CAF, in which three main works are exhibited: by Manuel Pelmus, Adelita Husni-Bey and Noor Afshan Mirza and Brad Butler. This article is about Pelmus’ performed imaginary Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), shown at the Kodak Passageway.
CAMOCA is a catchy name, but the accompanying text, only in English, starts off the experience with a sense of estrangement only reinforced by the grey space full of columns that cut my line of vision and ceilings, eroded so that I can see iron rods poking out as if from infected wounds.
For MoCA, six performers — four young women and two young men — present the artworks envisioned to be in this imaginary museum in a one-hour performance on loop for three hours. The sense of foreign presence continues when they start speaking, reciting English texts written by a Romanian artist that describe mostly European work of arts, such as one by Marcel Duchamp, and a few Egyptian and Arab works, like one by Inji Afflatoun — and some works that are arguably not art at all, like the subversive graffiti in the American TV show Homeland.
The performers also try to reenact these works with their frail exhausted bodies that are afraid to touch each other in a way the disrupts a social decorum that is mysteriously present, and all this is clouded by their voices being lost in the space because of its terrible acoustics. All of it made me think, what is this performance? Why is it referring to artworks I don’t know, that I can’t see, nor contrast their representation with the originals? Does this absence accentuate anything? — the absence of works either from Cairo or about Cairo. This imaginary museum has no doors and no tickets, yet doesn’t attract anyone from the street.
Reactions I heard varied from disgruntled remarks about “those performers yelling in English making formations with their bodies and then dismantling them,” to someone saying they think “art is madness” and that “soon these artists will clear out and the street will be back to normal.”
As for us — the audience stuck in there with the performers in an exhausted dance around grey cement columns, trying to respect their physical and mental effort, which continued on loop for two more hours after we left regardless of whether there was an audience or not — we seem as foreign and irrelevant as this piece of art in the heart of downtown.
Here comes my main issue with that imaginary museum: it claims to be a museum for Cairo, but Cairo is completely absent, with no reference to its rhythm, art, culture or confusing context, which the museum should be expected to engage with and try to find a place for art within.
Instead, Cairo’s culture, language, art and debates around art are neutralized in the work, and we are presented with assumptions that seem condescending at the least, starting from not being provided with the actual art referenced, even in a booklet or wall projection, to compensate for the sound loss in the space and the language barrier. Not only were we not given a chance to compare and contrast and reflect on themes of representation, but we weren’t even sure what works were presented.
The one thing that I could follow and imagine was a reference to some graffiti sprayed on the walls of a set built to mimic an Arab city in a hit American TV series that depicts an orientalist notion of our region. It felt ironic to be talking about some graffiti found in a constructed world of TV in a neighborhood whose identity over the past six years has been strongly shaped by graffiti: dozens of works of graffiti have been erased by the government and only a few left standing as witness to our victories and failures.
Walking around this imaginary museum evoked many questions: Can we create art without taking our context into consideration? Can a context be created without a place to exist in? And can Cairo, with all that it insinuates, be disregarded and neutralized this easily? And can D-CAF, which is part of an investment plan to “revitalize” downtown Cairo, revive a city by neutralizing it in this way?