The streets of Downtown Cairo have become synonymous with revolution and protest.
For Egyptians and activists around the world, Tahrir Square represents the heart of popular change and the streets continue to bear witnesses to the revolution, adorned as they are today with graffiti and barbed wire.
But this month in Downtown, a different array of events are taking place. The inaugural Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival is turning preconceptions upside down, embracing the opportunity for creativity in this political state of flux and cultural transition.
The festival is the largest of its kind known to have taken place in Cairo, and features three weeks of music, theatre, visual arts, dance and film all from contemporary artists’ work in Egypt and around the world.
Events are being held in several venues on the streets around Tahrir Square, many of which have been neglected in recent years. Radio Theatre, where most of the musical performances are being hosted, was in disuse for 15 years until its refurbishment for the festival, and Falki Theatre where many of the theatre pieces are taking place has seen few performances since the revolution, partly due to its extreme proximity to Mohammad Mahmoud Street, the scene of violent clashes in November.
But the venues that stand out in the program are the re-appropriated public spaces. Artistic Director Ahmad al-Attar wants to draw attention to the idea of the street as a concept of shared experience. “After the revolution people opened up to the notion of public space just by the fact that everyone went to Tahrir Square for many nights and slept there and ate there and argued and talked and even fought there and the public space came back on the scene,” he said.
One of the aims of the festival is to bring audiences closer to contemporary arts so that they can begin to accept them as part of modern culture, something made possible thanks to the varied programming and the choice of venues.
“We want to open up the audience in Egypt and Cairo to alternative work so they have a different view on art and different forms of expression,” said Attar. “We don’t see many contemporary forms of artistic expression in Cairo and in Egypt in accessible places and I think it’s very important for their development. The audience needs a chance to see these forms of expression so they don’t feel estranged.”
Another aspect that makes the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, nicknamed D-CAF, different from others is the nature of its organization. Previously, festivals have been organized by a government body, but this time, independent establishments and individuals have taken the reigns. But it’s not without the government support. Hassam Nassar, deputy head of the Ministry of Culture- foreign relations department told Al-Ahram online, “Art and culture are the only things that have developed and improved since the revolution and must be supported.”
The visual arts section of the festival revolves around an exhibition of “absent” artworks. Each piece has been prevented from reaching its audience in some way and instead of the missing object there is the story behind its censorship or obstruction. Curator Mia Jankowicz says the works in the exhibition were not censored by the state, but rather the difficulties came from a mismatch of priorities between the artist and the person they were dealing with.
She hopes “the exhibition might highlight the desire not to have these obstacles anymore, to take these problems and figure out what’s going on and consider it as a useful thing.”
Hopefully, the festival will act as a tutor for young artists working with modern practices. “Contemporary art is not really a language that fits deeply into the classical art education system, so we need an educational role as much as a display role,” said Jankowicz. “Artists are taught by their peers.”
Attar agrees, “At a certain point in my life and career I was abroad and watched a lot of theater and that for me was as important as my theatrical education and practice. That’s something that is lacking in the art field in Cairo and Egypt.”
The director and playwright hopes the festival will put Cairo back on the Arab cultural map. “Cairo was one of the cultural capitals of the Arab world in the early 20th century and during different phases of its history, especially when it comes to contemporary culture,” he said. “It was very normal for the first film projection in Africa or the Arab world to take place in Alexandria and then Cairo, right after its projection in Paris ... Egypt might have lost its place but I think this festival can bring it back at the same level as Homeworks festival in Beirut, the Dubai Art Fair or the Marrakech film festival.”
Highlights of this year’s festival include performances by Egyptian neo-folk musicians Fathy Salama and the Sharikyat group, French trumpeter Eric Truffaz and his jazz trio, Lebanese DJ Jade and Arab world premieres such as the British contemporary theatre group Forced Entertainment’s latest work “Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first” and “audience based” theater pieces created by various artists. The festival continues until April 14.