Typically, a contemporary Cairo art gallery will display high quality works and a recycling of the same audience, exhibition after exhibition: fellow artists, art connoisseurs and collectors and the Cairo intellectual crowd.
This recent exhibition, Visionary Africa: Art at Work, set up at the entrance of the popular Al-Azhar Park, however, is seen by a very wide audience that normally doesn't go out of their way to go to a gallery. The park attracts groups of students hanging out in the afternoon before going home, couples enjoying a quiet moment at sunset and families with small children romping around.
As every day Egyptians enter, the Visionary Africa exhibition offers a chance to experience fifty years of African photography, curated by a renowned curator and art critic, Simon Njami, along with Ghanian UK-based architect, David Adjaye.
"We are here to remind Egypt that it is a part of Africa," Najami started his speech at the opening of the exhibition on Wednesday, 15 March. In opening like this, he touched lightly on the cultural identity of Egyptians, who associate themselves more with an Arab heritage than African.
The European Commission, in partnership with the African Union promotes the Visionary Africa tour. It aims to launch the AU’s initiative on African Cultural Renaissance. The purpose is to bring art to public spaces, promote and connect African contemporary artists, boost local production of art and re-establish the role of art in culture and civil society transformation. Darb 1718 was the local partner that helped organise Visionary Africa of the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), along with and local institutions and cultural centres.
"Art at Work is an itinerant laboratory. Beyond an exhibition," Njami writes in the concept note, explaining that Art at Work is meant to bring together society’s stakeholders to debate questions that not only touch on creativity, but more importantly the organisation of the city.
"The question of living together is one of the most crucial. What will be the input of culture in this debate? How do we avoid bipolar societies in which there is an impassable barrier between those who have access to cultural goods and those who have not? Artistic creation is a vector of transformation and social cohesion."
In each city, architect and co-curator, Adjaye, designs the pavilion for the photography and art work to be showcased. "The pavilion provides a very direct way of intervening in the public realm to make new art accessible to a wider audience," Adjaye writes in the concept notes of the project. The design is very simplistic, inspired by African market stalls and adjusted to each space the exhibition visits. When the exhibition is over, they donate the pavilion to the local partner (in Cairo’s case, Darb 1718) after they receive a plan for usage.
The exhibition starts with the Atlas Wall, an infographic in the form of a timeline curated by SUM Research. It shows the significant culture and arts policy-making documents related to Africa and created both on the international and national level from 1954 to present.
After that, a whole wall of the pavilion is dedicated to photographs taken over a decade by Adjaye of African capitals, divided into regional categories of: forests, desert, grassland, mountains, the sahel (North African desert) and the Maghreb (Northwest Africa).
Notably, if one looks at each photo separately they seem very dull - but together they show the city from different perspectives and celebrate the similarities and differences between the African capitals. "It takes you on a trip around Africa," one of the visitors commented.
Next are fifty photographs throughout the past 50 years, chosen carefully and curated by Njami from local photographers from all over Africa. It is meant to celebrate almost 50 years of African independence from colonisation. Photography was chosen as the medium for this exhibition, since as soon as it reached the African continent in late 19th century it flourished, artistically. Practically speaking, it also represented the best tool that documented the emancipation, according to Najami.
Followed by these iconic photographs, a series of art works, Freedom at Work, by locally-based artists, curated by Moataz Nasr of Darb 1718, showcases emerging visual artists and focuses on the revolution and its aftermath.
The exhibition featured photography, painting and video installations. The installation that stood out the most was Mina Tadros' life-sized drawings of people waiting in line to vote in Egypt's 2011 elections. The artist showed the diversity of Egyptian people and demonstrated the hopes and dreams of each as they took a step closer to the ballot box. The park visitors really enjoyed this. Many took photos of themselves standing in the line that ended at the exit of the pavilion.
The exhibition included a kids' corner to encourage family participation. The sign read "Kids Corner; Because you are artists, too."
Muhammad El-Quessny, who has a strong background in volunteering for informal education with children, explains: "Kids come with their families and they can play in the space, draw and colour."
"We saw potential to encourage children to have art in their lives," said Kathleen Louw of BOZAR, who assisted in the curating of the exhibition.
The project goes beyond the exhibition. At each stop, a workshop is lead to discuss cultural policies of the state with a selection of activist artists and intellectuals. The results of all the local projects are to be compiled into a publication; Atlas Manifesto; to be produced at the end of the project with concrete resolutions for cultural discourse.
The workshop steered clear of culture officials, but rather, focused on individuals working on the ground. Njami and an Egyptian artist, Khaled Hafez, moderated.
At each stop in the tour a foreign artist lives in the city hosting the exhibition for three weeks. The artist who stayed in Cairo is South African visual artist, Tracey Rose, who, through her art insists on confronting the politics of identity.
During Rose's stay in Cairo she networks and collaborates with local artists and centres. She will also produce two works of art: one, a movie poster that imitates traditional Egyptian movie posters, along with a trailer of a hypothetical movie, which mixes factual documentary footage with reenactments.
"The residency is meant to build cross-country relationships and foster mentoring opportunities," Louw said.
Cairo was the third stop in the travelling exhibition. Campalla, Uganda, will host the next exhibition in October 2012.
Currently open - 7 March
At the entrance of Al-Azhar Park
Salah Salem Road, Cairo