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The Contemporary Image Collective (CiC) was established in 2004 by a group of professional photographers and artists as a non-profit visual art organization. CiC began its operations as an artist-run initiative and for pragmatic reasons quickly transformed into a more stable conventional institutional structure that fits better with the ambitions of its founding board members. Their vision was to create a constructive platform for supporting like-minded individuals and groups who want to work with the medium of photography in its multiple incarnations. In December 2005, CiC launched its current venue on the second floor and rooftop of a charming 1920’s villa located off one of the main roads leading into the heart of the retro urban downtown district of Cairo.
2008 was a productive year for this youngish Cairo-based institution. It began with a spatial expansion into an additional venue that would house its latest learning initiative, the CiC Studio. As a prototype for the first Cairo-based photography academy, the CiC Studio is a homegrown attempt to build a much-needed base and curriculum for learning photography. In a massive city where none of the art universities offers serious photo-based programs, whether within the context of art or journalism, it is not surprising that this initiative has been met with an outpouring of interest from the local community. It has become an institution within an institution supporting itself through course fees, catering to professional photojournalists with seminars built on the World Press Photo model and to beginners who wish to hone their photographic skills with introductory to intermediate level courses, such as portraiture, lighting and Adobe photoshop.
The year ended with organizing the fourth edition of PhotoCairo, entitled The Long Shortcut, and hosted in five downtown venues including CiC, an art gallery with a converted industrial space, an Eastern European cultural center, an emptied residential apartment in a dilapidated art deco building, and an alternative artist-run theater. Described by a reporter writing for the Abu Dhabi-based daily "The National" as "young, edgy and conceptually precise", this project borrowed from biennial strategies to stage an international multi-disciplinary program with impact and urgency. With 22 participating artists and artist collectives, eleven newly commissioned works, a five-day symposium, a workshop, residencies, and a temporary publishing house, the scale at least was unprecedented within the context of the independent art scene. Numbers aside, The Long Shortcut was a genuine attempt to move away from showcasing photography or visual art from or about Cairo as the name might suggest, toward presenting a coherent and critical theme-driven project that tackles difficult questions about the present condition of daily life and of the art industry.
Institutions such as the Contemporary Image Collective still find themselves operating in an artistic void. At one end are the modest market-driven privately owned art galleries mainly situated in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek. They showcase a roster of established local painters with the occasional sculptor and remain to a very large extent provincial, regardless of whether or not their artists are traded at Dubai auctions. And on the other end rests the anachronistic machine of the Ministry of Culture’s fine art sector. With an agenda and bureaucracy that mirrors that of the state, it is hardly surprising that "the establishment" has failed to play a fundamental role in providing real opportunities for young emerging artists or creating a critical and reflective discourse within the increasingly globalized art scene centered in Cairo.
For the last decade or so, a handful of institutions independent of state funding have taken on various key roles, from showcasing internationally curated group exhibitions to providing chances for residencies and studio spaces. The oldest model is perhaps the Townhouse Gallery, considered by many to be the Godfather figure of the independent art scene in Egypt with its poly venues, numerous studios, and development-driven outreach program. Medrar for Contemporary Art is the smallest and possibly the youngest project. Based in a tiny apartment not far from where CiC is located on the margins of downtown Cairo proper, this artist-led initiative has managed to co-organize a rapidly growing annual video festival and video workshops, and most recently began hosting talks with young artists.
Downtown Cairo itself, as a hub of cultural exchange, could be on the brink of gentrification. An alliance of wealthy young investors has already bought up landmark buildings on strategic streets, allegedly including the Viennoise building, in which part of the 2003 Photocairo was exhibited. Their aim is to "clean up" the city center and restore it to its former Belle Epoque glory, which will undoubtedly have an impact on the dynamics of the area. While this process may take a while to manifest itself, CiC itself has become entangled in this unexpected turn. A change in the ownership of its current location has raised serious questions about the future of the venue as it stands. Meanwhile, a global financial meltdown has hit donors and grantees like a freight train equally. The daunting task of raising funds for independent art organizations now seems like a feat of Herculean proportions.
Under these demanding and unstable conditions, the mandate of CiC has also slowly shifted course. In a symbiotic relationship with the city, CiC and its program developed to respond to the needs of the local community rather than simply focus on a single medium or discipline. Workshops exploring notions of criticality, intense exchange sessions between different generations of artists, and progressive, theme-based projects have been regularly organized to quench a thirst for challenging, context-sensitive, locally produced projects in dialogue with global contemporary art practices.
These developments have been met with trepidation. Some hard-line photographers feel that it is still imperative to remain focused on the medium of photography at the expense of becoming disconnected from the international art circuit. The scene itself has also transitioned. Artists who had been labeled photographers are exploring less familiar terrain, with the medium being used as a secondary tool, if at all. Photography and video have been widely exhibited in state-sponsored art events, from the Salon of Youth to the Cairo Biennial, with the idea that "new media" by definition places the work within a contemporary idiom, regardless of strategies, content, or approach. In 2008 and 2009 the establishment has made a concerted effort to engage with artists and curators it would not have necessarily worked with a decade ago. A new and young artistic director was invited to curate the 11th Cairo Biennial amidst speculation of the longer-term impact of this choice. The 20th Salon of Youth marked a radical and controversial shift from previous editions by including unexpected jury members outside of the establishment, a stringent selection of works (more that 80 percent of submissions were rejected) and a comparatively coherent exhibition. With such changes, challenges, and uncertainties in place and possibly more to come, the next few years will inevitably be transformative.
Currently, resident curator at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. Periodically lectures and writes about contemporary visual arts in Egypt.
(until May 2009)
The Long Shortcut
International multi-disciplinary visual arts festival in Downtown Cairo
17 Dec. 2008 -
14 Jan. 2009
Curated by Aleya Hamza and Edit Molnar