By Maha ElNabawi
Since the Jan. 25 uprising, Downtown Cairo has been the stage for some of the greatest acts of protest in modern Egyptian history. And while the once burgeoning opposition movement has been diminished to a near memory, the iconic neo-classical buildings and artistic aura continue to inspire Egyptian culture and forward thinking.
Thursday marked the inauguration of one of Cairo’s most innovative and dynamic cultural events to hit the downtown scene in quite some time. The three-week festival D-CAF (Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival) will transform downtown into a hub for contemporary art, music, and culture with a series of concerts, dance performances, film screenings, exhibitions and workshops.
In an effort to revive Downtown Cairo and expand contemporary local culture, D-CAF and its impressive list of sponsors are bringing together over 100 artists from Egypt, the Arab world and beyond to re-appropriate public spaces while also using the extraordinary downtown spaces that have been closed down or unused as venues for the festival’s events.
D-CAF is the brainchild of Ahmed El Attar, the founder of the Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, and Karim al-Shafei, the managing director of Ismailia Company for Real Estate Investments. The real estate development firm has purchased several historical buildings downtown in an effort to restore and revamp the area.
Through its strict programming policy and rigorous technical and logistical standards, the festival aims to bring arts and culture to the forefront of Egypt’s national debate, while also reclaiming Egypt as the cultural nucleus in the Arab region.
“The main objective is to start looking at the spaces available around us in a different way,” D-CAF’s artistic director, Ahmad El Attar, told Daily News Egypt, “To use the abandoned or closed spaces to connect with the Egyptian audience in a unique manner.
The way towards achieving this goal is “getting out of the specified cultural spaces while also offering a cultural product that is different from before, which means there is real and meticulous programming from people who are specialized in the various cultural fields.”
The festival kicked off in the Townhouse Gallery with the opening of the highly unconventional exhibitions, “I’m Not There,” conceived by Contemporary Image Collective’s director Mia Jankowicz, the festival’s visual arts curator.
“I’m Not There” is an exhibition of absent artwork. It challenges observers to engage in an alternative viewing experience through a fully staged exhibition featuring many artists but without their artworks.
“The contribution we are making to this fantastic festival is a little unusual. It’s an anti-exhibition of stories and works that were not possible at different times, in Egypt and abroad, works that have had problems in their construction,” Jankowicz said. “The story behind these works is due to the low priority in art and culture in the time that they were made.”
Jankowicz stated that after the uprising, a large number of creative works burst to the local scene, and that the exhibition seeks to embrace this output and push for this new type of freedom to continue. The exhibition challenges the current wave of religious fundamentalism that could potentially obliterate contemporary culture, reminding viewers of the importance of art in society.
Opening in the Falaki Theater is a British avant-garde performance titled “Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First,” by the internationally acclaimed theatre troupe, Forced Entertainment. The work is framed and written by artistic director, Tim Etchells. Through improvisation, experimentation, and debate, the performance reflects an interest in the mechanics of performance, the role of the audience, and the schemes of contemporary urban life.
Another highlight is a collaborative dance show titled “We are not from Outer Space” by Egyptian choreographer, Mohamed Shafik. He will perform alongside Dutch artists Rita Villhena and Thomas Proksch in a piece about the sensitivity of being human.
Friday kicks off the start of the Urban Vision Program, a series of street performances that will take place in front of the Egyptian Stock Exchange, Radio Theatre, and what used to be the library of the old American University in Cairo. The project seeks to make art more accessible to the public where performers will use the streets as their stage.
Notable performances include dance company, Archeopteryx 8. The company started in New York City and Montreal and is now based in the Netherlands. It has traveled the world, creating and performing in urban spaces with site-specific repertoires.
Also included in the Urban Vision Program is homegrown dancer and choreographer Mounir Saeed with his performance “Small Story” and local actor, director, and choreographer Nadine Emile with her street show “Entity.”
In addition the plethora of visual segments within the D-CAF lineup, the festival’s music program curator, Mahmoud Refat of leading electronic music group Bikya, has created a brilliant showcase of local and foreign musicians ranging in categories from electronica, punk and shaabi techno, to dub, jazz and more.
“We have a really exciting lineup of varied music, with about 20 concerts taking place in Radio Cinema,” Refat told DNE. “We are actually reopening Radio Cinema which has been closed for several years, and have prepared it specifically for these concerts.”
Radio Cinema is one of downtown’s most iconic buildings, while its face remains weathered from decades of neglect, the building’s charm is undeniable. The original neon-ornamented vertical “Radio” sign still stands, channeling the art-deco period and better days past. But now, for a period of 14 days, the theater will be enlivened with performances by acclaimed international jazz band Erik Truffaz Trio (France), punk rock band The Ex (Netherlands), the melodramatic electronica sounds of Filastine (Spain/Indonesia) in addition to several local acts.
One of the most notable aspects of the music program is the variety of Egyptian shaabi music entered into the festival lineup. Modern Shabbi music can often be categorized as a genre that mixes electro, folk, Sufi music, hip-hop and jazz.
Featured performers include Hassan Khan, known for his unique combination of electronica, shaabi, new wave, and break beats. Also in this line up are shaabi, dance music sensations, DJ Sosta, DJ Shaawaza, in addition to DJ Weza, MC Okka, and MC Ortega.
“It is important to emphasize this type of [shaabi] music,” Refat said. “It’s pretty modern music, and is not only popular, but it takes a very exciting approach in how it mixes genres, yet has a sound entirely its own.”
The festival also features an “Edutainment” section which includes a series of film screenings, workshops, and lectures within the various venues. The lineup includes screenings and discussions by Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on their movie, “The Lost Film,” in addition to lectures by local theater director Sondos Shabayek of the “Tahrir Monologues” fame.
For more information about programming and schedules, visit the D-CAF website, or call 25763850. Tickets are available at the Radio Theatre, 24 Talaat Harb St., Downtown; and at Orient Productions, 19 Emad Eddin St., Downtown.
DJ Weza, MC Okka, and MC Ortega. (Photo by-DiscoCairo)