Visual narrative by Rana ElNemr
One breathy, undecided Cairo summer day, I walked to the Townhouse gallery from the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus, where I’d been running an errand. It’s a route I took frequently as a student at the university, 16 years ago.
In the fall of 2002, I snuck into a tiny, humid office on the ground floor of 10 Nabrawy Street. It was busy with artists, curators and volunteers deliberating over what would later be the first edition of PhotoCairo, an art event centered on image-making practices that would return for several editions, the last of which took place last year. Back then, I volunteered to translate some of the event’s brochure texts into Arabic in what was one of my first encounters with translation, language and their woes. I don’t remember whether my translation was used in the end. I only remember some of the bitterness I felt around the idea that I could neither produce proper translations, nor could I write well in Arabic. Today, I consider both to be sublime acts.
Years have passed since this encounter; one of many that fall outside the strict records of what a space is about and one of many that index the extent to which a space can be generative. They were years of more PhotoCairos, more art on the sidelines of journalism, more possibilities on the margins of a daunting reality in pre-2011 Egypt. They were also years of uprisings, ensuing violence, revolutions married to military coups, and more violence.
For Townhouse, these were years of a rise and fall, shifting from a pioneering gallery space presenting art and artists outside the hegemony of state institutions, to one that was destabilized and confused about what art can do in the wake of revolutions. There was not much time to answer the latter question, because these were also the years when this gallery was raided, and eventually closed altogether in 2016 when the building housing it partially collapsed. At a time when many of us — who had lived through the revolution’s heyday, followed by its brutal reversal into a space devoid of freedom — spoke of emotional collapse, Townhouse had literally collapsed. It was both the perfect embodiment of and metaphor for its surrounding environment.
Arriving at Hussein Basha al-Memari, the alley perpendicular to Nabrawy Street, I raised my head to see someone watering the plants on the Townhouse balcony. I was just about to call out and ask whether William [Wells, Townhouse founder and executive director] was there when I saw him, across from the building, sitting in the street at the entrance of the Factory Space, the annex of the gallery where it moved following the collapse. He was sipping on his extra sweetened Nescafe, like the sheikh of the alley. A khawaga (“foreigner”) sheikh.
And then it hit me. It was back. The balcony was back. The building was back.
The balcony was one of the vehicles through which one could speak of contemporary art while comfortably sitting in a popular neighborhood, within a dynamic that transcends the direct mutual benefits: economic for the neighboring workshops and coffeehouses, and an aura of accessibility and inclusion for the gallery. Through it, the exotic world of high art became normalized in the neighborhood, and its refined accomplices rejoiced in the warmth and familiarity of a street so relaxed it betrays nothing of the complex dynamics that ties it to this art space. For people like me, the go-betweens, the balcony was always a home of convenience. It is through its old, wrought-iron bars that I ordered dozens of banana milkshakes from the neighboring coffeehouse to flee exhibits I did not understand or conversations I could not access.
His eyes bright with excitement, William describes the moment when the balconies were finished. “People on the balcony spoke to people down in the street and a sense of normality had… come back,” he said, slowly articulating the last two words like an English teacher or, rather, a storyteller reaching the apogee of the plot.
Before saying much, he insisted on taking me on a tour inside the restored gallery of the revamped building. He had mastered this guided tour, it seemed, given all the times he had proudly given it to visiting artists and long-time friends of the gallery.
The gallery space was, in fact, back, with the same white walls, the same tiles and wooden floor planks, restored from samples scavenged by the gallery team from what had been left by the demolishers and with the help of restoration specialists. It now houses a site-specific exhibition by Malak Yacout, launched with the gallery’s reopening on April 29, purposely interrogating how a space is formed and morphed by individual and social interactions (which are, in turn, morphed by physical spaces).
But the tour was not just a comforting, embodied recollection of what Townhouse had been. It was also somewhat disorienting, as we kept whirling inside the expanded space, moving from its familiar spots to its totally novel territories. Juxtaposing the rather standard look of a white-cube gallery was an adjacent, muggy hall, guarded by bare walls of hewn limestone and with a wooden floor, save for a curious rectangle in the middle made of old black and white tiles. Looking up, a blue ceiling punctured by gold and silver stars caught me off guard. It felt like a magical mystery, a dissonant oddity in its surrounding time and space. For years, this space had been neglected; used as a warehouse by the government. Townhouse had always had its eye on it, and had finally managed to rent it in 2015. During the demolition the following year, the state laborers had left behind the seemingly unimportant stars after knocking them down from the ceiling and, again, the Townhouse crew had rushed to collect them.
William tells the story exquisitely. We have established that he is a good storyteller. It was his way of resisting a certain impossibility, a certain invisibility that was imposed upon Townhouse. He speaks of a loss in the power of our voices, of a disappearance in recent years. He likens it to something he sensed in Mada’s entanglement with the cultural scene; also a certain disappearance. He asks if I read Peter Hessler’s latest in the New Yorker about Morsi, the cat. It was a story about coming to and going away from the city, a story about endings, comfortably told by someone who crossed with their family to the other side of the ocean, living in the silence of a hilltop, after half a decade in Cairo.
Unlike Hessler, William’s story was one of triumph, one he wanted us to write about “for people to know we are alive.”
“Everybody keeps coming to me, shocked to find that we are back up. We have been operating this place and running exhibitions for two years,” he says. “It is as if people need a slap, something in their face telling them Townhouse is back, that it has been back, but now it is physically back.”
It all started in the gloomy early hours of April 6, 2016, when the building partially collapsed due to water-related damages and illegal construction. In the following days, building tenants clashed with police personnel, the former armed with official paperwork proving that the building could be restored, and the latter armed with brute force. They were days where hope and despair were on some sort of a seesaw.
The next day, the gallery team traveled to attend the wedding of colleague and artist Ayman Ramadan in a village outside of Cairo, all equipped with their music, suits, ties and the idea that it was perhaps not all over yet.
The day after, following a police ultimatum to vacate the building, they — alongside volunteers who heeded their social media calls — formed a human chain that stretched from the third floor of the collapsing building all the way to the Factory Space, emptying artworks, books, documents and furniture that made up the life and archive of the then 18-year-old gallery.
Twenty-four hours later, Townhouse was all set in the Factory Space: the library adjacent to the exhibition space; the office space to their side; and, in one small corner on the far left, the small office of the director. This, coupled with the news that additional paperwork had been obtained, proving the building’s status as safe and its right to restoration, added more glimmer to the hope that nothing was over yet.
The following day, the building’s tenants and Townhouse’s team watched as laborers, guarded by police personnel armed with AK-47s, tore out floors, windows and doors and removed balconies. All the goods were loaded into trucks that the residents watched depart slowly.
Months before, in December 2015, seven officials from different authorities, including the National Security Agency, broke into Townhouse and ordered its closure. The move was preceded by similar raids on cultural spots in downtown Cairo. The gallery had just reopened in February of the following year, resuming on a cautious note, before the collapse brought with it a new ordeal.
Subsequently, the expectation that Townhouse would take the lead in the fight to restore the building was not met, presumably out of fear that this may have slowed things down. Instead, the building was brought back up by the collective work of its tenants, after a specialized committee visited and declared it safe shortly after the collapse, establishing the legality of the restoration.
With Townhouse purposely deciding to take a backseat, a committee was formed by those from the building, taking on the legal responsibility for pursuing the restoration process. This included gathering the necessary permits and paying the legal fees. The tenants also took it upon themselves to pay for the restoration, as is typically the case with worn-out buildings that operate on old rent contracts — owners generally prefer to see their buildings collapse because more gains can be generated from the land.
This was almost the case with the elderly landlady of the Townhouse building, Kamilia Saleh, who eventually yielded to the official verdict that the building would be restored. She was content to benefit from four new tenants who would pay higher rents after restoration (following the new rent law passed in 1996, which brings rent up to market rates with fixed term contracts).
Saleh still didn’t pay any of the restoration bills, however, despite her legal duty to contribute. Instead, every tenant paid a sum corresponding to the space they were occupying. Townhouse paid for its four flats, one electric appliance company for one flat, five residents for their flats, and eight workshops and three warehouses for their spaces; including a spot for car services and a coffeehouse.
It wasn’t the smooth and flowery picture of community work that one would like to imagine. There weren’t town hall meetings insinuating a practice of democracy on the grassroots level, but quieter meetings inside the workshops, where negotiations over who could pay what took over. Still, everyone mobilized all the connections they had to facilitate the process. Everyone took it as an opportunity to refurbish their spaces and to start anew.
In the end, despite all obstacles, from Saleh’s desire to see the building stay flat at times, to authorities refusal to provide electricity and water, to the ceaseless financial drain, the building is up again. I look up at it, sitting silently by its new grey paint, in its laid-back alley at this early hour of the day, and William and I continue our conversation.
Back at the entrance of the Factory Space, William walks me through his programming aspirations for the years to come, now that the physical tour was done.
The spaces on the upper floor will become artists’ studios; they are yet to be renovated but Townhouse is contemplating a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money for it. The logic behind this move is two-fold: it is related to both emerging artists and emerging audiences.
“The collapse forced us to act on conversations we have been having. We were well aware that from 2011 to 2016, especially in 2015 with the raid, there have been changes in the infrastructure of the culture field. You could continue being what you are as an institution and slowly just disappear. So we tried to pick up on what was happening,” he tells me, speaking against a formidable sonic backdrop of wind rustling the leaves of the mulberry tree hanging over the entrance to the space.
One thing they picked up on is the newcomers to the area, the potential new audience that Townhouse would have missed had they stayed working out of their building offices (silver linings?). William said they are in their late teens, siblings of people who engaged with the 2011 revolution. They are not overtly political, but seem to be anti-authority and against incumbent social norms. They are chilled out and bandy about dangerous jokes with nonchalance, like screaming the words “baladeya, baladeya!” all of a sudden.
Baladeya is the Arabic word for municipality, and it is typically shouted out as a warning when officials are about to raid a street and attempt to get rid of unlicensed coffeehouses and vendors. William is interested in these young people’s reactions to the art they have watched, not without attitude, during the last two years of Townhouse’s operations in the Factory Space.
Then there are the artists in their 20s, who have gone through different forms of alternative education including MASS Alexandria and Beirut’s Home Workspace Program, among others, and who have approached the gallery for potential exhibitions.
“While they remind me so much of people I was working with 20 years ago, they are not operating in the same context. They are not necessarily having conversations with society or with the city; they are dealing with things that are much more internal, their own personal experiences, within side structures,” William ponders. He also feels that there is a certain “return to the tactile, working with material.” He calls it a return because there was a time when artists worked on large-scale works that couldn’t travel easily, which meant that only the video and photography elements of these works traveled — video and photography subsequently became more popular mediums. For him, the studios, when opened, would become spaces for enabling production and conversations for these artists, and engagement for these new publics.
With eyes on this present and the future that it may contain, there will also be work on the gallery archives, which, besides being a constant sensibility, has naturally resurfaced in light of the collapse.
In her conversation with William, published in Bidoun, writer Yasmine El Rashidi brought up the fact that some people consider him a cat with nine lives for surviving this much (there is more than just the raid and the collapse). I do not know what exactly he made of that reference, and whether that’s the reason he liked Hessler’s piece, which also referenced a surviving cat. What’s clear is that he is alive, and so is his place, just like they were when I first met them 16 years ago. They are only awaiting a certain reciprocity to their liveliness, either from old frequenters or ones yet to be found.
The Townhouse is back. But are we?