WRITTEN BY ANNA ROWELL
Downtown Cairo was once a sanctuary, an alternative opposition space, the turf of independent art and literary undercurrents and young revolutionaries. Now under attack from the state’s 'clean up' operation, its arts are acting as a frontier of resistance against the erosion of Egypt’s cultural landscape. Downtown is socially porous and heterotopic, with competing layers of meaning and flexible boundaries across class and culture: a fertile ground for arts to thrive. Yet faced with interference from an increasingly militarised state and profit driven development, the future of this unique cultural and artistic landscape is precarious.
Cairo’s Arts in Context
Originally an upper class district, downtown was styled upon Haussman’s Parisian streets. The 1970s signalled a decline in its socio-economic standing, which encouraged bohemian artists to take refuge in its cafes. The remaining upper and middle classes now inhabiting downtown and laying claim to its identity lament its current state. There is a nostalgia for the embodiment of colonial power: the elite want downtown to be an open air monument to the golden age of privilege and liberalism. However, this social demographic generally aren’t interested in sustaining or cohabiting spaces with social diversity, abandoning downtown for the more desirable new desert settlements and gated compounds.
Having participated in the Campus in Context workshop as part of the American University in Cairo and Beirut’s Neighbourhood Initiative, I am increasingly aware of how downtown has suffered from this ‘nomadism of the bourgeoisie’. Resituating the university’s campus 35 kilometres east of Tahrir Square, to New Cairo, has formed a magnet for urban development away from the city centre. Streets around the former campus are now devoid of its once vibrant student population. The residential occupancy rate in downtown has dropped almost 60% over the past 50 years, in parallel with the student community’s fading urban legacy. Schemes like the Neighbourhood Initiative are attempting to revitalise downtown, yet I wonder whether it is still possible for such programmes to provide a robust foundation for real and lasting civic rejuvenation.
Creative Cities: Reframing Downtown
‘Creative Cities: Reframing Downtown,’ organised by the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research (CLUSTER) and the American University in Cairo (AUC), recently brought the current discourse on the future of Cairo’s downtown arts scene into the limelight. Academics, professionals and experts, together with local community members, stakeholders, and cultural advocates, gathered to reflect on a broad range of issues related to public space, heritage and culture, urban revitalisation, and governance. It aimed to create a continuing international and interdisciplinary dialogue on the role arts can play as a catalyst for future regeneration. I approached this conference hoping a number of questions might be addressed: What is the value of art, particularly in a complex metropolis such as Cairo? Can arts and neoliberal development be compatible, or does their attempted unification inevitably end up as cultural pockets of activity within sanitised public space, where art can only generate cosmetic urban improvements? Is art exclusionary – a social necessity or a cultural luxury? And, if not a necessity, what right does art have in shaping the future of Egypt’s turbulent socio-political landscape?
Art as a Tool for Inclusion
Art thrives in diversity, and different publics practice the city in very different ways. Voiced by historian Dr. Lucy Ryzova, downtown is a territory available to everyone but belonging to no one; a stage with its own set of rules, scripts, and codes. The arts should function in a similar way: not working against the processes of change but making it more inclusive. However, Cairo’s developer-led regeneration serves the subjective aesthetic preferences of a minority, while the arts are directed at an exclusive group, irrelevant to the majority of the population. With a quarter of Egypt’s population estimated to be living below the poverty line, high unemployment rates, and a lack of basic services in many areas, talking about art galleries can seem frivolous. Progressive discussions frustratingly tend to fall short of reaching beyond the economics of cultural initiatives, limiting the conversation to gentrification rather than probing the real potentials of art. However, examples like downtown’s Townhouse Gallery demonstrate how arts can exist in a symbiotic relationship with their environment, forming a co-working space of artisans. Local craftsmen and artists work within a dilapidated neighbourhood of mechanics where their complimentary services benefit both parties, in ways more far reaching than the additional revenue the gallery brings to the surrounding businesses. The previous stigmatisation towards ‘the other’ between locals and the gallery’s patrons reveals what an exclusive sphere the arts in Cairo previously embodied and appealed to, yet such initiatives are helping shift the current cultural landscape towards that which is accessible and relevant to Cairo’s citizenry.
Creativity within a Contested City
Held at the AUC campus on Tahrir Square, the conference’s location straddled a focal point of contested space, a symbol of political struggle, and an icon of revolutionary legacy. The military now acts as the area’s primary urban planner, erasing memories and defining new boundaries.
There’s limited opportunity for people to be critically active in the (re)formation of public spaces. Many of the current plans for future downtown, as with most of the changes happening across the landscape of post-revolution Egypt, are being decided and implemented without any consideration for the desires and needs of the citizenry. Worryingly, arts in Cairo are in danger of state interference and heavy censorship, as a string of contemporary art spaces in Cairo have been raided in recent months. On December 28th, the associated library, archive, and office of Townhouse Gallery and Rawabet Theatre were shut down following an unexpected inspection from interagency officials, with no formal justification. When art is censored, it reflects a pervasive encroachment on the citizenry’s freedom of expression, and more than creativity at stake.
The inevitable frustrations of Cairenes were voiced by graffiti artist El Teneen, who plastered posters around AUC’s campus during the conference. Asking “How creative is taking down revolutionary graffiti walls?”, he referred to the campus’ bullet-ridden boundary wall scheduled for imminent demolition, along with its display of the revolution's most provocative graffiti. Blatantly smothering artistic expression in public space limits ‘art’ to forms of cultural production that belong in galleries, rather than that which can reach a more diverse audience and inspire social change. If downtown is being ‘cleansed,’ as in the case of removing the graffiti wall, will the future of Cairo’s artistic production also become censored?
What lies ahead for downtown Cairo?
Art has the potential to bring other forms of richness and wealth beyond surface-level rejuvenation. Institutions can change their environs beyond the immediacy of lectures, symposia, performances, and exhibitions, if art is not just a fiscal mechanism for the cultured elite.
Rather than just resigning itself to existing as a luxury endeavour, Cairo’s cultural landscape could be enriched by questioning the ethics of art within a politically charged urban context. To realise a vision, there must be a state of coherency: policy making needs active participation by all stakeholders, where the city lays claim to an art scene which is accessible to all. The first step might be simply to restrain from sanitising the complex, exuberant, revolutionary aftermath that currently makes up Cairo’s urban core. As Cairo grapples with its future, the emergence of art as a product of downtown’s polarisation could be one of its most dynamic responses yet.
For more information on the conference, click here