Contemporary Art in Cairo

A version of this article was published in Travel + Leisure


This article was selected for the second edition of Travel + Leisure’s 100 Greatest Trips


In downtown Cairo, miracles are performed on Maarouf.  A narrow, tree-lined street in the eastern shadows of the Egyptian Museum, Maarouf echoes with the sound of hammers reshaping steel. Black motor oil glistens in pools on the sidewalk and the small shops nearby are stacked floor to ceiling with auto parts or safety glass.  Parked at the curb propped up on jacks is a century’s worth of automotive history awaiting resurrection by the mechaniki of Maarouf.  Through improvisational genius and the ability to fabricate almost any part, they are able to return old Cadillacs to their 1920s elegance and rebuild Turkish-made Dogans for another decade’s hard labor in the streets of Cairo.  On Maarouf, even the Soviet Union can be patched together and made to stagger on, in the form of the boxy black- and white-paneled Ladas that are the mainstays of the local taxi trade.

On a warm evening in April I went to a contemporary art opening on a quiet lane a block south of Maarouf, at a gallery called Townhouse.  There, the hammering of the mechaniki reduced to a faint, metronomic rhythm and the alley buzzed with Egyptians debating the merits of the video installation and large-scale color photographs of conspicuously un-touristy parts of Cairo.  A few older, professorial types mingled with the mostly young crowd as they gave the work long, respectful consideration.  Some were artists themselves, dressed in a modest, bohemian style or in the black-framed glasses and fashionable casualness of art scenes everywhere.  But the setting was uniquely Cairo: a century ago, this alley was the entrance to a sprawling mansion that still sits, decrepit and alluring, behind a long wall.  Now, Townhouse’s echoing white-walled space feels vaguely industrial, and unmistakably hip, while downtown Cairo has become the home of an astonishingly vibrant contemporary art scene.

The temporal distance between Townhouse and Maarouf might, at first glance, seem to be measured more easily in decades than minutes, but in fact every part of Cairo is dense with competing functions and overlapping histories.  I lived downtown in the mid-1990s, in an airy apartment just off Maarouf, and spent much of my time going to things few people associate with life in Egypt: outdoor jazz by the Nile on Sundays, modern dance at the Gomhuriya theater, opera at the neo-Islamic Opera House.  Mostly, though, I went to art exhibits.  It was a sleepier art scene then, but there was something about downtown – the palatial buildings in a haunting state of disrepair, the traffic-jammed streets adjacent to alleys of almost pastoral beauty – that inspired creativity.

What I loved most about downtown was that it was intended to be French.  Almost a century and a half ago, the Khedive of Egypt laid out the district as a replica of Haussmann’s Paris, with stately apartment buildings, circular étoile and radial boulevards.  At the time, France was synonymous with progress and downtown was part of the Khedive’s very expensive effort to persuade the world that Egypt was a modern country.  The world was largely unconvinced and Cairenes soon reclaimed this faux-French urban space as their own: shops were refurbished, signs were rewritten, and boulevards were renamed.  Now, downtown at street level feels like the archetypal Cairo district; it is only when you step back and look at the upper floors of the buildings that you recall its foreign origins.

Townhouse opened in 1998, the year I left Cairo, which was precisely the moment at which the Egyptian art world began to change dramatically.  So in April I returned to find out what had happened to the artists and galleries that I’d followed so closely a decade earlier and to explore what it means to create contemporary art today in a context like Egypt.


“How do you learn to draw the body if you never see nude models?” I ask the artist Rehab El.Sadek as we sit by a café window Alexandria talking about her art education.  “It is difficult,” Rehab offers, her gentle laugh suggesting this is the sort of question foreigners always ask.  “We used to draw in our houses, in front of the mirror.  Or you can wear stretchy t-shirts.”  Now I laugh.  “Yes, yes, I know,” she says impatiently, “but the body still shows.  Besides, maybe it’s not as important to draw the body as it is to reflect the soul of a person.”

When I ask Egyptian artists about the challenges they face, nudity – or religion, the veil, government censorship, and many of the other things that preoccupy foreigners – are not generally the things they talk about.  Americans may now be more aware of fundamentalism in the Middle East, but Cairo is actually a little more open and liberal than it was a decade ago: newspapers demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation; couples hold hands in public instead of the more chaste arm in arm; and alcohol, once a closed-door activity, is sold openly at new Drinkie shops.  Besides, Egyptian artists have always had the equivalent of stretchy t-shirts that allow them to walk up to society’s red lines without stepping over.  They have enough freedom to create art; what most of them talk about is the need to get their art out into the world.  And at some point that conversation leads back to Townhouse, even with artists who don’t exhibit there.


Living downtown in the 1990s, my favorite café was outdoors on a small, unpaved alley near Maarouf presided over by an older man with a resplendent belly who was known affectionately as Hajj Lipton – hajj being a Muslim honorific and Lipton, it is said, owing to his being among the first to serve the brand in tea-mad Cairo.   Hajj Lipton’s café was a modest place, popular primarily with off-duty soldiers, but it was made precious by a tekaiba, an awning of flowering vines that spanned the alley and ran down the wall of a vast and seemingly abandoned mansion, speckling the tables with sunlight.   A few blocks away were streets thick with traffic jammed day and night, but here the city had an almost pastoral air.

When I went looking for the café in April the first change I noticed was that Hajj Lipton had passed away and the vines had been cut down as a result of an ill-conceived government edict, or so I was told.  Then I saw the art posters spackled to the crumbling walls nearby.  After Townhouse opened on the alley, Hajj Lipton’s café gradually became the de facto canteen for the contemporary art world in Cairo, so now the off-duty soldiers are joined by young artists, armchair critics, and staff from the gallery.  A couple days later, William Wells, the Canadian-born co-founder of Townhouse gallery, suggested we meet at Hajj Lipton’s before touring the ever-expanding spaces at Townhouse.

William Wells does not look like a revolutionary: he is in his early-50s, with a soft but forceful way of speaking and the appearance of a casually dressed Tom Wolfe.  When he discusses his gallery, he almost makes it sound like a succession of mundane but vital tasks; to everyone else, William’s moves merit the scrutiny and speculation that US diplomats brought to the study of the Kremlin during the Cold War.

“I came back to Cairo in 1998 and just felt this energy around the Cairo Biennale,” William says, referring to the big government-sponsored exhibition.  “I knew that if I didn’t open up this space someone else would.”  This energy had its source in a number of long-developing trends in Egyptian art that burst to the surface over the next few years; in particular, a talented generation of young artists was beginning to work in video, photography, and installation, which were media that many in Egypt did not regard as ‘real’ art forms.  William positioned his gallery at the forefront of these trends, both capitalizing on them and pushing them further.  As a result, for many people in Egypt how they feel about Townhouse is tied up with how they feel about the broader changes they see happening in the Cairo art world.

When I lived in Cairo there were a few independent galleries downtown – including Mashrabia, Espace Karim, and the now defunct Cairo-Berlin – that generally showed traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture.  It was hard for them to compete with the state galleries, which functioned as showcases for the regime and were part of the vast cultural infrastructure sustained by the Ministry of Culture out of the same modernizing impulse that led the Khedive to build downtown.   Indeed, Cairo probably has more art colleges, museums, galleries, and national exhibitions than any other city in the world at a similar level of wealth and development.   But it is also a conservative place, one in which a well-known artist like Georges Bahgory still exhibits to official acclaim Picasso-influenced Cubist paintings that could have been made in 1910.  So to the old guard that sees video or photography as not really art, Townhouse looks like an ever-expanding empire designed to reward the wrong artists.

Townhouse’s success only makes the shift more galling.  It grew from a single gallery, where it mostly showed paintings, to a cluster of spaces along the alley that became the leading venue for young artists working in new media.  “We discovered there were serious problems in terms of representing artists,” William says, “because there was no portfolio system.  Artists were just bringing in family albums with pictures of their work.”  A frequently heard exclamation in Cairo is mafish nizam – there’s no system – which is used to explain anything that doesn’t work efficiently, from traffic to bureaucracy.  What William discovered was that in art, too, there was no system.  Actually, there were parts of a system: the extensive Ministry of Culture infrastructure meant a lot of art was created and displayed, but the system of art – the way it is marketed and sold, even the way it is installed in the gallery and lit – was undeveloped.  William set about trying to change that and as a result Townhouse is the only gallery in Cairo that looks the way many foreign curators and art critics think a gallery should look, the way it might look in New York or London.


When I arrive at Mashrabia it is early afternoon and the lights are off, which is a common economizing measure at Cairo galleries.  The gallery is a musty space with low ceilings and uneven wooden floors, located on the second floor of a building on Champollion Street.  The entrance is hidden down a narrow passage lined with café tables and people smoking shisha, clouding the approach in a sweet apple-scented cloud of smoke.  As I wander the two connecting rooms of the gallery trying to make out the colors of Ahmed Nosseir’s Abstract Expressionist paintings in the dim, refracted sunlight from the front windows, the exhibition lights finally come on.

In the mid-1990s, Mashrabia was the gallery of choice for artists working in painting and sculpture.  They now occasionally exhibit photography but I asked Mashrabia’s Italian-born director, Stefania Angarano, why she otherwise had not embraced the move into new media.  Stefania, however, couldn’t help talking about Townhouse.  “OK, they are magicians at communications and all the world knows Townhouse now,” she said, as if this were an incidental part of a gallery’s business, “but they are not the only reality here.”  She paused, considering her words, and then pronounced as “catastrophic” the impact of Townhouse’s promotion of new media on the younger generation of artists.

“Now, when you ask an artist, what do you want to do,” Stefania says, in a weary tone, “they want to do a video.  For most it is just because it’s new.  They have not internalized the language of video; they use the language without thinking deeply about it.  It’s so superficial.”  When I ask her to name a video she thought especially shallow, she mentions one by Moataz Nasr Eldin.  So I went to see him.


For 2,000 years, every empire wanted control of Egypt, which was invaded and occupied countless times.  Each new power in Cairo built a district in its own image adjacent to the old ones, leaving behind a fossil record of their culture in the streets and buildings of the city that survives to this day.  Downtown was built to resemble Paris; Garden City, just to its south, is a particularly British anti-urban ideal, with lots of trees and no straight streets; to the east there is the medieval and once-walled city of the Fatimids and Mamlukes, with its great mosques, congested alleys, and famous Khan el-Khalili souq; and to the south, in the still disproportionately Christian area of Mar Girgis, there is the pre-Islamic city of Cairo as it was before the 7th century Arab invasion.  The only chapter that has been almost completely destroyed is the first Arab settlement called Fustat, just north of Mar Girgis, which until quite recently was a wasteland colonized by cement factories and potters who formed makeshift kilns out of salvaged materials.

In the mid-1990s, Moataz and another artist I knew well, Hamdi Attia, had studios near Fustat in illegally constructed buildings that the government was slowly wiring for telephone service while continuing to deny existed.  It was a toxic environment in which to create art: the cement factories spewed a fine white ash into the air, veiling the district in an unhealthy fog.  Moataz worked in paint and clay then, with limited success; today, he works mainly in video and is talked about with equal parts awe and resentment as the embodiment of the changed possibilities in the Egyptian art world.

Moataz was born in Alexandria in 1961 and now has a little more gray in his beard but retains the same thoughtful manner.   We meet at his new studio downtown and then go to a popular restaurant nearby called Felfela.  At the entryway there is a large mural that he worked on a decade ago that sold for $800 at the time; by contrast, Moataz claims that his 2002 video installation Tabla – the one Stefania so disliked – sold for about $50,000, both a price and a medium that would have been inconceivable at the time we first met.

The change came in 1998 after Moataz’s first solo show of paintings at the powerful government-run Akhneton gallery in Zamalek.  He then made extended art trips to Paris and London that left him “totally confused,” he says, by the work he’d seen in video and new media.  “What I liked very much was this idea of conceptual art, when art is not just something beautiful but has this kind of influence on the audience and makes them think.  Especially in a country like Egypt, you should not just create art to hang on the walls, for the elite, but do it for the common people so that maybe – maybe – this can change something in the society.”

Moataz’s embryonic interest in conceptual art led him, like so many others, from painting to video.  Video is not actually a new medium for art but in Egypt video equipment only recently became widely available and inexpensive enough for artists to be able to work with it.  Even now, Shady el-Noshokaty, a professor at the College of Art Education and an artist who also migrated to video, says until recently his students had to edit in the video camera – fastforwarding to the right spot and then copying each section to another machine – due to the lack of proper editing equipment.  In addition, Moataz and others working in video were accused of slavishly copying the West, which is one of the most radioactive charges in Egypt and also, to me, one of the strangest.  As the once-French district of downtown suggests, everything becomes Egyptian if it is in Egypt long enough.  Indeed, visiting the newly re-opened Museum of Egyptian Modern Art – which represents, if you will, the art establishment’s official narrative – it becomes clear that the story of art in Egypt for the last century has been the arrival of new ideas and trends from the West being adapted by Egyptian artists to represent local subjects and address local issues.  The unique value in Egyptian art is not that it is necessarily innovative in form, but that it reflects one of the richest, deepest, most layered societies and cultures on earth.  The current controversy about video, then, may just be that it is new and so has not had time to be made Egyptian yet.

In any case, technique was never Moataz’s strength, even as a painter.  But watching some of his video works, I realized that the new form had liberated the power of his mind from the limitations of his hand.  In his split-screen video The Echo, for example, he addresses a century of political disappointment by showing a moving speech from a well-known Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine called Al Ard (The Land, made in 1969 and set in the 1930s), in which a man lectures his fellow villagers on their emasculation for failing to resist the British colonizers; Moataz juxtaposed it with the same speech delivered in 2003 by a female storyteller to a group of men seated passively in a café.  This was a powerful, arresting work that made me think, just as Moataz had hoped.

The video Stefania had singled out for opprobrium was Tabla, and when I saw it at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of a traveling ‘Africa Remix’ exhibit I understood why she had criticized it as “a typical example of what foreign curators want to see.”  The video shows a man playing an ornate, mother-of-pearl inlaid tabla, a hand drum, and it looks like something out of a tourist brochure depicting a particularly folkloric and stereotypical Egypt.  It seemed fitting that it should be part of a hodge-podge group show of contemporary African artists who appear to share nothing except geography.  But ‘Africa Remix’ is a big show, offering a lot of exposure for Egyptian artists; it is natural to want to be part of it.  And the reality is that when many foreign curators come to Cairo to make selections for international exhibitions, they look for work that is ostentatiously rooted in Egypt.

That foreign curators are coming to Egypt at all is due in part to the September 11th attacks, after which the US and Europe started to pay closer attention to contemporary Arab life – and with it, almost incidentally, Arab art – than they ever had before.  But many of these curators know more about art than they do about Egypt, so they come to fill shows on themes that American or European audiences find resonant – Islam, women, and the veil being popular subjects.  “It’s funny,” says the artist Amal Kenawy. “We receive these invitations for international exhibitions and they all have the same titles: Scheherazade, or A Call for a Woman…” There are important gender issues in Egypt, for both men and women – Amal addresses some of them in her art, as does Moataz – but few Egyptian artists want this to be the defining prism through which their work is viewed.  But as long as foreign curators have the money, produce the big exhibits, and provide an avenue to the important collectors, it will be tempting to cater to their tastes.  Even the artists who try not to cater to a Western audience can find the heliotropic effect of curator approval bends their work towards certain themes.

For me, one of the most unbending artists is Sabah Naeim, who describes herself as “an ordinary Egyptian girl who listens to her mother and father.”  Sabah suggests we meet in the garden of the Cairo Atelier, a kind of ramshackle social club located on a cul-de-sac not far from Maarouf that is frequented mostly by an older generation of artists.  We sit outside on white plastic chairs, in a garden without vegetation hemmed in by buildings.  I had asked Hazem Salem, a writer and translator, to join us and he nods his head when he hears Sabah describe herself this way.  He later makes a point of emphasizing that she really is typical – in class and experience – “except,” he adds admiringly, “there’s no one else like her.”

Sabah was born in 1967 and lives in a shaabi district of Cairo, which Egyptians call alternately a ‘popular quarter’ or middle class but which most foreigners, who aren’t as attuned to the fine class distinctions of Cairo life, would mistake for poor.  It is an area of narrow streets and close, concrete-frame buildings whose foundations sometimes seem to rest uncertainly on the ground, a legacy of corners cut in construction.  But Sabah’s district is not poor; it is a community of long standing, with the tight social bonds that make so many parts of Cairo feel smaller and more human than one would imagine possible for a city its size.  It is, in short, the sort of area in which her father, a wood merchant, and her mother, a housewife, would feel at home.

This is the life that Sabah records in her photographs, painting on them to add or subtract elements and emphasize people or places or expressions.  It is a side of Cairo that is neither wealthy and modern nor impoverished and folkloric, but rather something in between: just people making their way in the city, lost in their own thoughts.  In addition, Sabah makes collages from folded newspapers or magazines, often arranged in abstract patterns that remind me of water currents.  In ‘Africa Remix,’ she had a 15-panel piece called Cairo Noises that combined photographs on canvas and collage; in a show that spanned a continent, hers was, for me, the most engaging work in the entire exhibit.

Sabah speaks very little English and wears the headscarf called a hijab, two facts that roughly balance each other in terms of her appeal to foreign curators.  The new emphasis in Egypt on the conceptual component of art places a premium on the ability to talk about the ideas that drive the concept, and with foreign curators and writers it helps to be able to do it in English or French.  I met with a number of artists who feel part of a lost generation – lost primarily because they speak only Arabic and so can’t communicate directly with most foreign curators.  Sabah shows widely – “I’m rich,” she tells me, completely without affect, when I ask how her art is selling – and somehow manages to engage the international art community on her own terms, at least as far as language is concerned.  With the headscarf, it’s harder.  “I totally refuse to be exhibited as a veiled Muslim woman,” she says.  “I am not a feminist.  I am an artist from Egypt, like any other man or woman who is an artist from Africa or Europe.”

In most parts of the world ‘issues of representation’ is the type of thing academics debate in esoteric journals, but in Egypt almost everyone has a strongly held opinion on the subject.  I will often be politely stopped from taking a photograph by a passerby and given a lecture – usually a very long, detailed, and by turns insightful and paranoid lecture – on how I am taking this photograph out of context and can use it to misrepresent Egypt or Egyptians.  European travelers have been taking photographs of Egypt almost from the day the camera was invented and that long history has left many Egyptians feeling powerless to control the way their country is perceived by the world.  I understand their frustration: the Egypt I read about in American newspapers or hear debated on talk shows seems almost unrelated to the country I lived in for three years.  It must be a strange and difficult thing to create art in a culture that foreigners, mostly sight unseen, are convinced has ‘gone wrong,’ as the scholar Bernard Lewis put it in the title of his bestseller about Islam.  But for Egyptian artists, I think the need to work within the context foreigners delineate for them is just the awkward intermediate stage of a longer process.

At least I hope it is, and what gives me hope is that I have seen this cycle play out once before.  I lived in Hong Kong in the early-1990s, before moving to Cairo, and watched as the world discovered mainland Chinese art, in particular the pop art of the post-Tiananmen Square generation.  This work, too, was first regarded as an improbable novelty; then, it came to be seen as an act of political defiance in the face of dictatorship, even when it dealt with apolitical subjects.  At that time, though, the West’s interest in China itself was primarily political, so that became the prism through which many Western curators, collectors, and critics saw Chinese art.  But now that has also faded: Chinese artists have established themselves on the international art scene and are now judged more for their art than for being Chinese; and the West has expanded its interest and understanding of China, allowing it to take a more nuanced view of Chinese art.

Egyptian artists today are probably somewhere between the novelty and political stages, which is why so many feel boxed in by expectations and misrepresented.   And Egypt will always be known primarily for its antiquity: 5,000 years of history casts an inescapably long shadow.  But while the dynasty that built the Pyramids has long since died out and the medieval bazaar now has more tourists than traditional merchants, this is the moment in which the contemporary art scene is most alive.  As Moataz says, “This is the peak.  Someone should document this moment, now, because I don’t know what will happen after.”


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about art,  Egypt, the Middle East, or North Africa.


Click images to view tear sheets or here to go to the original article on the Travel + Leisure website.