The Mosaic rooms – London’s free space for contemporary culture from the Arab world is celebrating 20 years of the Townhouse gallery in Cairo with the exhibition entitled What do you mean, here we are?. Established in 1998 the Cairo Townhouse has been one of first independent spaces in the Egyptian capital where contemporary artists could exhibit their work. On show in London are works by Egyptian and international artists who have exhibited in the Townhouse over the years.
Model Citizens (2008) was created by Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis, who collaborated on this scale model with local artists. It is a replica of the area surrounding the Townhouse. Details such as shop signs and old cars with their fabric covers are instantly recognizable features of Cairo’s urban landscape. The buildings have been replicated with extraordinary detail, but there is a noticeable absence of human figures. Are model citizens supposed to be out of sight? Out of sight, out of mind?
In contrast, many artists featured in this exhibition put human figures at the centre of their art. The majority of video-based art on display addresses social and political issues by showing people in public spaces. In Silence of the Sheep (2009) by Amal Kenawy, workers crawling through the streets are confronted with passers-by. This recorded performance symbolizes people’s submission to poor living conditions.
Several text-based works were created in response to political events, social issues and cultural norms. The obelisk by Huda Lufti Making a man out of him (2010) is primarily concerned with the politics of gender inequality. Mona Hatoum’s Waiting is forbidden (2006) addresses the problem of state control over public spaces, which directly affects the arts and public life in general.
Ayman Ramadan’s video Iftar (2004) filmed in the Townhouse shows people breaking fast during Ramadan. It is stylised as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, with strong chiaroscuro effect resembling Caravaggio’s paintings. In dialogue with traditional forms of artistic expression, this video is a case of life imitating art. It is also closely connected with the gallery itself, as it features the gallery workers and locals participating in the communal Iftar meal.
One project deserves a separate mention, due to the impact it had on the profile of Egyptian art locally and abroad. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin during their residency at the Townhouse in 2010 created a series of prints using quotes taken from the early Egyptian Surrealists manifestos. Thanks to this project there has been a significant interest in the Egyptian Surrealism – several good books about the movement were published in recent years.
You will not find eye-candy mainstream art in this exhibition. Many of the artworks on display need to be viewed with their context in mind, gallery labels and leaflets are very helpful in this regard. The strength of this retrospective lies in its well-explained and varied selection of socially responsive contemporary art.
*At the moment of posting this review the exhibition is in its final days. Available to view for free from 6 July till 15 September 2018 at the Mosaic Rooms.
*Disclaimer: I have used the information available in the gallery on labels and leaflets writing this text .
The Mosaic Rooms website: https://mosaicrooms.org/
You can read more about the exhibition here: https://mosaicrooms.org/event/what-do-you-mean-here-we-are/