For more than a decade, the Townhouse Gallery has acted as a catalyst nurturing independent arts, fulfilling its mission to promote contemporary art within the Middle East and internationally. It has done so by hosting a variety of cultural and educational events, including theater and experimental music performances, film screenings, public lectures and workshops and art exhibits.
Since its opening in 1998, the gallery has grown steadily to become one of the largest exhibition spaces in the Middle East. In many ways, this expansion is both driven by and paradigmatic of the growth that visual and performance arts in Cairo have witnessed in recent years.
Speaking to Daily News Egypt, Townhouse Gallery Curator Sarah Rifky identifies several broad trends to watch out for this year. She explains how these are mirrored in events hosted by Townhouse as well as elsewhere in Cairo and the region.
“In recent years, there has been an influx of new galleries dedicated to contemporary arts opening in Cairo,” she says, adding that the expansion is ongoing and likely to accelerate in 2011.
“I think this will absolutely have a positive impact on the visibility of the art scene as a whole.”
The crop of new galleries is matched by another kind of “space boom” occurring in parallel: A growth in educational and independent spaces run by individual artists, which provide unprecedented opportunities for alternative arts education and training.
“On a grassroots level, young artists are taking more anti-establishment roles, producing self-funded exhibits that showcase work that is distinct from any art made for commercial purposes,” explains Rifky.
This movement towards greater individual initiative has been showcased by exhibits like "Cairo Documenta," an independent visual arts exhibition held at the Viennoise Hotel on December 13, 2010. The event aimed at documenting the contemporary art scene in Egypt in a way distinguished from traditional exhibitions by its lack of affiliation with any organization, association, lead curator or noted art venue or museum.
The Townhouse Gallery’s independent study program (ISP) is both a catalyst and a product of the same broad movement. It caters to and seeks out the growing number of individuals from Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East interested in pursuing a career in the arts and at the same time personalizing and democratizing the genre.
According to the program website, the ISP promoted regional knowledge sharing on various modern and contemporary art histories of the region as part of an ongoing effort to document contemporary art practices in Egypt and the Middle East more broadly.
Following a successful pilot phase in the second half of 2010, the program is being restructured and will be opened as a one-year program in cooperation with The American University in Cairo in 2012.
The ISP is also linked with broader regional developments that Rifky observes are crystallizing the disciplines of modern and contemporary Arab art. She cites the Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art, which opened to the public on December 30, 2010 in Doha, as a pioneer of these developments.
“This is an example of a new type of institution being born in the region,” Rifky says. Her sentiments are echoed by Mathaf founder Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammad Bin Ali Al Thani.
"Today’s artistic activities can truly flourish only if they are connected meaningfully to the important history that lies behind these achievements. Mathaf deepens the conversation about Arab art and helps advance the creativity of the Arab world," said Sheikh Hassan at the museum’s opening.
Vice Chairman of Qatar Museums Authority, Sheikh Hassan spent the past 25 years amassing Mathaf’s collection, which the museum website proclaims “includes work by artists from every Arab country, representing major trends and sites of production in the region” from the 1840s to the present day.
One of the Townhouse Gallery’s most prominent events, the “Speak, Memory Symposium” held in October 2010, shared Mathaf’s objectives of documenting and preserving the recent history of art in the Middle East.
Responding to the “scarce and scattered art historical documentation” of modern and contemporary art in the region, speakmemory.org announced that the symposium sought to initiate “an informed debate on the challenges and strategies for the preservation of modern and contemporary art histories” in this region. In this way, participants gathered to examine “the rich array of methodologies that can be adopted to unearth, revisit or reactivate past artistic practices.”
Like Mathaf, the symposium aimed to create an ongoing dialogue by building a network of related initiatives. To facilitate this, speakmemory.org will be expanded to include documentation and enable discussion online as well as through follow-up events and a publication planned for launch in fall of 2011.
Rifky highlights the Townhouse Gallery’s “Invisible Publics” show which ran from May 23-June 20, 2010 as a turning point in the gallery’s programming and an apartment illustration of the unexpectedly malleable role of audiences.
The show investigated the multiple positions assumed by audiences, including viewers, readers, actors, and even characters in stories, thereby evoking the audience as a collective and rendering this “invisible public” visible.
“The show was significantly different from anything that was happening in the city before, and it re-formulated the whole structure of what Townhouse was doing, introducing different methods and practices of art, and stretching the boundaries of artists’ practices,” says Rifky.
“The aim was not just to create a new experience,” she stresses, “but also to demand a different form of engagement from the public.”