The Townhouse Gallery's Cairo Curatorial Workshop came up at the last minute for me and therefore even I was surprised to find myself dragging an embarrassingly bright pink suitcase through downtown Cairo.
And so, it seemed, was everyone else. As one of only two Europeans in the workshop, the most frequent question I received was 'why did you come here to learn curating?' People were more or less surprised that a Londoner might want to get curatorial perspectives on a peer-to-peer basis from the Middle East. Throughout the workshop, I quickly learned about the (often justified) suspicion Egyptians - and the surrounding region - hold towards the current international vogue they are in. More than that, young arts professionals seem to be stepping round the notion of 'curating' in the contemporary sense with a degree of fascinated suspicion. I seem to have arrived in Cairo at a moment of stalemate between the creaking contemporary art establishment and the emerging predominantly younger curatorial class.
Staying at Hassan Khan's place - an ancient, beautiful flat he has lived in for ten years but looks as though he moved in last week. Hassan was preparing a set for 100Live Electronic Music Festival at the Goethe Institut, but somehow managed fit in quite an impressive drinking session later in the evening. Ably assisted by a visiting Tirdad Zolgadr (here to organise the next phase of the touring show Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie) as well as locals Mai Abu El Dahab and Sherif El Azma. Awed into near-muteness by the company I was in, I couldn't glean anything about Mai's trials with the Manifesta that never was.
On the first day of the workshop I got an introduction to the Townhouse Gallery, which sprawls across several spaces to encompass an impressive set of multidisciplinary production, outreach, education, and archival initiatives. Its genuine inclusiveness is such that you get the impression even director William Wells isn't always entirely sure where its programmes end and the generous chaos of Cairene street life begins. One gets the feeling however that this impacts on Townhouse's ambition to gain space on the international exhibitions stage; the current photography show Cut Short featuring reportage-style images of street children by Hesham Labib is accomplished but not particularly exciting, and is more easily read by its awareness-raising role than its critical or aesthetic one.
I soon learned, though, that almost wherever I went, this concern with early-stage artistic development, education, or socially engaged practice was an extremely common thread. Most of the project proposals discussed during our workshop were concerned with these topics. This idea seemed to be borne out in the kinds of projects and events we visited - such as the artists' workshop exhibition held at Kerim Francis Gallery; The Return of Balance, an interactive media/game project 'with a message' by Gregory Niemeyer at the AUC gallery; and the plethora of workshop projects we were told about at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC). CIC, already, seems aware of what might be an imbalance and is keen, under the new directorship of Edit Molnar, to develop a more ambitious and critically engaged exhibitions programme.
The workshop itself was a bizarre experience led by mostly Spanish heavyweight directors of institutions, and it was hard not to see it as juvenile Middle East being told by Old Europe How It Is Done. For the most part, the directors' weighty experience and importance bore inverse relevance to the under-funded and grassroots but critically eager participants. It was like Goliath teaching David to fire a cannon; what David needs is a slingshot and anyway, cannons are out of date. What we got from our own discussions proved to be far more useful. I spoke nonstop with Sarah Rifky, an independent curator, who speaks so fast she's like Goldsmiths on speed; Aleya Hamza who has recently been appointed curator of CIC; and Hamdy Reda who has turned his home in the impoverished Ard El Lewa into Artellewa (do you see what he did there?), a teeny tiny contemporary art space aimed at doing for his area what Townhouse has done for downtown Cairo.
Over coffee with impossibly glamorous artist Malak Helmy in Zamalek (Cairo's equivalent of Chelsea), I was able to quiz her with my impressions of the factions and coteries within Cairo's art world. She spoke of the rift between the more experimental and outward-looking initiatives in Cairo (i.e. everyone I had met so far), and the establishment. Every city has its factions, I thought - but some of the more conservative stalwarts actively boycott the Townhouse and pretty much anything related to or influenced by it - which is a lot. I began to picture the spectre of this grouping as Brian Sewell in a fez.
The seminar series 'Contemporary Art and Curatorial Practice' gave me a glimpse of figures within this Old Guard - Dr Mostafa Al Razzaz, Mohsen Shaalan, and Mohamed Abla - in action. In between marvellously petty power struggles between one of the moderators and everyone else, the speakers successfully managed to avoid touching anywhere near the actual subjects at stake (which included a discussion of orientalism/multiculturalism relating to the Middle Eastern art vogue). The latter is such a hot topic, speakers are mortally afraid of it and the audience bored to tears by it. Kerim Francis' next exhibition Occidentalism has asked several artists to create work on their impression of 'the West' as a way of discussing and reversing this relation; the question of whether anyone cares any more might just eclipse any discusson of the work itself.