Art critics in Cairo: An alternative plot
A text by Mai Elwakil
In 2019, while preparing for a workshop I co-moderated on using time-based records in art writing, I stumbled upon an image of theater director Ahmed El Attar. There he stood, without a shirt, peering over pale wooden panels, pulling out nails. The caption explained that he did this for five consecutive hours on September 14th 2005. The performance piece, titled Construction/Deconstruction, was part of the five-day event Studio Incident #1, curated by Hassan Khan in his studio at the Townhouse Gallery, along with a series of music performances, video screenings and intimate gatherings among artists, friends and curious passersby.
I had never heard of Studio Incident #1. Nor was I able to locate the collection of critical texts that Khan published with curator Bassam El Baroni around the event. So I began reading over the one review I found by art historian Clare Davies, published with Attar’s image on Bidoun. Davies wrote that the publicity emails emphasized that Studio Incident #1 was not a Townhouse event, adding that it “seemed to create a space for its own self-validation through an insistence on the centrality of the work presented and a refusal of common conventions of contextualization.”
One element that is often overlooked in contextualizing art events is the intricate web of relationships among art writers and events’ participants. This, in my own experience of working in Cairo’s contemporary art scene, can point at different ways of understanding how it operates, away from the usual references to the “local,” the “independent” and the “avant garde.” In 2005, Davies was married to Khan. El Baroni and El Attar are friends and longtime collaborators of Khan. Mahmoud Refat, Mahmoud Waly and Maurice Louca, then known as the Bikya band, go way back in their relationship with both Khan and Davies. Artist and jewelry maker Zeinab Khalifa was Davies’ mother-in-law. Around the same time, an art critic hosted several exhibitions and readings by friends in his flat, a few blocks away from Townhouse, while a group of women artists, sharing a studio in Mounira, organized the occasional Food & Film nights for a growing circle of acquaintances. This delineation is not meant to suggest nepotism. It shows instead how ideas, practices and collaborations organically form and develop over time through our social networks.
In the years that followed, most of these individuals moved out of downtown. The Townhouse gallery, and its bustling Rooftop Studios on Nubar Street, have closed down, among several other institutions, and new models such as Gypsum Gallery, Art D’Egypte, and Cocoon Cultural Center have emerged. So much seems to have changed. A sentiment shared by the members of K-oh-llective when they first approached me to write this text. Their proposal was to reflect on the “fast-changing topography of art spaces and cultural events” in Cairo over the past five years—what spaces, new and old, exist; what their visions were; and how they affect, and possibly shape, the work of practicing artists in the city. To get my creative juices flowing, K-oh-llective suggested that I reexamine Plotting in Egypt: Art People, a project published on IBRAAZ by Nile Sunset Annex in 2016.
Following our call, my encounter with Attar’s image resurfaced. So did the aforementioned Bidoun review. I chose to follow this lead, and place art critics as the central figures while charting a diagram similar to Plotting in Egypt. I had already been working with Jenifer Evans (one of the founders of Nile Sunset Annex who created Plotting in Egypt), and critic and editor Nour El Safoury on Why We Write, a long term research project on art criticism in Cairo and Beirut at the turn of the 21st century. Through this project, we want to trace how writers navigate the existing infrastructure, funding structures, resources, references and networks to develop a professionally and economically viable career in the city; and how formal and informal networks are inevitably reflected in what and how we read about contemporary art today.
Art writers are expected to accumulate knowledge and practical experience, to build networks with artists, spaces and platforms, to present their work. We are expected to prove ourselves worthy of documenting, and analyzing artworks and practices with nuance; to conduct research and initiate or engage in discussions that stir the waters; to question the positioning of artistic practices in local, regional and international scenes when relevant, and to lay the groundwork for a possible future historiography. It is difficult to truly claim these roles without acknowledging the fragility of writers’ positions and the various jobs they perform to continue working in the field, while enjoying a level of independence and credibility. I, hence, chose, in this supposed new diagram, to focus on the less talked about economics and labor of art writing in relation to a writer’s social network.
Information collected through a survey would have been plotted on a graph, where each writer is represented by dots of a specific color. On the X coordinate, we would have had a list of publications, projects and art institutions that writers have worked with, while the Y coordinate would trace writers’ movement between these spaces over time. As I began drafting the survey, the naivete of my proposal became immediately apparent. If I were to plot the data I collect, it would have been difficult to draw a line through each writer’s dots with the exception of a privileged few. The graph would have mostly ranged between sporadic dots, frantic-looking clusters, and time intervals when the designated dots (the writers) might completely disappear. This is not because these writers are lazy or inactive. It rather shows that the assumption of sustainability and continuity in art writing practices upon which I premised the graph is not a given in the context of the Cairene contemporary art scene. It made sense then to probe my own dots in relation to a scene that I have found, so far, small, enabling and precarious.
I began by questioning how I present myself, and the function I aspire to fulfill through taking on art writing professionally. I currently present myself as a writer, editor, workshop facilitator and multimedia producer. These are some of the roles I have played over the past 15 years. I wanted to carve a space for myself in this scene, and to earn a living. I was lucky to have enjoyed the stability of being a staff writer and editor at the English edition of al-Masry al-Youm from 2010 until 2013. A journalist friend in the Arabic division recently noted that he, along with other writers, were paid one fifth of the salaries in the English edition. Management eventually decided to shut us down for cost cutting purposes. By mid 2013, I went back to the life of a freelance writer albeit with more experience and a network of artists, writers, art spaces and publications.
How did I acquire those, and how do they reflect in my writing? I had started out a few years earlier. In the late 2000’s, I volunteered with art institutions and took on jobs pro bono, especially since I had studied economics and not art. My only relevant experience at the time was a two-year undergraduate curatorial internship at the American University in Cairo (AUC) galleries. I offered my time and labor to the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Townhouse Gallery. Family members and friends from AUC connected me with both spaces, where I soon found the skill of writing was valued. At the former, I was tasked with drafting content for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s website. At the latter, I was asked by Townhouse director William Wells to write a review of Nermine Hammam’s Eschaton, which was showing at the gallery in January 2009. I never published this review and I do not have a copy of it to appraise 14 years later. What I can attest to is that Wells saw potential—after that, he involved me more in the space, opening up for me a range of opportunities.
While continuing with my day job as a corporate credit officer at an international bank to pay my bills, I co-started a blog for the Townhouse gallery with Ellen Brooks Shehata to write about ongoing events, as well as works from the archive—I don’t recall finding a trace of Studio Incident #1. I also wrote and translated artist statements, and helped resident artists with their research. Ghost writing for one regional arts publication was a lucrative option offered to me. I declined, however, at the advice of friends with more experience in the field. Spending time in the gallery space, I got introduced to a group of forward-thinking writers, editors and historians who I still admire today, and I enrolled in various workshops on the history of modern Arab art, new media, and curatorial practices.
Wells put me in touch with Lina Attalah who was editing a publication that the Townhouse was producing to explore possibilities for collaboration—I had briefly known her from the AUC Economic and Business History Research Center where we both worked as undergraduates, but we had lost touch since. In 2009, she was a founding member of the research and artist collective Take to the Sea, and the managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English edition to which she invited me to contribute as a freelance writer before becoming a staff member in mid 2010. I met Negar Azimi who edited Bidoun magazine. She had started out doing research on photographic collections in Egypt and working as a curatorial assistant at the gallery, founding the first edition of PhotoCairo in 2002. I also attended preparatory meetings by a small group of artists and writers for a commissioned project by the gallery to historicize the practices of Egyptian contemporary artists. These meetings were tense as attendees discussed which practices and institutions ought to take center stage in this narrativization of the nascent contemporary art scene—all while its commissioned team, which I was supposed to join, tried to negotiate for itself the level of autonomy necessary to make such a project meaningful. The project never came off the ground due to funding problems.
This urge to document, analyze and engage is understandable. The late 2000s were inspiring times, when Cairo’s scene was vibrant with activity. Art institutions, including the now shuttered Artellewa, the art film production house Zero Production, and later Beirut, Nile Sunset Annex, and Soma Art School & Gallery were fully active. A range of local newspapers with dedicated culture sections, and specialized magazines with an interest in contemporary art from the region were growing. Compared to today, the programming of the Ministry of Culture was more regular, and non-governmental arts funding was not frowned upon that much. There was somewhere to go or someone to meet almost everyday. I would not have missed an exhibition, studio visit, talk or friendly gathering. This was my informal education and it inevitably reflected on how I wrote about art, and what I later chose to document through Medrar.TV, an online channel and archival project on Arab arts that I co-founded with artist Mohamed Allam.
I met Allam in 2010 to interview him about his work in a group show I was reviewing. As we became friends, he told me about Medrar.TV, which was an attempt to make sense of this zeal of activity. To take a step back and look at the work, before it is framed and reframed through curatorial statements, funding reports and critical writing. It was also a channel through which we can capture initiatives that were out of the spotlight like Studio Incident #1. Focusing on the experimental and marginal, we learnt about many of the events we documented through word of mouth and conversations with acquaintances. Medrar.TV’s archive was never meant to be comprehensive. But was it representative? Was it able to capture how social networks also reflect in how we talk about contemporary art?
We repeatedly documented for instance the exhibitions of the AUC graduating art classes, as well as the state-organized Youth Salon. But, we never visited the graduate shows at the Faculty of Fine Arts—although there could have been ways, other than documentation, to meaningfully engage with the shows and what they can tell us about art education in Egypt. In approaching mega exhibitions such as the Cairo or Sharjah Biennales, we opted to make a “selection” of the works we found most interesting. At times, we asked curators, artists or critics to pick a work they felt strongly about, explain why and discuss the impact of mega shows on the daily operations of their local scenes. Some were uncomfortable due to the clout of the institutions that organized such shows. To add another discursive layer and reach a wider public, we developed starting 2013 partnerships with Jadaliyya and Mada Masr (a reconfiguration of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English edition), to show some of the videos along with commissioned reviews of the work.
Throughout this period, I worked as an editor, videographer, subtitler, arts manager, fundraiser and business model developer. I continued to write. At least I tried. Publishing with IBRAAZ, Nafas Art Magazine, Mada Masr and al-Qahira, the culture ministry’s weekly Arabic print. Wearing multiple hats is nothing new to Egypt. The research that we are doing in Why We Write shows that art critics have often exhibited as artists, written texts, edited publications, moderated talks, initiated projects and juried competitions and shows—at least as far back as the 1950s. It was mostly however, through their affiliation with state institutions rather than private or non-governmental entities. The lines between these roles can become blurry. And perhaps, this was one of the motivations behind establishing two different associations for Egyptian art critics in the late 1980s and mid 1990s. Although both have since lost relevance, no other formal structure has emerged to support the work of art writers.
To make ends meet, writers have approached the well-paying international media for occasional commissions to write about mega events or star artists, and maintained relationships with spaces that invite them to moderate talks, lead workshops, and write in their catalogs and publications since the early 2000s. Opportunities for new projects and collaborations were available and sought to a level of fruition by those who had the relevant knowledge and connections, and could afford to live through the downtimes. For many publishers then and now, an insider position is a privilege that allows for insights and critique rather than being a concern for possible conflicts of interest. When commissioned to review the 2013 Cairo Video Festival organized by Medrar, an institution for which I worked and was a board member, the editor of an international magazine on regional arts explained that my ongoing relationship with the space was among the reasons why they approached me.
I admit feeling slightly uncomfortable at the time, but I learnt to keep the two practices separate if I were to continue to have a credible voice. Perhaps the informal modes of employment that most non-governmental art spaces adopt help. As does the absence of contracts and benefits, and the modest pay. But as more art spaces shut down, local papers such as Egypt Independent and Daily News Egypt closed, and several international art publications chose to curate their archives rather than commission new texts—think Contemporary Practices, IBRAAZ and Bidoun—formal writing channels continued to diminish starting 2015. This was also felt more profoundly because Cairo’s status as a regional art center has dwindled in favor of new centers in the Gulf where significant resources were being pumped to create an art infrastructure of the highest quality. With this shift, the already limited interest in the region by international art publications also shifted further east. Writers, like other practitioners in the field, moved elsewhere in search for better opportunities. But what about those who have neither the desire nor the means to leave?
Some like the minds behind Esmat Publishing List, through which critic Nour El Safoury publishes artist publications and specialized zines, and the artists forming K-oh-llective who are now venturing into commissioning reviews went back to the earlier mode of setting up their own discursive platforms. The few institutions that continue to operate since the early 2000s have matured, and are investing in longer-term workshops and pedagogical programs with publications as one of several outputs that also include online discussions and podcasts. Some, including myself, applied for work with granting institutions, assuming a different critical role. This comes, however, with the stipulation of not writing about the disciplines that such institutions support. I understand and accept the logic behind this requirement—concern over mistaking a critic’s position for that of a granting entity. But this brings me back to the question: how can art writers have a sustainable and continuous practice here?
In a recent Why We Write meeting with Nour and Jenifer, we asked one another: who writes about contemporary art in Cairo in 2022, and where might these critics publish? We scratched our heads as we struggled to come up with more than a handful of people. Have writers’ relationships to institutions and platforms really changed that much? Or, the fragility of these relationships has simply become more pronounced as platforms closed down, funding tightened, and the state embarked on a general policy of regulating and taxing the freelance and informal economy—eating up further into writers’ limited opportunities and incomes.
A critic friend who currently runs the program of a private gallery mentioned how she positively imagined herself leading the life of the art critic when she first entered the scene ten years earlier. Which life? I asked. We were both unsure. What’s certain is that it’s one where writers can comfortably earn a living while contributing to the scene’s development, collectively. We have not formed any institution to voice our priorities like we hope the Association of Egyptian Art Critics to have once done. We continue to gather around projects of our own, and fund them from our own pockets or apply for funding as part of artist projects with overlapping interests. We continue to negotiate payment on a case-by-case basis in relation to available resources and soaring inflation, but there is no real standard. We continue to look for exciting initiatives on the margin and pitch them to the few publishers that remain. Our networks are our capital as they are to many others working in the contemporary art scene.
I have recently attended events in artist studios and domestic flats, organized in response to the closure of exhibition spaces. I was invited to write about one. How much context is needed in approaching it? I wonder. How might writing contribute to a virtuous cycle of art production, engagement and reflection?
Mai Elwakil is a writer, editor and multi-media producer based in Cairo, with special knowledge of contemporary Arab arts.