Susan Hefuna

What do you mean, here we are?

“What do you mean, here we are?” is a retrospective of the renowned Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Egypt. Founded in 1998, Townhouse emerged onto a scene dominated by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and its private affiliates. As one of the first independent art spaces in Cairo, Townhouse has borne witness to an unusual and intriguing trajectory.

Through a series of visual, video material and sound art as well as pamphlets, catalogues and ephemera, this exhibition tells the story of Townhouse’s evolution from a modest start in the backstreets of downtown Cairo to its emergence at the centre of the regional contemporary art scene, and further across more recent periods of turmoil and re-configuration. The exhibition is the second in The Mosaic Rooms’ 10th Anniversary exhibition series which looks at modernist and contemporary art from Egypt, Iran and Morocco.

“What do you mean, here we are?” will feature works by artists including Doa Aly, Lara Baladi, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Mona Hatoum, Nermine Hammam, Susan Hefuna, Amal Kenawy, Khaled Kaddal, Huda Lutfi, Basim Magdy, Shady El Noshokaty, Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis, Ayman Ramadan, Mohamed Sharkawy, Wael Shawky and Malak Yacout. 

Even as it has grown to become one of the key actors in the regional and global arts scenes, Townhouse remains defined by its immediate surroundings: a diverse cluster of incongruent styles and histories, amid car mechanics’ garages, coffee shops, greengrocers, carpenters, and a nineteenth-century Ottoman palace. Artists, musicians, and writers gravitated to this alleyway tucked in the backstreets of Downtown Cairo. An outreach programme for street children and refugees and an adjunct theatre space have created an environment that responds directly to neighbourhood needs and incubates performers both locally and internationally. The practices that have emerged over Townhouse’s long history are varied: unorthodox and unapologetic, by turns strident and delicate, often intimate, and always inventive.

“What do you mean, here we are?” raises larger questions about cultural production and artistic practice in capricious socio-political climates. It takes the story of Townhouse to London to create a platform to examine contemporary art frameworks and to speak candidly about the challenges faced by independent institutions operating under censorship. Taken from an interview with Townhouse’s co-founder and director William Wells, the phrase What do you mean, here we are? alludes to Townhouse’s dogged persistence over two decades of exceptional circumstances: prosperity, turbulence, and continued transformation. What results is at once an excavation of the past and a sort of untraditional biography of several generations of artists and artworks that are so often presented dislodged from their contexts. This retrospective provides a critical opportunity to reflect on twenty whirlwind years as Townhouse forges forward to the future.

“What do you mean, here we are?” is co-curated by Mariam Elnozahy and Fiona Fox.

About Townhouse Gallery

Townhouse is a non-profit art space situated in the heart of Downtown Cairo. It holds an iconic position in the story of contemporary art in the Middle East; a key driver behind what has become a culturally rich, regional art scene. Established in 1998, Townhouse has initiated a breadth of activities in its various spaces: key regional symposia, meaningful community outreach, landmark exhibitions, and international residencies for artists, curators, writers, and filmmakers. It has also incubated several important art spaces within Cairo that have gone on to impact the cultural landscape. On an individual level, the gallery has played a pivotal role in the careers of internationally renowned artists and hosted a number of influential practitioners and curators from abroad. Although Townhouse remains a crucial platform for the visual art scene, it has evolved far beyond this linear mission. Most notably, the Rawabet space offers a platform to independent performers artists of all genres. Alongside its own programming, the space also acts as a venue to host programmes curated by other institutions.