So after a few days of interviews and trouping around historic areas we decided to take a detour and visit the Townhouse Gallery in the Mechanic's district in Cairo. William Wells founded the Townhouse Gallery in 1998 in an effort to create a space that makes the contemporary arts accessible through various initiatives such as residencies and outreach programs.
At our visit, William Wells relayed the various trials and tribulations of funding an art space within a corrupt and repressive system. He shared with us how the January 25th revolution has affected Townhouse and how they respond with new programming such as Tweet Nadwas, an initiative that brought together tweeters across Cairo, and weekly talks on How to be a Revolutionary that is aimed at helping various activist groups organize.
Townhouse was originally a Jewish residential building whose tenants fled due to regional conflicts resulting from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Some of the extended family members of the tenants have since revisted Townhouse and shared some of their memories with Wells.
One anectode that struck me is the system used within the district to facilitate protection and certain levels of access. Townhouse employees, for example, offer to paint the walls of the local police station in exchange for the police's cooperation and protection. One day the local gang surrounded the gallergy; Wells turned to the police only to find them unresponsive. Apparently the gang was paying the police a higher price. This is just one aspect of how a cultural space and its activities are intermeshed in the political and social structures of the city at such an integral scale. It reminded me of the time I spent working with the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut where our workday revolved around the power outages.
On the other hand, as a result of the events on the 25th of January, there was an artistic opening, Wells described it as a kind of euphoria. During Mubarak's reign the gallery was watched very closely and their works and activities tightly monitored. The revolution provided a freedom that was previously unattainable, the gallery conducted several outreach programs, making Townhouse a space where educational, artistic, and activist goals intersected and generated works and discussions about current events.
Wells also described the more recent disillusionment of some of the artists and activists with the direction the revolution is taking. They believe that the same system under Mubarak is now reinstated, but with a different name. The "moniters" have started calling Wells to let him know, "they are back".
The most interesting fruit borne of our visit with William Wells was the discussion of memory and photographs. He brought to my attention a recent conference the gallery held on archiving and creating artwork from archives. It questioned whether the dead should remain dead and, despite their death, if they still have authority over their photographs. On the other hand he posed the diverging view where archives should or can be used by artists to create artwork and thus recontextualized and appropriated through the lense of the artist. He told us a story of his aunts who cut out each other's faces from photographs when each of them died so as to prevent "themselves", through their photographs, from being sold at a store.
I then realized that by embarking on this personal narrative project not only I am inevitably entering the discussion of memory and archives, but I am also inevitably taking a stance on the issue. I suppose I am wondering at what point personal history becomes a shared, collective history. Where are the lines drawn between what my grandfather would want people to know and what I feel they should know.
It was at Townhouse that I realized that by making a film or a work I am going to be held accountable for what it represents. I suppose I always knew that, but having the discussion with Wells made me realize the weight of accountability.