Cairo's Arts Scene Creeps Back, But Nowhere Close To Normal
Movie houses, music venues and art galleries are showing signs of life after a long lockdown. They're also having to be creative with how they reopen, as certain health restrictions still apply.
CAIRO — There has been an avalanche of reopenings in Egypt since coronavirus restrictions were drastically lifted about two months ago. Culture and service sectors have been at the center of the move, with restaurants, cafés, sports clubs, cinemas and theaters allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, later expanded to 50% for restaurants and cafés only.
While these venues have been struggling during this recent dysfunctional period, many questions remain as to how exactly this revival can take place. Art and culture spaces in particular are still ambivalent about returning to a regular pattern of operation, with challenges in safety, finances and timing. How and when can watching films, viewing exhibitions and listening to music become collective public experiences once again?
The alternative Zawya Cinema, in downtown Cairo, made a careful comeback in July with detailed safety instructions on spacing and sanitization. We spoke to managing director and co-founder Youssef el Shazli on how the team feels about reopening.
"We've had mixed feelings," he says. "On the one hand, we are aware of the many problems in store for cinemas upon reopening. On the other, things have been difficult for us and our staff for over three months. We had many questions to answer on how we can survive."
The question of survival has always been present for Zawya, and the repercussions of COVID-19 have imbued it with renewed urgency. Yet the decision to reopen was not a particularly difficult one to make, Shazli says, since the movie theater's owners — production and distribution company New Century, with whom Zawya has a deal to manage the space — were planning to reopen anyway, if not with a Zawya program then with another lineup of mainstream Egyptian releases.
"Now we can at least ensure we set our own safety measures effectively," he adds.
A bigger question is that of cinema programming. With festivals canceled, premieres blocked, and movie production halted, the worldwide cycle of cinema distribution has come to a stop.
"While that distribution cycle is slowly trying to return, we simply decided we aren't going to take any risks or present any major programs right now," Shazli explains. "Many of the titles we are showing have already been screened. We really need the moment to pause and reflect on how things will go."
The Zawya team still managed to keep itself busy in the past months. Holding distribution rights to productions by Misr International Films, the company released a collection of films to streaming platforms like Netflix and OSN, including some of the restored Youssef Chahine titles, which have previously screened at Zawya and have since then toured internationally. A number of films by Yosri Nasrallah, including Summer Thefts (1988) and The City (1999), are also among the titles now available to stream. Such deals, brokered mostly through Zawya's distribution arm, have given Zawya — the cinema — more versatile means of survival.
"Interestingly, because of these other branches of work, we have not been as hard-hit as other cinemas that focus purely on audiences and ticket sales," Shazli says.
The kind of work Zawya does with streaming platforms complicates the supposed binary between cinema-going and streaming. "The questions on whether cinemas are dying in the face of online platforms have been present even before the pandemic. Our answers to those questions have been that it doesn't have to be an either/or situation," Shazli says.
Art galleries have a different set of problems than movie theaters.
"At the end of the day, our work revolves around the collective experience of watching films in a dark room," he adds. "It's what we do and what we believe in. And we don't think it will go away anytime soon."
Questions of reopening portray different complexities relating to the cultural medium and the space it occupies. While also majorly affected by the shutdown, art galleries have a different set of problems than movie theaters.
"Galleries are different because gallery art does not have mass audiences like, say, music," says Aaleya Hamza, director of the Gypsum Gallery for contemporary art, which relocated to Maadi last year.
Nevertheless, as a result of the pandemic, the gallery has had to compromise its annual program of five local exhibitions and five others abroad. "We're working under a zero-risk policy for our team in terms of strategy but also for our collectors, clients and artists," she says. "We plan to open next month with a completely different way of operating."
The "new normal" for Gypsum holds no room for crowded exhibition openings, which according to Hamza is one of the challenges they are currently thinking about. "We're trying to come up with a strategy of how to receive our audiences so there is no major overlap of people, so different solutions like appointment-basis or allocated time slots are under discussion," she says.
Hamza speculates that there will be a move by major institutions around the world to normalize gallery-going now that safety regulations have relaxed, especially with the major financial losses due to earlier cancellations.
"Some of those countries now have government regulations holding room for 500 individuals for instance, so they are able to make it work within those regulations," she says.
But Gypsum has canceled all of the gallery's international art fair plans requiring travel. "We had Frieze London in October which we have been doing for five years. We were also doing Liste Art Fair in Basel, but decided to only do the online edition for these exhibitions. We did not want to take any financial risks," Hamza explains.
A familiar dynamic in the art scene, Gypsum has a small team scattered across many countries working remotely with artists, so functioning virtually was not an overwhelming problem. But the move towards virtual art programs presents pros and cons for Hamza.
"The shift toward online exhibitions and Zoom studio visits gave good accessibility to art works you couldn't reach before," she says. "But there is something problematic about looking at complex, challenging and experiential work if you are at home on a small phone screen with noise around you. There is a reductive distance in the experience that casts only a shadow of the actual artwork. Many artists find it hard to translate their works in that space. So one cannot fully rely on that part."
Gypsum is also trying to be sensitive to the kind of work they put out now. "We had programmed a playful show of social satire for our next exhibition but we realized it really isn't the time for it. So we reshuffled our sequence so it can have more urgency," she says.
Instead, Gypsum's next exhibition will feature one of the select artists that Gypsum works with, New York-based artist Ahmed Morsy, on a book the gallery is creating about his printmaking practice. Their opening will not be a crowded ceremony, but a full-day event where visitors are spaced out across the day.
The scene for independent music in Cairo has long thrived in indoor venues, which are now finding it most difficult to ease back into a regular rhythm of operating. With the long-standing Agouza branch and a newer one at Sheikh Zayed, the Cairo Jazz Club reopened as soon as the shutdown rules were eased. At first, the venue functioned mainly as a bar. Recently, however, it was announced that it would resume the music shows and other entertainment activities that it is known for.
With a more limited capacity, the shows were somewhat more intimate.
"It's been difficult operating at such a limited capacity," says Omar Foda, the club's entertainment manager. "It's definitely a struggle and we are handling it day by day."
Technically, the capacity for restaurants and bars is at 50% for a seated plan. This is challenging for a venue like Cairo Jazz Club, where people are often standing in concerts and walk-in shows. "In this case while the Agouza branch can in normal times hold 300 people, our seated capacity is actually at around 45," says Foda.
Nevertheless, the club has begun hosting its usual nights like Alternative Tuesdays, a Karaoke night, and a new attempt to host stand-up comedy. The lineup is missing club and DJ music, with party culture obviously yet to make a comeback.
"The atmosphere was definitely different during these first shows last week. With a more limited capacity, the shows were somewhat more intimate," says Foda.
The process of coping involves dire compromises for both venues and artists in the currently challenged music community. "Operating at this capacity is a time when venues and artists need to give each other space in terms of usual fees, since as a venue we are now limited in what we can offer," the entertainment manager explains.
While there have been imagined milestones for regulations to lift for entertainment, it is unlikely in Foda's view that the situation is going to radically ease. "It is a time when we need to support each other since this appears to remain the case for a while."
Like many venues, the Cairo Jazz Club is looking into creative means on how to work with the capacity it has. "The only thing we can control is the spacing, and to play with it so that it can work," says Foda. The club has also thought of alternatives like drive-in shows, in which audiences in cars can drive to a parking lot or another open space in order to view a live show.
While there have been other alternatives like the influx of online concerts since the beginning of quarantine, Foda views it as more temporary than sustainable. While the club hosted some of those earlier in the year, those concerts have died down and now that spaces are reopening again, he believes it is better to think of manageable, physical solutions.
"It is a temporary virus so online concerts will be a temporary solution that won't become a huge thing," he says. "I don't see them completely transforming the digital medium or how we do music."
While many artists and venues are struggling with the new alternatives, some have already long experimented with them. Medrar for Contemporary Art has been hosting festivals, workshops and events in their physical space located in Garden City, but just almost as rigorously in the digital realm.
Their latest endeavor is "Behind Closed Doors," an online art program that began in May. The program allows 12 different artists to "explore new digital tools to virtually disrupt the current physical restrictions on congregating." It has included a variety of contemporary dances, DJ lecture-readings, visual art, and folklore performances.
"Once we found many projects going online, we decided to pause and think about how to function within the current saturation of online media, we took our time to create that first online program," says Mohamed Allam, co-founder of Medrar.
Strategically, he says, Medrar is not opening anytime soon as a physical space. But that doesn't mean it'll be inactive. "We don't want to risk people's health. And we are eager to continue with a second digital program of performances based on the first one," Allam explains.
While the team was met with some technical problems, Medrar found digital programming to be within their element. "We do not feel that much difficulty running these programs since we have long had experience with digital media and have generally been interested in how digital platforms operate," says Allam.
Medrar's digital experience includes creating one of the first media labs in Egypt to develop digitronic art that functions via open source and has been exhibited online. A notable one is an interactive exhibition between Open Lab Egypt and Kazoosh digital arts platform in Dresden, Germany, where participants got to mediate digital experiences of emotional intelligence.
Another useful element in the digital mix was taking the big screen online. Medrar has been holding the Cairo Video Festival — where people went to physical screenings but also viewed films online — for 10 years. Websites have also become crucial in documenting and platforming digital art, and this is why Medrar has had many partnerships with other digital platforms like Jadaliyya, Maazef, Bidoun, and the Turkish platform m-est. Medrar TV would create video content, and these websites would take part in publishing it or writing about it. This is an apt example of the life cycle of digital content and the bridges it makes use of.
Medrar still aims to further develop the space outside of the physical realm. "We are still trying to figure out how to conduct a useful workshop online, especially with activities that require people to meet, like art and painting," Allam says.
The team is currently developing a gamification workshop between Medrar and Makouk, a gamification platform, initiated by Hivos development organization. "We are still researching how to bring out the best quality, communication and creativity," says Allam. "We have been through this process before and are building on previous experience."
Allam posits that the question of medium is not as critical as it appears to be for the survival of the visual art Medrar works to project. "The idea of mediums through which a work is exhibited, like physical or digital, is no longer very crucial to us, and there is good opportunity in attempting to meddle with these mediums," he says.
Although each of the institutions we've spoken with is finding ways to stay functional and to learn from the current situation, it appears that a plunge into what is deemed "normal" is far from being immediate or uniform for the art scene.
With different milestones and targets, the culture sector is taking some time: time to reflect, to research, to strategize, to figure out just how to come back. What does survival look like? It looks like multiple experimentations happening on different timelines. It also looks like cautious inventiveness that will hopefully fuel these spaces past any threats of idleness.