Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art emerged in the winter of 1998, as the brainchild of Canadian art enthusiast William Wells.
Its home is a run-down building in a downtown Cairo alley, in the car mechanics district. But Townhouse’s impact has transcended its geographical location. Against the backdrop of local coffee shops, it has challenged Cairo’s art scene and inspired a movement of artists willing to redefine the meaning of contemporary art. Townhouse has continued to raise questions about the place of art, the relationship between art and the community, and the role of art in a context of struggle and change.
From the first floor of a residential property to occupying three floors of the building, converting a paper factory to a large art space and harnessing a discarded industrial space as a sight for performance art, Townhouse was never really a mere gallery. In 15 years, it has assumed a number of roles and functions: a lab for experimentation, a hub for conversation and a sight for construction. Its focus on visual arts has perhaps waned over the past few years, but it has continued to incubate and support cultural initiatives and collectives, and host residencies, educational activities and outreach programs.
Townhouse on the street: A rival to public art education
In the late nineties, William Wells became exposed to a very broad spectrum of artistic production taking place in the city. He frequently visited the homes and studios of artists of all generations in Cairo, from students to painters and sculptors working within the Ministry of Culture. He found himself particularly drawn to work that was produced by younger people, due he suspects, to the fact that the mediums they were using, and the language in their practice was more familiar to him and had a stronger impact.
Wells had scouted the work he was interested to show, primarily unconventional projects, but was met with a notable shortage in places that would host these works, that included large-scale paintings, installations, and objects.
Despite the reforms to Egypt's cultural sector, ushered in by the appointment of Farouk Hosny as Minister of Culture in 1989, contemporary visual artists still suffered from a wide assortment of constraints on their practice. Hosny established a number of large-scale events in the capital and beyond, including the Cairo International Biennale in 1984 and the Youth Salon in 1989. Still, the quality of education at institutional levels was feeble at best, and artistic production was not met with a movement of art criticism or substantial critical discourse.
Townhouse can thus be placed at the forefront of a movement of private cultural spaces, including Mashrabia Gallery, Espace Karim, and Cairo-Berlin, offering visual artists an alternative platform for cultural activity.
Since its inception, it became clear that Townhouse would have a responsibility both to the local community in the gallery’s vicinity and to the larger art community.
William Wells tells Ahram Online that his first intention was to "provide a space where artists could have a conversation away from all the governmental restrictions."
Establishing its prominence within the independent art scene in its earliest years came hand-in-hand with fostering profound relationships within the area of downtown Cairo in which it had been immersed.
Artist Huda Lutfi, who has occupied one of Townhouse’s rooftop studios for 14 years, and has held numerous exhibitions at the exhibition spaces, says the gallery’s strong relationship with the local community has been a key factor in its success.
"The presence of Townhouse in a popular area of Downtown [Cairo], with all its shops, craftsmen and garages, had led to building close connections with the local community, and in turn has helped it to continue to exist successfully in the area," Lutfi said.
This seamless rapport between Townhouse and the community set the tone for Townhouse’s outreach programs, added Wells.
"The interesting thing, right from the first day…was that you could not really determine where the coffee shop began and where it ended, because conversations started here, ended there, and the coffee shop was part of the space," he explained.
While people on the street were overcome with curiosity, and frequently approached Townhouse’s artists to probe and challenge them, the formal domain, made up by art students and their professors, was not nearly as receptive. The public education system rejected a large portion of the art being produced and showcased within Townhouse.
"So, you would get a group of young people coming into the gallery and they would say: this is not art. Why? Because video art or photography is not art," recalled Wells. "And their teachers would say exactly the same thing. And these were people that were in positions to make decisions about what was being seen out of Egypt, making these kinds of statements."
Meanwhile, “the guys in the garages and the guys in the coffee shops came up to the artists and asked question that an art critic or a curator may not even ask,” Wells says.
Nitaq: Townhouse's birth and challenge to the Ministry's art
This lack of substantial critical discourse over art, and the gap between the movement of young independent artists experimenting with new art forms and questioning the definitions of contemporary art, and a very traditional formal sector prompted the organisation of Nitaq in 2000.
Nitaq was an art festival that created notable ripples in the local art scene. Co-organised by three galleries, Mashrabia, Karim Francis and Townhouse, the initiative brought exhibitions and performances to the art spaces and to the streets of downtown Cairo. Nitaq was organised as a parallel artistic event to the Ministry's International Cairo Biennale.
Nitaq One and Two therefore played host to the outcast, talented young independent artists, brought together by private galleries and independent curators as well as international cultural institutions.
Nitaq and the Cairo Biennale did not exactly enjoy a symbiotic relationship; the parallel, independently run events angered ministry officials. This friction between the public and private cultural domains inspired questions over cultural dynamics and the politics of artistic representation. Moreover, in an attempt to regain control over cultural representation in Egypt that was a hallmark of Nasser's regime, former president Hosni Mubarak's government had reinstalled the culture ministry and other cultural institutions that had collapsed under Anwar Sadat. Now, these institutions were being rivalled by a movement of independent artists.
Artist Hala El-Koussy, who had exhibited her work as part of the ground-breaking Nitaq exhibition both times, described the initiative as "the first of its kind."
Nitaq can be described as a game-changer in the history of Townhouse and its neighbouring galleries, as well as a milestone in the careers of many artists who today make up Egypt's most prominent league of contemporary visual artists. These include Wael Shawky, Hassan Khan, Hala El-Koussy, and Moataz Nasr, to name a few.
"It was a booming time to see galleries unite to host projects in the streets, and to see artists occupying spaces like Estoril, Groppi, the Greek Club, and little walkways between buildings in downtown," said curator Aida Eltorie, who was at the time a student at the American University in Cairo's Visual Arts program.
Eltorie was also a volunteer at Townhouse for many years, assisting artists such as Moataz Nasr, Evelyn Ashamallah and Amal Kenawy in international correspondences with curators and museums interested in their works.
Visual artist and professor at the American University in Cairo Shady El-Noshokaty had exhibited a series of large-scale paintings in Townhouse’s second exhibition in 1999, the first for an Egyptian artist. However, he says that the launch of Nitaq marked Townhouse official birth. "It was a very important step in the entire generation’s careers," El-Noshokaty told Ahram Online.
Townhouse – a matchmaker and incubator
Wells continually brought together artists with similar interests and urged them to collaborate. In 2005, he set up a meeting between Hala El-Koussy and Heba Farid, who had both been interested in establishing a platform dedicated to photography. The meeting led to the conception of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), which was incubated in its first few months within the Townhouse premises, before moving to its first independent venue in Mounira, then relocating to Downtown.
Director of Medrar for Contemporary Art, Mohamed Allam concurs that Wells has always been keen on meeting with young artists, and assisting them with networking and the development of their ideas. “Townhouse helped independent collectives and initiatives to work together in a very organic way,” said Allam.
It is no secret that Townhouse's growth acted as a catalyst for the emergence of offshoot cultural initiatives. Its growth "has given impetus to other initiatives and the proliferation of such initiatives has greatly enriched the art scene," said Hala El-Koussy.
Wells believes the emergence of new cultural projects, some of which had either grown out of Townhouse or as a reaction to it, has done a lot to balance the cultural landscape in Egypt between public and private domains. Moreover, when Townhouse was the principal player on the scene, it was not equipped to truly rival the public sector. The aggregate weight of the independent initiatives post-Townhouse however, could.
"We didn't want to be this ship on our own," Wells said.
Townhouse "managed to present the work of young artists to the local community as well as to international audiences in a way that stimulated an on-going critical discussion about art making, exhibiting art and the relation of the artist to her community and to past generations of art producers," explained El-Koussy.
Eltorie said that Townhouse succeeded in creating a "home" for local and international visual artists, curators, and designers in its early years. "A lot of the artists who came through or started here were then launched to much greater terrains."
She attributed Townhouse's success in this role to a number of factors, chiefly, "the gallery's support structure, its ability to acknowledge new and ground-breaking ideas, and certainly what later became the gallery's black book – curators and directors from around the world [that] were passing through," said Eltorie.
Wells added with clear delight that Townhouse has been very fortunate with the artists, curators, interns and volunteers that have participated in the gallery over the past 15 years.
Eltorie recalled that Townhouse, though a formal institution with a firm standing in the international community, was also a casual playground for artists to develop, brainstorm and make mistakes in a creative and forgiving environment. "The gallery stood as a foundation and a home – a place to hang out, talk, come up with ideas, and randomly bump into significant people," she said.
Townhouse 'not what it used to be?’
Many, including Eltorie, have said that "Townhouse has not been the same since 2007, and that it does not carry that same personal feeling it used to carry."
El-Noshokaty added that Townhouse’s identity as a friend to local artists was compromised by its shifting focus towards the international art scene. “Its role as an institution helping local artists was slightly diminished in favour of presenting international artwork and principles.”
Townhouse's development into a strong and solid institution introduced, according to El-Noshokaty, its own set of problems and limitations. He is of the opinion that any initiative that develops into an institution, with its own set of principles, culture, ethos and audience, becomes limited in its scope of influence, in that it fails to cater to the grassroots.
“We had two institutions, the government and Townhouse, and both failed to serve the interests of a large segment of local artists,” said El-Noshokaty.
Medrar’s Mohamed Allam added that the structure of Townhouse as an institution has prevented it from keeping up with the changes occurring in the local contemporary art field. "After 10 years, other initiatives emerged and stole the spotlight. And now Townhouse has aged,” Allam said. The revolution had also arrived with an assortment of challenges to the cultural scene.
“The young generation has changed the game, and the concept of institutions as institutions is dying,” added Allam. “Townhouse needs to reinvent itself if it is to keep up with the changing times.”
While there is a consensus that Townhouse has changed, artists are still inviting the cultural institution that had been a prominent part of their career to revert to its role in the local art scene.
“Townhouse needs to renew its energy to remain relevant,” stressed Allam.
“There is still space for Townhouse to regain its role in supporting young artists who need them, rather than picking artists who ‘fit’ their version of what contemporary art is,” said El-Noshokaty.
Wells said he saw the change in Townhouse’s character and activities in recent years, but he is not disheartened by it. "I don't want Townhouse to be what it used to be," he added.