D-CAF third edition: On performances, public space and the future

Rowan El Shimi, Monday 14 Apr 2014

As the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival’s third edition comes to a close, Ahram Online reflects on the event's celebrations, challenges and aspirations

D-CAF Urban Visison
100Hands performing in downtown Cairo (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

The third edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) came to a close on Friday 11 April in Shehrazade with La Voix est Libre, a multidisciplinary performance -- or mini-festival, rather -- which reflected the event's very essence.

Translating to The Free Voices Festival, La Voix est Libre began in 2005 in Paris' Bouffes du Nord Theatre. In Cairo, the French artists worked with their Egyptian counterparts putting on shows at the Falaki Theatre, the French Institute in Alexandria and, finally, the Shehrazade Nightclub.

With that evening bringing this year’s D-CAF to a close, Ahram Online reflects on the challenges, successes, shortcomings and prospects of what is slowly becoming one of Cairo’s most anticipated and heavily attended festivals.

According to D-CAF’s artistic director Ahmed El-Attar, the 2014 edition saw audiences doubled compared to the previous year. The marketing, however, continued to experience a number of pitfalls, with the event posters only visible during the festival’s first week, and the Arabic programme unavailable until its second week. In fact, it was word-of-mouth that came in D-CAF’s favour.

Music popularity and inclusion

In a city where affordable party places with relaxed dress codes and socially inclusive attitudes are scarce, Shehrazade's three-night music programme made it D-CAF's most popular event. Curated by Mahmoud Refaat, the programme presented exciting local and international artists performing to a full house almost every night.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated music performance by Syrian visual artist and musician Zimo, the talent behind ‘Hello Psychaleppo’, was cancelled due to visa troubles.

The programme also featured a sold-out concert by Lebanese sensation Yasmine Hemdan in Qasr Al-Nil Theatre, the only concert performed outside of Shehrazade and in the early evening.

While the space clearly supported the live music experience, the programme was popular and most of the artists of a high calibre offering inspirational performances, some audiences continued to be excluded, just as in 2013.

Holding the music programme late in the evening and at a location serving alcohol automatically excludes a large potential audience that falls more on the conservative side of the spectrum. Adding another night of music in a more inclusive setting could better serve the festival's mission.

Skip & Die open D-CAF in Sherhrazade (Photo: Mostafa Abdel Aty)
Skip & Die open D-CAF in Sherhrazade (Photo: Mostafa Abdel Aty, Courtesy of D-CAF)

D-CAF’s space expansion

Every year, D-CAF promises discoveries of new locations for independent arts in the downtown area, which has the highest concentration of both used and unused spaces.

One of the most exciting endeavours in this year’s edition was the renovation of the Kodak Stores in the passageway before the Jewish Synagogue on Adly Street. The renovation was conducted by the Cairo’s Laboratory for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research (CLUSTER) and served the D-CAF's visual arts programme with a retrospective exhibition of Egyptian artist Hassan Khan who showcased a massive body of his work in this semi-public space.

Equally interesting was D-CAF’s usage of state-owned theatres such as Ataba’s Al-Tale’a Theatre (Avant-Garde Theatre), the Cairo Puppet Theatre, along with Qasr Al-Nil Theatre, already used by D-CAF in 2013. This year's space expansion not only allowed audiences to rediscover these theatres, but also drew attention to these stages' technical issues -- sound problems being among them. 

Due to lack of appropriate isolation, the sound of the ever-growing Ataba street market outside and the call for prayer both surfaced during performances. Nevertheless, in the world premiere of Violence Lointaine, the artists chose to integrate the sound of the vendors into their performance. In No Exit, on the other hand, the location's poor acoustics made it nearly impossible to hear the performance if you were seated behind the first few rows.

Another interesting space that hosted D-CAF events was the newly opened art house cinema Zawya, where the film programme’s majority of events were held -- Les Grandes Ondes and Left Foot, Right Foot gathering the highest attendance. The film programme also included two nights of short films, screened outdoors at the American University in Cairo’s Greek Campus -- an event well attended and enjoyed by audiences.

Francophone Short Films night at Greek Campus (Photo: Mostafa Abdel Aty)
Francophone Short Films night at Greek Campus (Photo: Mostafa Abdel Aty, Courtesy of D-CAF)

Public space performances: Challenges

Among the annually anticipated elements is D-CAF's Urban Visions programme, an initiative which brings contemporary dance performances to public spaces. This year, however, it fell short of audience expectations -- in spite of D-CAF’s best efforts -- as many of performaces lacked the public intervention ingredient which traditionally made Urban Visions so special.

Only two of the performances -- Running Nucleus by 100Hands and Indivisible Boundaries by EE Dance Studio -- were presented on the streets in downtown pedestrian zones, at the stock market and on Alfy Bey Street. Latter show when performed in Alexandria, ended up indoors.

The rest of the programme was shown in the Greek Campus’ courtyard which, despite being in the open air, is still the AUC campus and, as such, does not fall into the public space category.

According to Attar, hosting events in public spaces was more challenging this year due to the security situation -- while D-CAF had freely hosted the events in the first edition and was only requested to notify the authorities in the second. This year, D-CAF had to obtain a permit and hire police forces to protect the events, a procedure which made the execution of the entire initiative more difficult.

On the future of D-CAF

A few shortcomings and numerous external challenges notwithstanding, the third edition of D-CAF managed to create a buzz around the city centre as well as host meaningful conversations and performances, bringing together many of Cairo and Alexandria’s independent artistic initiatives to see it through.

“DCAF is improving and will continue to improve. Every year we make new mistakes and remedy others,” Attar reflected on the entire festival to Ahram Online. “As of next year, I think we can expect something tighter and less tiresome for us as a team,” he added.

This year also, Attar came together with other festival organisers, such as the Spring Festival, the Cairo Jazz Festival and Hal Badeel, and set dates to ensure their different events do not overlap in order to allow audiences the chance to imbibe the full range of their many activities.

“I hope we get increased government support and local private sponsorship. The only way this festival can really continue and we can, 10 years down the road, look at it and say 'wow Egypt has an international festival of high calibre' is through this,” El-Attar asserted.

D-CAF is mostly supported by grants from embassies and international development agencies, as well as artistic support grants such as the Arab Culture Fund and Open Society Foundations. The event also sees support from local private companies such as Ismailia for Real-Estate Development and Mansour Foundation.

According to Attar, while the D-CAF team appreciate all the support they receive at the moment, depending on these types of grants would be challenging for the growth and sustainability of such a large-scale, multidisciplinary festival with so many different angles.

“We want to have a more diverse set of things,” Attar explained. “We want to open up. In order to do that we need money that is not linked to a specific geographical zone.”

Ahram Online was the Main Media Sponsor of this year’s D-CAF.

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