Accommodating Egypt’s Emerging Art Scene
1 2 3 4 5 

Extending his gaze to the road beyond my shoulder, he said:This place is one of the unique places in Beirut. Its owner is half-artist, half-politician, and he serves snacks, alcohol, news, and art exhibitions. And it is to here that the café revolutionaries, thieves, exiled, lovers, pimps, queers, and secret agents come.

Beirut Beirut (1984) by Sonallah Ibrahim. Translation courtesy Sarah Rifky.

It is from the title of this novel that Egypt’s newest art center takes its name and philosophy. Nestled in the leafy Cairo suburb of Agouza in an unexpected oasis of mango trees, Beirut has found its home in a 1940s villa, once a primary school and now an independent art space. Headed by Cairene Sarah Rifky and Berliner Jens Maier-Rothe, who met while studying at Malmö University in Sweden, it launched in October 2012 with a season of exhibitions, talks, seminars, and a publication.

The model of the café cum meeting place cum exhibition space applies not only to Cairo’s Beirut but also to another art center in Egypt’s capital. Artellewa, the six-year-old artist residency and exhibition, and events space, is situated in an informal settlement on the northern tip of Giza. How and why have these two divergent spaces sprung, almost from the dust, to stake a claim in the cultural topography of Cairo, a divided, sprawling, and fractious megacity? I will reflect on the outputs of these galleries and on how they experiment with exhibition and display to speak to their audiences and to the broader context in which they are operating by focusing on the element of hospitality in their work.

The area of Ard El Lewa (often designated by an Arabic term aashwaiyeh, which translates as “random” or “informal” in the vernacular of urban planning), from which artist Hamdy Reda’s space derives its name, was, until only decades ago, an expanse of fertile but poor agricultural land in Giza. It has since been developed and inhabited by African refugees and lower-middle-and working class Egyptians, who have either moved away from the center or migrated from the periphery of Cairo, says Reda.

Both Artellewa and Beirut operate in an independent and progressive art scene in a challenging context: the institutions, art fairs, and biennials that are prolific in megacities elsewhere are nowhere to be found in Cairo. Yet, there remains an abundance of critically engaged, internationally recognized artists and curators in Egypt. The “health” of this art scene disproves the assumption that, for such a scene to exist, it must be cultivated, supported, and promoted by an established network of institutions, commercial markets, art schools, and critics as exemplified in London or New York.

“Since January 25, 2011, a traditional arts programming model has become functionally irrelevant in Egypt,” once said William Wells, Director of Townhouse Gallery in the capital, in a recent interview with Rifky in Spike Art Magazine.

“Spaces [in Egypt] will need to continue negotiating the relationship between our curatorial models and the evolving needs and desires of local artists and the wider community as well.”

The upheaval has interfered with the day-to-day operations of art spaces in Cairo. For instance, in November 2012, both Beirut and Artellewa halted their scheduled programs indefinitely when President-elect Mohamed Morsi moved to extend powers awarded to him by the constitution and when tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied to protest. Beirut and Artellewa insist upon engaging with these conditions as a way of dealing with the event, with trauma – as a way of articulating, sometimes through indirect mechanisms, the tangled politics of the situation.

One such mechanism is food. At Artellewa, The Non-Egyptian Restaurant, a project by artist Asunción Molinos Gordo, aimed to tackle the problem of food security and sovereignty in informal settlements such as Ard El Lewa. She installed a restaurant in the gallery, and supplies for the restaurant were sourced according to weekly guidelines instituted by Gordo. For example, one week, Gordo obtained her ingredients exclusively from an expanding perimeter, including rooftops and private gardens, around the art center. Another week, the menu drew only from unaffordable Egyptian agricultural products made for export.

Gordo describes this project as a political act intended to draw residents’ attention to the state of food production: What ingredients are even available on a local and national level? Do we have the liberty to decide what to produce and how to consume?

By camouflaging the exhibition as a restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in Ard El Lewa, the organizers sought to lure the community into the space and facilitate shared meals. This form of trickery blurred the boundaries between audience/visitor and customer – the meals produced were indeed for sale and sold out within minutes – and also between the aesthetic principles of museum-space and restaurant. The curator Amira Hanafi insists that the artist fooled no one and that the exhibition created a sociable space that put people at ease. The Non-Egyptian Restaurant enabled conversations more fruitful than would have been generated by simply asking visitors to look at inanimate objects hung on a wall.

The model of the restaurant was successful: Cairo art audiences and local residents both flocked to Artellewa in large numbers. But what happens when the restaurant closes? How can these debates be sustained after the event? And, in an area like Ard El Lewa, where the primary audience has shifted in the past year from the arts community in Cairo to the residents of the local area, why is it necessary to subvert models of contemporary museum display in the first place? Particularly if the target audience is, as the curator says, “intimidated” by art? Perhaps a restaurant as an alternative context for staging art holds long-term potential as a model through which to engage audiences and sustain these shifting debates.

A space that does not need to define itself by a contemporary art idiom has the potential to house structures as diverse as a café, library, gallery, cinema, safe house, and meeting place simultaneously rather than merely to adopt the appearance of one or more of them for fleeting exhibition periods. Such continuous multimodality might be the key to longevity in a volatile socio-political environment.

On the other side of the city, Beirut was inaugurated with Labour in a Single Shot, a workshop led by the filmmaker Harun Farocki and curator Antje Ehmann. Participants were tasked with capturing the specificities of a city, focusing on labor in a single take. This workshop has taken place in fifteen cities across the globe, from Bangalore to Mexico City. Each city, with their population of low-wage workers, has been chosen on the basis of its role in the so-called Global South and for its ability to speak directly to the inequities of globalization. After the workshop, Beirut showed Global Slum, a re-presentation of documentary images pulled from archives across four continents by artist Maryam Jafri.

The exhibition and workshop are concerned with sites of physical and immaterial work. Both explore the interplay of imagined and real economic, physical, and psychological characteristics of a place. By virtue of its location in a working-class neighborhood, the art space Beirut is bound to questions of labor.

Unlike Artellewa, Beirut’s intellectually rigorous programming and decidedly contemporary art language resonate little with the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Beirut’s audience comes less from the community than from the broader art scene. The diversity of programs – on and off-site screenings to publications – reflects a multidisciplinary ethos that unites the sometimes disparate communities of creative individuals in the city.

Beirut also defines itself as an institution that interrogates what an institution can be. Indeed, the romantic postulation that it can be a space that “take[s] care of, do[es] things with, and sublet[s] rooms to art and its discourses,” as co-directors Rifky and Maier-Rothe wrote in an inaugural email announcement, may remain a dream if the institution does not effectuate this ideal, catering not only to the café revolutionaries and intellectuals but also those local audiences who feel alienated by contemporary art.

The cases of Beirut and Artellewa provide insight into the charged conversation between environment and art space. The opportunistic, flexible approaches of curators and artists operating in a context of state-controlled cultural institutions are shaping and reshaping, appropriating and reappropriating the landscape of the city. And the city of Cairo, it seems, can be endlessly accommodating.
Maryam Jafri, Global Slum, Beirut, exhibition view, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Beirut
Mohamed Ezz, Align, a photographic exhibition, Artellewa, exhibition view, March 2012. Photograph by Hamdy Reda
Yara El-Mekawei and Mina Nasr, Shubra Line, Artellewa, installation view, April 2012. Photograph by Hamdy Reda
Maryam Jafri, Global Slum, Beirut, opening reception, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Beirut
From Labour in a Single Shot, a workshop led by filmmaker Harun Farocki and curator Antje Ehmann. Photograph courtesy of Beirut
If you would like to order the first issue of Portal 9, please submit your name, full mailing address, and phone number to, and a member of our staff will respond to your inquiry.
Submission Form

Thank you for submitting a request to order Portal 9