The Townhouse Gallery, located in a bustling alley in the center of Cairo, is once again forging an independent path by hosting encounters among intellectuals. In October, in the partially demolished building that’s still wrapped in scaffolding, there was a fascinating encounter between writer Talal Faisal and director Bassam Mortada on a crucial question: Can an author write a biography or an autobiography to describe a genuine fabric of life but not exactly the subject of the book?
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This isn’t a theoretical question concerning a unique literary genre. It directly affects the painful subject of censorship, which is burdening artistic creation in Egypt.
The gallery, which was established in 1998, was designed to serve as a home for artists of the new generation. After the Arab Spring it served as a space for meetings and exhibitions, mainly for anyone who had a hard time finding a space to work at an official institution due to their criticism of life under the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
In 2015 the Interior Ministry’s security forces raided the gallery, confiscated works and computers and issued a closure order, saying the place didn’t meet fire safety standards. Clearly this was a false reason. If it were real, thousands of buildings in Cairo and throughout the country would have to be closed.
Last year the gallery was back up and running. Its art library has about 400 books, the nearby Al Rawabet Theater fringe theater hosts plays, and the gallery boasts an exhibition of photographs of street art and graffiti painted on walls during the Arab Spring.
These beautiful paintings provide an emotional history of the stormy period. They have become an integral part of the art scene, which also gave rise to diverse academic literature such as the 2014 book “Walls of Freedom” by Basma Hamdy and Don Karl, experts on graffiti art.
Facebook and Twitter
But the gallery’s efforts continue to preoccupy the intelligence services. They’re demanding that the owners show them their plans and request a permit for every performance.
“Each time we’re afraid once again that they’ll come to close the place,” a senior employee at the gallery told Haaretz. “Nobody explains what the required conditions are, and they only hint to us that we shouldn’t show works that could be offensive to people. We have to guess what could be offensive, when it’s clear to us they mean what’s offensive to the regime.”
Not only the artists are trying to stretch the boundaries of censorship. The protest movements, using their work tools Facebook and Twitter, showed their strength at the beginning of the month. In the run-up to Sissi’s World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, they opened a Twitter account headlined #weneedtotalk.
This hashtag was the conference’s motto, but thousands of young Egyptians weren’t referring to the conversation desired by the president. They demanded that he release bloggers and young people imprisoned for expressing criticism.
“Release the imprisoned Egyptian generation, release the future,” demanded one. “We must talk about culture and freedom of expression,” wrote another, who noted that the Al Karama library in Cairo, where a course for training journalists took place, was shut down by the police.
Many users wanted to know why press photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid had been in prison for four years. The photographer, also known as Shawkan, was arrested in 2013 when he photographed clashes between the security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A new language
Unlike the users of social networks, galleries like Townhouse are trying to institutionalize artistic criticism while walking between the raindrops. Recently Townhouse sponsored a seminar on “Rewriting Criticism” in which they discussed how to present artistic and cultural criticism without uttering the words “censorship,” “government” and “politics,” whose mention has been prohibited in an artistic context.
“We have to invent a new language that will be able to bypass the restrictions imposed by the government,” as Sarah Bahgat, program mamager at the gallery, said this month to the website Al-Fanar, which discusses higher education in the Middle East.
It must be a language that can interpret symbols and analyze political art in a way that won’t anger the regime — a complex challenge because it requires the expression of frustration and distress in a way that won’t land you in prison.
Sissi is very interested in this struggle over the shaping of awareness because it involves a threat to stability and could trigger another civil rebellion. His World Youth Forum is part of his efforts to keep a lid on criticism. To him, art should serve the “people” — in other words, the regime.
The artistic expressions of protest after the Arab Spring haven’t yet ripened into a movement or school of art. For that to happen, the artists must convince others that they have the power to effect tangible change and create a critical mass of supporters that in the end will turn into a political force.
Under the conditions today in Egypt, it’s hard to expect culture mobilizing the masses. But the very restrictions imposed on culture are creating interest, both in Egypt and abroad.