In the late 1990s-early 2000s, contemporary artists in a range of disciplines conceived of and began to launch a number of initiatives that were to shape the independent arts scene. Though it did not come into being until 2008, Darb 1718 was one such project. The idea was to link various art forms, provide artists with a space to work and grow in dialogue with a grassroots pottery-making community whose roots extend far back in history through its location in the heart of Fustat, the first Islamic capital of Egypt, where the Amr Ibn Al-Ass Mosque (642 AD), the Babylon Fortress (first century AD), the Hanging Church (690-692 AD), the Church of St George (10th century) and the Coptic Museum (1910) all stand. In this way both cultural and temporal continuity could be established, with contemporary art finding connections to centuries-old heritage on the one hand and traditional craftsmanship on the other.
Artist Moataz Nasr El-Din had returned from a long stay in London and Paris towards the end of the 1990s, and he wanted to establish his practice at home. “At that time,” he says, “art spaces in Cairo were very limited and confined to state-owned venues run by the Ministry of Culture. Many contemporary artists of my generation and I felt that our opportunities were very limited and our artistic styles almost unwelcome. Thus there was no horizon for interaction that would prompt us to evolve.” At that time, the area currently occupied by Darb 1718 was divided into several pottery workshops occupied by craftsmen using their traditional methods, and a group of ateliers for young artists, painters, sculptors and potters including Nasr El-Din. “The craftsmen’s workshops and our ateliers were side by side, but it was as if we came from two different worlds. We needed each other, but we lacked a language in common. We were passionate about developing our tools, visions and ideas, despite limited opportunities to display our work. But what if the boundaries between artists and craftsmen are removed? What if this divided space turned into a single, large space where we could work together, interacting and co-evolving?”
Thus the idea of Darb 1718 was born. At the same time, an administrative decision had been taken to remove the workshops and studios, and it took some time and many attempts to convince officials of the idea. “The project was to rebuild the space at our own expense, making it the nucleus of what it is now. A large space open to all kinds of contemporary art, and also open to an organic relationship between artists and craftsmen, and between artists and the public, as well as the local community in the Fustat.” Rebuilding of the venue began in 2001; it took eight years. At first, Nasr El-Din says, the goal was to focus on traditional potters and create a link between them and visual artists. “We organised a series of pottery workshops aimed at artisans, and they not only successfully developed the tools to work with visual artists but they developed their own craft so that their products became no less of an attraction than the exhibitions. People would come to see the artwork in the exhibitions and leave with pottery products made by the artisans whose workshops are located in the space.”
Later, new ideas drew a larger audience to the place, which became an incubator for the works of many contemporary visual artists, in addition to pottery products no less contemporary. “We decided to hold contemporary music concerts at the opening of each visual exhibition, to attract a bigger audience. In time it became a space for contemporary and experimental musicians facing limited opportunities to perform under the dominance of commercial music.” Music became one of the main activities of Darb 1718 in its own right. “Many underground bands, experimental and electronic musicians started here, finding the space and the audience. We developed a programme to support contemporary music alongside visual art.” The latter included video, too: “We were looking forward to broader discussions of video art works in exhibitions. That is why we thought of screening the video art pieces separately and inviting the audience to discuss them with the artists. The success of these events made them a nucleus for an independent programme of experimental films and video art screenings which has become one of the main activities of Darb 1718.”
Some 15 years on, Darb 1718 is a meeting place for every art form: exhibitions, concerts, screenings, workshops and residencies in addition to a community service programme that began with training local artisans to develop their skills in pottery and has catered to the children. But Nasr El-Din has felt it is another of Darb 1718’s goals to connect with the global art scene, and one of the ways he has achieved this is the Something Else event – held in 2015 and 2018 – which brings together artists from all over the world and features shows in Darb 1718 and some other spaces in Cairo. A third round of the event is to be held this November, involving a whole month at the Salaheddin Citadel, with the participation of over 140 artists from almost every continent. Something Else is to turn into an annual event to be held in the same month every year.
Nasreddin says there are many challenges facing artists, especially in the field of contemporary art, as they do not depend primarily on selling their work but rather on continuous experimentation, which is essential for the development of the art scene. “They need space and freedom, support and encouragement. I am proud that 15 years ago I chose not only to be a visual artist interested in developing his own artistic path, but also a contributor to the creation of a space for my fellow artists that has gradually evolved and expanded to become an essential part of the development of the contemporary art scene. We relied on our own efforts, and our belief in the necessity of contemporary art and contemporary artists having a place in the art scene, and that place supporting all kinds of initiatives, enabling development and interaction, and also contributing to the awareness and capabilities of the local community. I believe that this equation pushes us to continue in spite of any challenges that might face us.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly