Thursday night, in the stark warehouse space of the Townhouse Gallery, a small crowd of young men and women stood around drinking soda and smoking cigarettes. Many wore track jackets and oversized baseball caps, baggy clothes and Adidas shoes. Some posed to have their pictures taken in front of graffiti adorning the walls, folding their arms, leaning back, and letting the brims of their hats cover their eyes.
This was the first night of the fourth annual Urban Culture Gathering, sponsored by a long list of institutions, including the Spanish Embassy in Cairo, the Egyptian Sector of Foreign Cultural Relations, and the Townhouse Gallery.
Over the course of three nights, several events took place to display how “Spanish and Egyptian youth speak the same cultural language,” including “hip-hop, rap, graffiti, b-boying, freestyling, and parkour.”
For the first night, two Spanish graffiti artists had spent the day covering the bare walls of the constantly reinvented Townhouse. DEN, from Bilbao, and ZETA, from Madrid, had collaborated to the point that their two individual styles blended seamlessly together.
On one wall, a young boy, his hair highlighted with turquoise, looks sideways at the Ottoman-style domes and minarets of the Mohamed Ali mosque. Across the room, a pair of hands held a pair of ritualistic Pharaonic staves. Below the hands, an intricately detailed scarab sprouted huge, multi-colored wings.
Much of the imagery was Pharaonic and Islamic, signaling a desire among the artists to tailor their work to the cultural exchange represented by the festival. Surprisingly, though, none of the art referenced the revolution in January. In Cairo, graffiti, a form of painting that has historically been overtly political, has been totally subsumed by the themes of the revolution, and so here the absence of those themes — of tanks, Tahrir and crowds — was striking.
After a few minutes of standing around looking at the graffiti, a few dancers showed each other their moves tentatively. The music slowly grew louder and louder until it took over the room, and the dancers grew in number and seriousness.
Eventually they cleared away to make room for two young Spanish women, who launched into an impressive, quick hip-hop dance routine. After a minute or so, a third woman, in spray painted stockings, replaced them, whipping her body around violently in circles.
Hip-hop, generally speaking, is a minor presence in Cairo, so one wouldn’t expect break-dancing to have taken off, but somehow it has. Developed in the 1970s in African American and Latino neighborhoods of New York City, break-dancing (also known as b-boying) became famous throughout urban areas in the US in the 1980s. One famous break-dancer, known as Crazy Legs, called the dance “a true American art form.”
Everyone watching the first few dancers cheered, and everyone else in the room jogged over to gather around the dancing area. A succession of 30-second solo dances proceeded in rapid fire. An Egyptian young man in a striped sweater vest glided through a hip-hop rendition of the “robot.” Another burst into the center, splaying his legs and spinning in stunningly fast circles, making way for another dancer who walked on his hands. The final dancer virtuosically held a soccer ball between his foot and calf as he spun his body in quick, acrobatic circles.
The crowd of Spaniards and Egyptians watched, mesmerized. A form of dance developed in New York City in the 1970s was bringing together two groups of young men and women across the Mediterranean.