The woman is being kicked as she is dragged by soldiers in riot gear; the young boy is being beaten, with a baton and the heels of chunky boots, by men in black; the youths are dripping blood, their insides exposed; books are being ripped apart; and the wall – covered with images of martyrs and soldiers and guns and rainbows and a balloon – is coming crumbling down, block by limestone block. There are young people with eye patches, with bandages, with wounds. There is a stencil that is repeated in multiples – on walls, on pavements, on the side of my house – of a young boy with wings. The letters RIP seem to be everywhere.
These images – sentiments of loss translated into a visual language, plastered on walls, circulating in all manner of social media – this sense of something unravelling, has come to define the so-called post-revolution Egypt of 2012. Eighteen months after the 18 days that came to redefine a generation’s understanding of possibility, that ‘state of hope’ seems to have both wavered and been consumed, replaced by something else. At dOCUMENTA (13)’s Cairo retreat in July – which actually took place in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria – the director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, told the audience of handpicked artists, filmmakers and writers attending the ‘secret’, ‘invitation only’ ‘Cairo Seminar’: ‘Originally, there was the thought of the Arab spring. Today, there is a sense of uncertainty. We should just stay and hover in this uncertainty.'
To hover, to choose to stay in a particular space, to consider and contemplate, seems a luxury in Egypt’s art scene these days, perhaps one reserved to the country’s bevy of new-found cultural tourists and interlocutors. Rather, as the highs and lows of the past months take their toll on a population not accustomed to political intensity and the battle over real stakes, what can perhaps only be seen as a national nervous breakdown has washed over the art community too. Nowhere was this more evident than at the ‘Cairo Seminar’ itself, where everything from meals to schedules to people seemed to unravel. ‘We knew that someone was going to have a nervous breakdown, the question was who first,’ an Egyptian curator friend in attendance shared in conversation many weeks later. One critic used the word ‘unhinged’.
Across Cairo and Alexandria, things are becoming unfixed, being thrown into disorder. In both cities, exhibitions remain up past their announcement dates, shut down before them, or never go up at all. Personal differences, financial struggles, practical obstacles, political detours or pure fatigue lie at the heart of disruptions. People who once worked together closely no longer speak; collectives that were formed in a moment of hope have fallen apart. I hear, repeatedly, of artists unfriending their colleagues on Facebook. ‘I didn’t agree with his political position,’ one of them says. Another unfriends me. This is a country that has had five ministers of culture in the space of a few months. For a moment, some months ago, the position was to be eliminated altogether.
Failure is on people’s minds. One exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery, ‘I Am Not There’, took this as a theme: scattered across the warehouse space were traces of material from shows that had never come to be. But the exhibition itself seemed to have had its own unravelling. In the gallery and lane nearby, as private conversations fell apart over political differences in the fraught run-up to the presidential elections, there was a general sense that this show might one day be a part of a larger one: exhibitions that never quite came together – great ideas fallen short. Everyone I spoke to had expected more of it; more material to illustrate the shows we never saw.
‘There seems to be some sort of entropic force at work,’ Townhouse curator Ania Szremski told me as we ourselves grappled with how to handle an artistic unravelling one day in September. ‘Everyone is constantly bubbling over with brilliant ideas and then immediately distances themselves from them, or starts on a project only to quit and disappear halfway. For every project that is successfully completed there are probably 50 abandoned ones laying by the wayside.’
Indeed, in many ways, Egyptian art history has been written or crafted as a series of brief moments of triumph and long periods of failure. Those narratives of failure seem to weigh heavily on cultural practitioners’ minds and, more broadly, on the Egypt of today. In Alexandria, the artist Anna Boghiguian, spoke – with brilliance – of the city’s history, its glorious successes, its conception of Egypt’s national cigarette (the ‘Cleopatra’), smoked by 20 million Egyptians who with each puff are inhaling and ingesting a history that is overshadowed by the momentous failures following triumph. (‘It becomes a part of who we are, our psyche.’) In a private conversation, she was despondent about how Egypt’s most cosmopolitan city had become its most conservative, in particular in the aftermath of revolution. The indicators of it were everywhere.
There is, as Szremski said, a feeling of precipice, ‘that at any moment, the whole endeavour could just disappear’. On the walls of the city, where much of the country’s creative output is finding its home these days, the endeavours do just disappear – painted over, arbitrarily, from one day to the next. Some murals have lasted months, even a year; others, less than a week.
Many of us had known for years of the artist Amal Kenawy’s battle with leukaemia. Two, three, four years ago, she approached me asking, repeatedly, if I would help with a foundation in her name and memory, ‘For the future, for my son.’ Time passed and she weakened and regained strength and our conversation faded and was resumed. In most of these moments one overlooked her battle; she seemed, always, able to rebound, to beat it. There seemed, always, to be more time. But this, like all else, was the year of collapse. Kenawy passed away on 19 August, at the age of 37. An exhibition in her memory is itself unravelling at this moment, as the rights and possession to her body of work is claimed and contested. To paraphrase Joan Didion, writing of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, this, Egypt 2012, is a place where the centre is not holding.