In 1995, visual artist and educator Shady El-Noshokaty spent a month in solitary confinement, as punishment for showing up late to his mandatory military conscription. Accompanied only by four walls, a metal bed-frame, a red transistor radio, and a toilet seat, Noshokaty started to descend into a kind of madness. The room became a “dramatic world,” the artist recently recalled, “filled with nightmarish images of people screaming, and bodies ripped apart by loneliness.” He used a 4 cm-long pencil he found on the floor to make drawings of the room, depicting the pain of confinement in thick, unruly marks. Shortly after William Wells co-founded the Townhouse Gallery with Yasser Gerab in 1998, he walked into Noshokaty’s Giza studio, and invited him to exhibit at Townhouse the drawings and large-scale paintings he had produced during and after his time in detention. In 1999, The Bed became Noshokaty’s first solo show, and the first exhibit by an Egyptian artist at Townhouse.
Now almost 20 years later, when Townhouse program manager Mariam al-Nozahy — who curated this show with Fiona Fox — called Noshokaty to ask if they could show a series of drawings from The Bed as part of a Townhouse retrospective held this summer at The Mosaic Rooms in London, the artist was shocked. “He was surprised we even knew this work existed,” she tells me on a particularly sunny summer’s day in London.
Egyptian visual artist Wael Shawky gave a similar reaction when she asked if they could include Sidi Moulid al-Asphalt, a 2001 work of his where images of a Sufi crowd moving in rhythmic trance are bizarrely juxtaposed with a Cypress Hill track. “If you want to show it go ahead. I haven’t seen it in like 20 years,” Shawky, who has had massive success since then, with shows in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, told Nozahy. Finding these works in the Townhouse archive, Nozahy felt she was “unearthing parts of people’s lives that they had repressed.”
It always feels inadequate to describe Townhouse as a gallery; most of all because the term suggests a certain manicured, transactional set of relationships, which is definitely not how Townhouse operates. The institution made a home in downtown Cairo in the late 90s, where many buildings have been blackened by age and neglect, and the smells of car grease from dozens of auto repair shops mingle with those of street-corner fuul carts. Over the years, it has acted as an incubator for young talents, helping some of the most illustrious contemporary Egyptian artists of today find their footing. Until about 2007, it was also a prominent axis within the global art community, offering a number of residency programs that attracted international artists, with art patrons routinely stopping in Cairo to visit the space on their way to the popular fair, Art Dubai.
Since 2011, Townhouse — like many other cultural institutions in the country — has faced its fair share of challenges. In July 2014, among the post-revolution malaise, the new government ordered non-profit art organizations to register as NGOs, which meant that financial donations to said organizations could no longer be received directly, and had to instead be funnelled through the notoriously bureaucratic Ministry of Social Solidarity. Additionally, changes to the Penal Code in October 2014 threatened citizens or civil actors who accept foreign funding (which independent art institutions consider essential) with life sentences or death penalties. As if scrambling to reconsider their legal status and business model wasn’t enough, Townhouse faced a multi-agency raid in 2015, which shut its spaces down for a couple of months. With the arrival of spring, April 2016, yet another tragedy hit: the facade of its building on Nabrawy Street partially collapsed. Everyone panicked. For a moment, it seemed like Townhouse was over.
But, here we are: at The Mosaic Rooms in London, celebrating Townhouse’s 20-year anniversary, with works by more than 20 prominent as well as emerging artists, while back in Cairo, 10 Nabrawy Street stands restored, and plans to rebuild its third floor and to set up more studio spaces are pending. Noshokaty’s gripping drawings hang alongside a 2001 painting by Basim Magdy, photographic prints by Lara Baladi (2008), an enameled metal plaque from 2006 by Mona Hatoum, and many more captivating works, quite a few of which wouldn’t have made it to the show had Nozahy not discovered them in the Townhouse archive.
Going into the archive was the first thing Nozahy did at Townhouse, as a research intern in 2016. “I walked into this back closet that we had in the factory space [a ground-level annex to the gallery which used to be a paper factory] at the time, and it was a dump,” she recalls. She saw stray cats, trash, and objects that had grown damp or rotten. The months she spent cataloguing two decades’ worth of works in that back room, sifting through “traces that had been left in Townhouse over the years,” is how she came to learn about the history of Townhouse, as well as the history of contemporary art in Egypt, she says.
“I didn’t want to build a chronology and I didn’t want to build a narrative. I was really opposed to those two things … If you look at the trajectory of the work, you’ll see that there’s been no curatorial vision. It’s all just responsive. Townhouse is really elastic in the way that it responds to the community and the context.”
Walking through this white-walled, spotless exhibition space in London, seeing a relatively minuscule selection of the thousands and thousands of works that have at some point over the past 20 years resided on that boisterous downtown Cairo lane, is somewhat underwhelming. I cannot help but envy the deep dive that Nozahy took in preparation for “What do you mean, here we are?”
Yet missing from the archive, Nozahy found, was a record of the stories — and drama — that make Townhouse what it is. “The archive tells you something about the history of Townhouse,” she says. “But for me, Townhouse has always been more about the people that have worked there, and the interpersonal dynamics that have developed over time.” In an ideal world, Nozahy declares, that’s what would have been translated in the show. Except those heavily personal narratives wouldn’t have been relevant to a London audience, she decided.
As soon as Nozahy and Wells sat down to conceptualize the show, they had all kinds of doubts and questions. Worried going back to the archive, or “navel-gazing,” would be problematic, they started brainstorming different curatorial approaches. One morning, sitting in front of Townhouse, Wells suggested they do a show entirely about tomatoes. They would commission artists around the tomato, and trace the evolution of tomatoes over the past 20 years. “I went along with it. I started doing all this research, then I thought: this is stupid, nobody would understand this,” she recalls.
Just how much the audience should “understand” the show became a challenging question for Nozahy. “I didn’t want to build a chronology and I didn’t want to build a narrative. I was really opposed to those two things,” she says. Nozahy felt it would be dishonest, or inaccurate, to pretend a sort of curatorial continuity. “If you look at the trajectory of the work, you’ll see that there’s been no curatorial vision. It’s all just responsive,” she explains. “Townhouse is really elastic in the way that it responds to the community and the context. And it’s really whimsical, in the sense that it’s all about the whims of the people who are working there at any given moment.”
The endless conversations that Townhouse director Wells has had with artists over the years prove that the decisions made at the gallery have consistently been informed by the pulse of the local art community and that of the street. I remember him telling me, in December 2014, of the many discussions that he had with the artist Amal Kenawy about Silence of the Sheep (2009), which is currently exhibited as part of The Mosaic Rooms show. For Silence of the Sheep, Kenawy had workers crawl on their hands and knees through the streets of downtown Cairo, as commentary on people’s acquiescence in the face of harsh living conditions.
Now exhibited in a room titled “Video and controversy,” Amal Kenawy’s project feels somewhat silenced — devoid of the controversy that the work was so wrapped up in, and the wider context in which it was immersed.
“Everybody was arrested, and there was a lot of discussion around it, about should she or shouldn’t she have been so provocative,” Wells recalled at the time, asserting that he had supported the work. “Provocative was the big word back in 2009 and 2010. Artists reached that point where they were producing work that was provocative. The mood of the country had reached that stage, where provocation was stylish to a certain extent,” Wells said. Now exhibited in a room titled “Video and controversy” alongside three other video works by Wael Shawky, Ayman Ramadan and Nermine Hammam, Kenawy’s project feels somewhat silenced — devoid of the controversy that the work was so wrapped up in, and the wider context in which it was immersed.
The section of the exhibition dedicated to “The neighborhood” holds some of the most compelling objects in the show: 19 archival slides that date back to the Al-Nitaq arts festival (2000 and 2001). Provided you figure out how to use the magnifying glass (which I did, right away), you’ll witness almost two decade-old site-specific works by such artists as Ayman El Semary, Yasser Gerab, Doa Aly and Hany Rashed, showcased at The Greek Club, the Townhouse rooftop, the Gresham Hotel, and the Mashrabia Annex, respectively.
Al-Nitaq was organized in 2000 by the several galleries that had staked out territory in downtown — Townhouse, Mashrabia, Karim Francis, and Cairo-Berlin — with the objective of using the rich, albeit worn-out, urban fabric of downtown as backdrop to an ambitious showcase of cutting-edge art. At the time, the event testified to the rise of a private-sector art scene, which would begin to contend with the state’s hegemony over cultural production. Collaborating with local shop and restaurant owners, the festival took artwork to downtown’s vacant hotels, shop-windows, eateries and open spaces. It was the first time that contemporary art had ventured out of elite gallery spaces and became available to everyone. In the weeks leading up to the festival, artists spent weeks working with neighborhood handyworkers, electricians and tailors to install their work.
The only life-size remnant of Al-Nitaq currently at The Mosaic Rooms is a digital print on fabric by German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna, showing, against a blood-red background, a black-and-white portrait of the artist juxtaposed with images from her home village in Egypt. The artwork, which had been draped across iconic downtown coffee shop Groppi in 2001, now teases us with its presence in this London gallery. The only other traces we get of the festival, which is still widely talked-about despite only lasting for two years, are those beautiful slides that willingly fit in your palms.
It feels like there are many stories probed by this show, but that none of them are given enough space to reveal themselves to us in full. “To me, the show was less about storytelling and more about getting people to tune in again. It’s all about showing that we’re still here,” Nozahy says. What she definitely didn’t want to do, however, was to tell a story about the “survival” of Townhouse.
When Townhouse’s production is read in terms of its survival it diminishes the space for critical discourse, and thereby starves artists of a useful dialogue around their work … “What work are we doing if, the whole time, the artist’s work is effaced by the work of the institution?”
It would have been easy to create a show that frames Townhouse as a survivor in the face of oppressive policies and include only overtly political or subversive works from the past eight years. “When you’re doing a retrospective about an institution that’s gotten a lot of international coverage for being political, radical, independent and mired in drama, it provides a very nice set of tropes to work with,” Nozahy says. “Especially for the western art world, which is thirsty for meaning.” To foreign eyes, she remarks, “the survival of Townhouse as an institution signals the triumph of art over oppression.” Which is a notion she was keen on interrogating.
Nozahy seems to think that when Townhouse’s production is read in terms of its survival — by international or local eyes — it diminishes the space for critical discourse, and thereby starves artists of a useful dialogue around their work. Ever since she started working at Townhouse, Nozahy says, “not a single show has been critiqued properly.” She has found that in favor of reviewing the work itself, writers tend to congratulate the institution for continuing to exist, against the odds. Nozahy finds this “at least Townhouse is still alive” narrative extremely harmful to artists. “Because, what work are we doing if the whole time, the artist’s work is effaced by the work of the institution?” (In 2017, Nozahy organized [Re]writing Criticism, a six-month-long workshop that aimed to widen the scope of art criticism in Cairo.)
In the opening week of “What do you mean, here we are?” Nozahy moderated a panel discussion with Ania Szremski, who was Townhouse curator from 2011 to 2015, Mada Masr editor Naira Antoun, and writer Stephanie Bailey, that was meant to tackle the role of art in zones of conflict and the “fetishisation of risk.” In the presence of a limited audience, the conversation turned inward, and became a good chance for the panelists to hash out some of the personal struggles and concerns they’ve been dealing with over the past few years. One thing that became clear for Nozahy was how this elevation of risk and danger to a higher standard carries over to how the institutions in question speak about themselves.
“What’s more interesting to me, more than how the West fetishizes the East, is how we internalize these identities,” Nozahy elaborates. Writing grant application after grant application, she has often caught herself playing up the riskiness of Townhouse activities. “That’s how we get money,” she says. Talking to the other panelists, she discovered she wasn’t alone. Antoun brought up the moment when Mada defected from Egypt Independent as an example. “In a way, [Mada] was saying: We are putting ourselves at risk, and these are the conditions under which we choose to produce. And that’s Townhouse too,” Nozahy says.
“It is not strictly an archival show, nor is it a snapshot of Townhouse today; the strong concoction of works on display doesn’t tell a specific story, but rather pulls at strings that tie back to Townhouse, tightly, loosely.”
The realization was an alarming one. “If you start internalizing it, then it becomes the way you operate. It becomes the way you dictate taste, and the way you guide artistic production,” Nozahy continues. Curating this show in London was an exercise in trying to shed these narratives, she says, and she intends to keep practicing. “It would be great to see what would happen if we stop performing these risks,” she muses.
The title of the exhibition, taken from a moving conversation between Wells and Yasmine El Rashidi, published on Bidoun, in which the pair sit down to talk about the day the Nabrawy Street building partially collapsed, illustrates something of the disorientation, or the residual hunger, one feels after strolling through the exhibition. What do you mean, this is it? It is not strictly an archival show, nor is it a snapshot of Townhouse today; the strong concoction of works on display doesn’t tell a specific story, but rather pulls at strings that tie back to Townhouse, tightly, loosely. I am wondering if it would have been worthwhile to delve deeper into one of the stories the exhibition prefaces; like the evolution of video art in Cairo over the past 20 years, the Nitaq festival and Townhouse’s ensuing relationship to downtown Cairo, or the careers of any of the artists involved in the show.