By Maurice Chammah
Wednesday Wagbas, a new initiative at the Townhouse Gallery, is aiming to give funding to artists for new projects at a time of increasing uncertainty in the Egyptian visual art scene.
The idea is to raise funds through public dinners by allowing diners to learn about the art projects they are aiding as they consume a meal by a guest chef.
According to organizer and curator Ania Szremski, the concept originated out of Sunday Soup, a Chicago-based project in which curators and artists “were exploring” how they “could self-organize and self-support their practices without having to depend on existing funding structures.”
These structures, including mainly museums and foundations, Szremski believes, “are typically fraught with many layers of ideology-driven bureaucracy that can be really constrictive.”
At Sunday Soups, on the other hand, anyone could come, pay $10 for a bowl of soup, listen to several artists discuss their projects, and at the end of the meal, everyone would vote on which project they liked best, with the winning artist getting the sum of all the money paid towards the soup.
So Szremski decided to bring the idea to Cairo, a place with a notoriously complex relationship between big, state institutions like the Ministry of Culture, and the scattered, often more experimental independent scene in which Townhouse is a major player.
The move towards grassroots funding for artists comes in the context of an Egyptian art scene redefining itself after 60 years of transition. In the 1950s, Nasser’s government oversaw a massive proliferation of opportunities for artists, although they were not given completely free reign. “Artists gave up their independence, shelved their critical faculties and made bland propaganda,” argued writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Frieze magazine recently, “because the trade-off was essentially employment for life.”
Sadat’s rule in the 1970s saw a dismantling of these opportunities amidst state-encouraged privatization. “Then in the 1990s, an independent and, for the most part, non-profit art scene took hold in Cairo and other cities scattered across the region,” writes Wilson-Goldie. “But in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, questions about who one is aligned with and supported by have become crucial.”
Over the last decade and a half of Mubarak’s rule, the Ministry of Culture was run by Farouk Hosny, a polarizing figure who brought back state-sponsored cultural programming, while fending off critics of his alleged corruption.
“He is responsible for the fluorescence of new galleries, museums and art centers in the major cities, including the new Palace of the Arts and The Gezira Arts Center in Cairo,” wrote anthropologist and expert on Egyptian art Jessica Winegar of Hosny’s tenure. At the same time, Winegar told Daily News Egypt a year ago, “massive growth in the private sector means that the market has often come to define the value of art.”
“From the ministry’s monopoly on state-allocated funds and state-led commissions,” wrote DNE’s Heba Elkayal in March of last year, “young rising talents would rarely shine in a spotlight taken up by a culture minister who some critics claimed rarely supported initiatives for new public art or the works of young artists.” Elkayal quoted gallery owner Sherwet Shafei as saying that the Ministry of Culture, after the fall of the Mubarak regime, would need to be restructured “as if you are structuring a new country with no past.”
Since Hosny left the Ministry in February 2011, two others have filled the post. The future of the ministry is in particular question in the context of debates about how the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties that make up a majority of the new parliament will seek to establish criteria for what kind of art deserves state support.
The 22nd Youth Salon in November, a state-sponsored exhibition of young artists which Hosny helped to create, became one of many flash points over the last year, as groups debated whether to preserve the salon’s competitive dimension or open it up to any artist who wanted to submit work.
It is a time in which few can predict how the ongoing political upheavals will affect the state’s role in Egypt’s art scene and opportunities available to artists to fund their work, so the Townhouse Gallery is looking in a different direction.
“The more people that attend the meals, the more the grant amount can increase in future Wagbas,” suggests the press release. “In an Arabic-language, lightly moderated format, the two grantees will discuss their projects, the challenges they anticipate, and the different kinds of support they need. In return, audience members can offer feedback, suggestions, advice and support. Grantees will be invited back to the next Wagba to discuss how their projects have developed.”
“It’s a platform where an artist can present a project to his/her peers, and get immediate, tangible, and completely transparent support,” says Szremski. “Audience members get the chance to interact with contemporary cultural production at the beginning of the process instead of at the end.”
But where would the funding to start up the project come from? The Sunday Soup organizers, a collective called InCUBATE, decided that their idea should be spread to other art communities, so they held a giant Sunday Soup where instead of proposals for art projects, people ate and discussed places the idea might be successful. They picked Cairo.
“The idea of the communal sharing of a meal is integral to the spirit of the project,” Szremski says. “The goal is to get a different guest chef for each meal, who will prepare something delicious and something a little bit special, that’s not necessarily readily available in Cairo.”
For the first Wagba on February 1st, she says, attendees can expect spicy Indian food.