By Rania Khalil
Downtown art exhibit “Le Caire Mon Amour” is a collection of painting, performance and installation in an abandoned apartment on 7 Champillion St. It is the brainchild of French born, Cairo-based painter Anne du Boistesselin.
Envisioned as a series of three openings in three consecutive weeks, the exhibit seems to be neither about love nor Cairo — though it may be about “Le Caire,” the Cairo of the French, or a similar sort of Amour reserved for gestures toward the Orient. “Le Caire Mon Amour” is less of something made for, or in connection with, its object of affection, than something which emits condescension than love.
For those who are neither entranced by decaying walls, nor complete strangers to modern art, the exhibit stands as a living reminder of all that is fractured about this city, from its once beautiful and now decaying buildings, to its dual economy — local and global — and the stratification which keeps the art and audiences of “Le Caire Mon Amour” in one place, (Le Caire perhaps?) and the rest firmly in another.
To visit the opening night of this exhibition is to be sternly reminded of economics despite oneself. My first experience of this began in a small room, the site of a curious installation. Hung with layers of sheer curtain, crowding the space to the point where one can only see half a meter in front of them, the exhibit invites attendees to write their thoughts about Cairo on small pieces of neon paper and pin them to the curtains. The induced experience is akin to a short walk through an array of feelings about Cairo, written mostly in French and English, from social commentary to personal divulgence. The one that struck me most said something to this effect: “Everything that does not serve a monetary interest is being eliminated.”
Absent from all this commentary and in the further art assembled for display is the Cairo of recent months: a Cairo of revolution, of sectarian violence, of high officials being imprisoned for corruption. I imagined it’s not present because this Cairo, the difficult and political one, is neither romantic nor terribly accessible to those who come to Cairo briefly as visiting artists, or those who live their lives as expats in the suburb of Maadi.
Instead, “Le Caire Mon Amour,” is a more timeless, albeit non-cohesive, portrait of a Cairo in an Orientalist consciousness, if what is falling apart is made romantic and the rest ignored. This is a Cairo where widespread lack of resource becomes an opportunity for artists to capitalize on the kitschy materials of poverty. So in one room we find an installation from a German artist that consists of a life-size mock up of a plastic car cover (used to protect cars from the dust), in the next an installation of a chair in a broken down closet with a tray holding a cup of tea and water.
On the first of its openings, the exhibit featured nine to 11 works, two of which were musical acts, a violin and rap trio respectively. (It was quite difficult to tell what was work and what was simply already part of the old apartment; the chair and tea cup for example).
Sadly, the talent of the Egyptian violinists was not in any way integrated or supported by the exhibit. Instead, the violinists moved from room to room, looking a bit lost, until they joined the hip-hop singers, who rapped in an inaudible, feedback distorted Arabic, shortly before I left.
The third of four performative fixtures was an elegant Egyptian woman sitting on a chair in a white robe and nightgown reading a French magazine. She sat simply in an empty room, beside a piece of gold paper in a gold frame; evoking the kind of 1940s glamour the show is yearning for. Albeit displaced in the larger ensemble, at the very least, the woman had a presence which made her installation enjoyable to behold.
In an adjacent room, an extremely thin German dancer wore a short flowered dress and stood in a small space whose floor was covered with white flower petals. With a very serious look on her face, she picked up the petals and extended her hand as the petals fell to the floor. She then thrust herself violently against the wall. Her performance consisted of a set of what I imagined were improvised, abstract movements and throwing herself against the other wall. Unfortunately, this dancer did not possess the je ne sais quoi which might have lifted this performance from the realm of cliché.
On a curatorial level, the exhibited works do not bear any relationship to the other, any clear display of theme or intention. They’re a hodgepodge collection of people the artist/curator knew, all of whom are disjunctively assembled under the umbrella of “Le Caire Mon Amour.”
On the whole, the works themselves lack creative vigor and in some cases are even brought down by their display setting when unable to hold themselves against the imposing architecture. In other instances, their placement in the apartment suggests an easy way out or a hope on part of the curator that audiences might be able to ignore the superficiality of the pieces by focusing instead on their juxtaposition with cracked walls or their exotic setting in dirty downtown Cairo.
“Le Caire Mon Amour” closes at the end of June. Address: 7 Champollion St., Downtown, Cairo.