What role do you believe the Townhouse gallery has played in shaping the contemporary culture of Cairo and Egypt?
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How has it been different from other institutions in the region and elsewhere? Sarah Rifky : Since Townhouse's founding, it has played a significant role in providing a platform for artists in Egypt and the region, particularly up-and-coming artists. It is pertinent to mention that it has both acted as an incubator for various initiatives, collectives and organizations over the last decade.
It is definitely a large contributor to the ecology of Egypt's artscape. Townhouse has grown quite organically over the years, and is both context-responsive and site-specific. It is an institution that does not conform to the traditional understanding of what an institution is or does. Who would have thought that a space tucked away in a back alley of mechanics in the heart of Cairo would become one of the most central art platforms in the city? Periodically, it is an institution that surprises itself and its public.
And in recent years, it has been a great platform for art education initiatives, and has expanded quite laterally beyond the visual arts. It is home to an integral cultural community, spanning art, music, theatre and design. OK : Townhouse has been renowned for its international residency programme — creating and fostering a discursive space for artists, writers, curators, and thinkers.
Do you believe that there is something specifically generative about this particular residency process? SR : The residency programme has evolved organically in tandem with the gallery itself, and in collaboration with our many regional and international partners. Residencies have also taken many forms over the years, from hosting Open Studios to group residencies. We have learnt over time that the most generative way to host artists is to invite them to simply live and engage with the city, the space and the surroundings.
Townhouse makes no demands of visiting artists; we don't ask them to produce a work or hold a show at the end of their residency. On occasion, artists will start developing work and subsequently return to Townhouse to show a work that was started while they were doing their residency. We do encourage artists to give presentations, hold talks, and sometimes workshops with our outreach programmes as a means of getting to know the public and to give them an opportunity to present their work to a new audience.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that no two residencies are alike. There is no pre-set or established scheme; we tailor ourselves to the nature of the artist's work and offer support where necessary.
OK : In terms of your work with artists, do you think that there are any formal, aesthetic or conceptual issues that are appearing in the work of visual artists from the region? SR : I hesitate to describe synergies or overlaps amongst artworks but I would say that what does distinguish Cairo from other cities in the region is the heterogeneity of artistic languages and the forms that artists create.
For a long time, one could say that it was a side effect of the diverse languages and vocabularies that are already pre-existing in the city, and the absence of a single unifying issue - say, for example, the equivalent of the Civil War in Lebanon. Now, with the uprising and the shift in the political climate, there are of course subtle — if you want to call them — trends that are evident as a means of trying to understand the relationship between politics, current events and art.
Of course, the generational question must also be posed; I feel that more and more, there are nuances of a shared language amongst young or emerging artists that are starting to evolve, and perhaps they all stem from a shared 'sentiment' but also condition, as well as a shared education and reality. Do you have any advice for artists and institutions on how to deal with this? SR : Though I wouldn't term the situation as post-revolutionary, it is true that the never-ending season of hope is attracting a lot of interest.
I think engaging others' curiosity is fine, so long as it's not co-opting the current state of fluidity and attempts at conjugating a new political reality into a fixed form of spectacle. I can't prescribe how anyone should 'deal' with this; perhaps the most important thing is a matter of questioning the impetus of questions, asking why people might want to engage, and how.
Being critical and scrutinizing, but also open and sincere.
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To me, personally, some of the most interesting things that have evolved are still discursive, and within an educational setting, though there are many other artists and institutions that are thematically trying to set the theme of revolution into a series of exhibitions. I am less interested in the first layer or re-presenting the currents of events but rather more interested in the sedimentary questions that may be explored at this moment.
SR : There are many! I am interested in the wider scoping of the region and in learning from other initiatives in Africa as well. There are many more.
Sarah Rifky lives and works in Cairo and elsewhere. Omar Kholeif is a curator, writer, editor and sometime producer. The author of over a dozen books, he also writes widely for the international press and was a founding editor of Portal 9, an Arabic-English journal of urbanism and architecture. Follow Omar on Twitter: everythingOK. Sign up. Omar Kholeif.
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