At the close of its 15th year in operation, Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Downtown Cairo was promptly shut down by government authorities. With the fear that the rest of the independent culture scene faces similar pressure, now is a good moment to look at the impact that places like Townhouse actually have.
Stepping down Nabrawy Street in Downtown, you reach Townhouse's cluster of shop, workshops, gallery, theatre, all cheek by jowl with parking garages, mechanics, and koshks. A flourishing ahwa soaks up the resulting diverse footfall, in a place where small business, informal economies, and artistic projects all interlink. For every lost foreign artist being given advice by bemused locals, there's a creperie that gains another lunch customer (and a street dog who hoofs down the remains). For every free drop-in Saturday art workshop, there's a tea seller doing brisk business. And for every craftsperson making exquisite things for sale in the craft shop, there's a curious tourist bringing Egyptian crafts back to her home country.
We tend to think that art organizations only serve artists and their niche audiences, demanding artistic freedom on obscure projects while ignoring 'real life'. A closer look destroys that idea, and tells us that whether artistically, economically or socially, their reach is far wider than we imagine. BECAUSE spoke to a handful of the hundreds of people whose world has changed because of Townhouse's pioneering initiatives.
THE TV ACTOR
If you enjoyed a Ramadan drama lately, chances are Townhouse are one of the places you have to thank. TV actor Ahmed Salah, who has had supporting roles in Dawaran Shubra and Farah Laila, started out his career by rehearsing with the avant garde street theater group Hala, because Townhouse offered them regular rehearsal space for free in their factory space. Here he worked with numerous rising stars in the performing arts, dancers, actors, technicians and musicians too numerous to mention. When BECAUSE caught up with Salah about Townhouse, it was hard to stop him talking. "It’s so important. They allowed so many artists, musicians, actors to get their start, because their doors were open."
Salah is from Matareya, but practically grew up at Townhouse. He first went there when he was 15, amazed at the vibrancy of the street and its mix of local and international influences. He leapt at the chance to rehearse with Hala, developing his performance skills as well as learning technical skills at a workshop where he "fell in love with lighting." Soon he was assisting the Technical Manager, and then became Technical Manager himself in 2006. This kind of invisible support for technical and artistic development is one of the key drivers of our mainstream entertainment industries. "Townhouse offers an opportunity for any artist to develop," says Salah. "It's a little world within a world."
THE CREATIVE ENTREPRENEURS
Nahla Kenawy has many strings to her bow—she has exhibited in Townhouse's (not for profit) Gallery twice, and also sells her delicate, whimsical silver jewelry through Townhouse's vastly popular craft shop. Here in the shop is a treasure trove of handmade crafts from Fayoum pottery, indie music CDs, homewares, accessories and jewelry for pretty much any budget. "I started making jewellery maybe 15 years ago," said Kenawy. "I sell in a lot of places, but at Townhouse there are so many people coming every year, seeing my work. The market is so small, so it means a lot to me."
Kenawy's work is accomplished and popular in numerous shops. But her work sits alongside pieces made by people who might never have called themselves artists. Mina Noshy, the manager, explains how some pieces arrive for sale there. "We run free Saturday workshops, open to all, it could be in photography, or drawing, or painting, and of many of the things made there, we suggest that it gets sold it here. With some people, we don’t even take any commission." Some of the most successful local artists, selling regualarly at the shop, made their very first artworks in a Townhouse free art workshop, called the Sawa workshops. "The idea is that everybody is an artist," says Noshy.
Karim Shafei, director of the real estate investment company Al-Ismaelia, has a unique vision when it comes to Downtown Cairo. "We are encouraging independent art spaces to relocate to Downtown into our buildings. We like to foster this because the momentum of contemporary art is one of the levers for the vitality of Downtown." For several years now, Al Ismaelia has been offering temporary space in some of its 22 properties to cultural projects like Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), and offering preferential rents to trusted cultural organisations.
As nice as this is, it's not 100% selfless. Shafei argues that supporting diverse cultural spaces like Townhouse is also part of a robust business strategy. "Places like Townhouse make Downtown more accessible. Art is one of the forces that can attract lots of types of people—it's not exclusive. In the past 50 or 60 years, the area has been largely abandoned or inhabited by one socioeconomic group. Harassment and abandoned buildings have long been a problem. By attracting much more diverse groups of people, art spaces encourage more tolerance, bringing a different vibe and changing the mood." To a property developer, this means good business.
The investment possibility in Downtown was not always clear to Shafei—and unlikely as it sounds, Townhouse can take some of the credit for highlighting it. In 2001, Townhouse and two other leading independent art spaces, Mashrabia Gallery and Karim Francis Gallery, launched Nitaq Festival Downtown, which critics have said was "the most palpable sign that the Egyptian art scene as we knew it had been shaken up."
Shafei remembers it well. "I'm not afraid to admit, until I went to Nitaq, I didn’t know what Downtown was, and this made me fall in love with it. In the end, this project planted the seed for my interest in the area." Seven years after he first visited Nitaq, Al Ismaelia was founded—and invested everything into Downtown.
THE WORKING MUM
May El-Sallab is a working mum holding down a busy career in an international organisation. She doesn’t consider herself an art junkie, but is one of the many ordinary people who unexpectedly found their lives touched by what was on offer at Townhouse. "I first was amazed to be walking amidst these mechanics and schoolchildren and shopkeepers, and suddenly finding this gem of art and learning. It opened up quite a world for me. I hadn’t known it at first but actually Downtown has lots of art."
Everybody has their favourite projects, and El-Sallab becomes more animated as she recalls hers. "My favourite project was in 2009 and was called Model Citizens [by visiting Dutch artists Elke Uitentuis and Woulter Osterholt]. It was an investigation into the urban fabric of Antikhana, Townhouse’s neighborhood, through the construction of a maquette. This was before the revolution of course, and at the time there was a lot of talk that the area would change a lot and that people like the businesses and mechanics would be moved to the suburbs to make the place more tourist friendly." The 'model' in Model Citizens was the trigger for a community conversation that helped locals reimagine the area on their own terms. "I loved the bottom-up approach of this project," continues El-Sallab. "It really reflected how citizens and communities are often the least ones consulted when the state makes big urban plans."
"When my son is big enough I’m looking forward to taking him to their children’s activities too," she says. "Townhouse is a piece of heaven in a noisy Downtown."
… AND, YES, THE ARTIST
It was 2000, and a 23-year-old art student from Assuit was finishing his degree and figuring out what to do next. "I was about to graduate, and I had been to Townhouse once or twice. It was clearly the best place to show your art. So I made a portfolio of pictures of my work and went to show it to [director] William Wells. He seemed interested, and said he wanted to see the actual paintings—but they were in my studio. To my surprise, a week later he was on a train to Assiut." A solo exhibition swiftly followed.
The artist is Basim Magdy, and today he is 2015's recipient of Deutsche Bank's Artist of the Year award, one of the most prestigious international contemporary art prizes going. Talking to BECAUSE, he looks back at how his work has developed since that first show. "I was young and didn't know much about contemporary art. I was 23 and my work reflected my age and my understanding of art at that point." Showing early-career art not only gives artists a break, but also gets the audience in at the ground floor with exciting new voices.
But solo exhibitions don’t make artists into overnight stars. It involves years of constant work and development that can’t be done alone, and that's where cultural spaces are so needed. "That first exhibition was also followed by a lot of support. Townhouse didn't just offer me a place to see and exhibit interesting art, but they also helped me get many professional opportunities such as artist residencies abroad."
Magdy is unequivocally clear on why we need places like Townhouse. "They're important to any society. Societies are built on diversity, in all forms. People need different places that offer different forms of culture. The minute we all start thinking the same way and liking the same thing is the same moment a society stops evolving and progressing."
Image courtesy of Townhouse Gallery.