The second edition of Something Else - Off Biennale, the largest exhibition since the Cairo Biennale was suspended, is gearing up to get the whole city engaged with the 45-day event that opens 1 November.
Tens of hand-picked local and international artists will present works on this year’s theme that asks, “What if it did not happen?” in an exhibition curated by Simon Nijami, with artistic director Moataz Nasr, founder of Darb 1718. This is alongside a programme of events that includes talks, workshops, performances and film screenings.
Ahead of the looming opening, Ahram Online spoke with Rehab Ragaee, general manager of Darb 1718, on the context and significance of the Off Biennale event, how it compares to last year, and how to harness the plethora of events in the programme.
Ahram Online (AO): It’s the second edition of Something Else. Did it get easier or more difficult to manage something of this scope?
Rehab Ragaee (RR): It definitely got easier, now we have a reference point that we can learn from. We know where we were right, and what could go wrong. This time we got a lot more organised. Last year it was Darb’s team working on all the operations and details. This time we have a dedicated team and a project manager, Monica Hirano. We were also able to plan everything ahead, so overall it is much better organised this time.
AO: Was there anything particular that you wanted to change from the previous edition?
RR: One of the biggest changes is that last time the events were focused in the first week of the Biennale, with no activity throughout the rest of the month when the exhibition was still running. Now we will have more events distributed across the whole 45-day period. There is still a concentration of events in the first week, because we will have a lot of international artists present who will be leaving later.
AO: Can you tell us more about the difference between the curated exhibitions and the independent artists?
RR: Artists in both segments were recommended, not chosen from an open call, as this is not a normal exhibition but a Biennale. There are seven curators, each with their own list of artists that they recommended and worked with to respond to the theme. They were chosen by the chief curator, Simon Nijami, who is one of the top curators in the world, and internationally recognised. He was approached by Moataz Nasr (the Biennale’s director and founder of Darb 1718), who wanted someone experienced. As curator, Nijami is the one who selected this year’s theme: “What if it did not happen?”
Meanwhile, the independent artists were chosen by Moataz Nasr, but have also created works responding to the theme, so they're all connected in that way.
AO: This year there are many collaborating venues, and the exhibition expands more into Downtown and other parts of the city. Was it part of your goal to expand the outreach this way?
RR: Last round we had one external venue; this time we have four different places in Downtown where the exhibition will run for the whole duration of the Biennale. That's in addition to Darb 1718 which already has several spaces within it, and the parallel events taking place in the different cultural centres. So yes, this is definitely part of the idea of the Biennale. We hope for it to — as much as possible — have the whole city involved and celebrating art.
AO: How do you think it integrates with, or challenges, Cairo’s contemporary art scene?
RR: We have lacked something like this in Egypt since the Cairo Biennale halted in 2010. It is not a normal exhibition, and not just a visual art event. We have performances, workshops, talks and film screenings. It creates a bridge between local artists with the international art scene, helping them develop their practice. It gives them more exposure that they don’t get from just experiencing the local art scene.
There is a lot going on in the international scene that Egypt is missing out on. So while it is a platform for Egyptian artists to exhibit, the main goal is not to showcase their work, because they have many opportunities for that. The main goal is to give them exposure, and show their work within an international context.
AO: The exhibition is massive, and the parallel programme of events is very rich and there's a lot going on. What would you recommend as not to be missed in this year’s programme?
RR: I think everyone should get a taste of all the different segments. So definitely visit the exhibitions, but also catch a performance in the first week, as when the international artists are here it’s really a great opportunity. We have talks, films and workshops. I would tell people to at least attend one of each to experience it all. The beautiful thing is that it’s all free admission, so it’s very accessible and everyone is welcome to attend everything they can.
Al-Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online are official media sponsors of Something Else.
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