Nile Sunset Annex
An Artist-Run Gallery Space in Cairo
Enter a building on the Nile Corniche, walk up four flights of stairs, ring the doorbell of the apartment on your right, walk through the living room, and you will find yourself at Nile Sunset Annex – the newest gallery in a wave of new independent art spaces founded in Egypt in 2012. Nile Sunset Annex is a self-funded, experimental artist-run space founded by Hady Kamar, Taha Belal and Jenifer Evans. It hosts local and international artists for month-long exhibitions and runs a parallel program of publications and discussions. The gallery is in fact a room in the apartment Kamar and Belal share, used for exhibitions open to visitors at every launch, on Saturday afternoons and by appointment. Nile Sunset Annex's first exhibition featured the work of Alexandrian artist Faten el Disouky, with an accompanying publication based on a text commissioned from education researcher and comedian Motaz Attalla. The limited-edition publication was accompanied at its launch by an interactive performance of Emmett Williams' mathematical chorus poem In Four Directional Song of Doubt. Elisabeth Jaquette speaks to the founders about the reasons behind establishing the space.
Elisabeth Jaquette: How did Nile Sunset Annex start?
Hady Kamar: Taha and I were talking one day about how we wished we could make work and have a place to exhibit it quickly so you could have a quick response and invite people over so they could talk about it.
Taha Belal: Hady and Jenifer were making screen prints for their show and I was helping to make a print. We brought up the idea of the space with Jenifer, who offered very little resistance!
Jenifer Evans: It's called Nile Sunset Annex because Hady and I had exhibitions of screen prints we make. The second one we had was held on the roof of this building for one night in July, and we called it the Nile Sunset Gallery: Taha had the idea of calling this space the Annex.
HK: We focus on showing physical work, which can be anywhere from sculpture to installation to works on paper, but not so much digital media…
JE: …Work that engages with real space and real materials, because we thought that there was a lack of that kind of good contemporary physical work being made and shown in Egypt.
EJ: Is there a philosophy that guides the work and artists you select?
JE: A lot of the work that is shown in Egypt is very worthy somehow, or has some kind of social or educational use, or is involved in some kind of social outreach. And there is a lot of work that is very theoretical.
TB: I agree, and there is also a lot of work that is about being Egyptian.
JE: Exactly – I have seen so much work that is about Egypt and so much work that is very visually dry because it is about theory and justifying itself. Something we are interested in is work that does not feel a need to justify itself…
TB: …which often you have to do when applying for funding, which is tied to us being artist-run and self-funded.
JE: I think there is so much digital work in part due to lack of an art market in Egypt. There is an art market but it is very small. That means people often have better exhibition opportunities abroad, partly because of the limited number of exhibition spaces here as well. That means the art has to be quite portable – sending someone a file is much easier than sending a sculpture.
HK: I think things are often done this way because the education of how to make things is not there and it is not there because of the technical side and because the educators are quite old and not quite involved in new trends. Education has a lot to do with it. When I was in university [in New Jersey] we had wood shops, ceramic studios – things that when you have a certain education you learn how to do yourself. Often the quality of a thing is tied to your understanding of how it is made.
JE: I also wonder sometimes whether [the amount of digital work in Egypt] is because of the way objects are treated and the way they exist in Egypt. There is so much stuff everywhere and there is so much dust. I hate the idea of making paintings and having them get really dusty-it's inevitable. Maybe that is another reason for the seduction of making digital work.
TB: You walk on the streets in Cairo and see what people in New York would make as art to be presented in a gallery. Here, every bawwab [doorman] has a chair that's fashioned from ten chairs put together. You could see that at the biggest gallery in New York and think: wow, that's beautiful!
JE: That's a lot like the kind of art I was making [in England] before coming to Egypt. It was really shitty looking stuff that looked great in the UK, but wouldn't make any sense to show in Egypt.
HK: What is so exciting about showing physical work is that there is a lot of potential for physical art to be made. If someone is willing to explore what they can do with the physical, in this space for example, a lot of interesting things could be done that would not be done elsewhere.
EJ: Do you see yourselves as curators as well as artists now?
JE: We are only a week into our first show-it's difficult to know exactly but I still feel like as an artist. It means we are running the space from an artist's point of view so we are focusing on what we want to see and talk about as artists, which I think is quite different.
TB: And we are treating our artists as we would like to be treated ourselves.
JE: If you are dealing with an artist-run space you are dealing with people who know what it is like to make art and show work and I think you are less likely to have your work coopted for curatorial or theoretical purposes. It also means we are a much smaller operation-we are three people who are doing this with their spare money and time and energy, and that obviously will limit us in some ways. But it also opens things up much more: it makes things much freer. We can make decisions without having to check if it fits with other things like the budget, and funding criteria and so on. It's like making an exhibition space in the same way that we would make art.
TB: And that relates to being an artist and being a curator-I think the nice thing about calling ourselves artists is that we can dabble in curating. Also important are the publications, which will be published with every exhibition, which is where we are able to fully express our side as artists.
EJ: Let's talk about the fact that the Nile Sunset Annex is a room in a flat in Cairo, and what that might inspire in the audience-how do people who come to see the show interact with the space?
JE: I think it makes it more intimate, more akin to a domestic space. But at the same time the space itself looks very different from the rest of the flat so you can't really call it a domestic space.
EJ: It's also more intimate in terms of the people who come-the space is not an open gallery where people can filter in and out, you have to make an appointment to come in. That engenders a more intimate relation between you and the people who come to see it.
JE: I do think there is inevitably a difference in the way one selects artists if you know you are going to be working with them in your house. Getting along with them is going to be slightly more important. It's early, but I imagine that not only is the viewer's experience of the work more intimate, but also our experience with the artist is more intimate because they are coming in to your living room.
TB: We could also talk about this in relation this to other artist spaces in people's apartments around the world and my experience of that has been very pleasant. It does require an extra bit of effort: to make the phone call and then to set an appointment, but once I'm there it is really nice to have someone open the door for you and be there. Sometimes when you walk into a commercial gallery the person at the reception doesn't even say hello.
EJ: Have there been any responses to the show or to the Nile Sunset Annex that have particularly struck you?
HK: It's not often that you see work in someone's home that could be considered conceptual. One girl I had a conversation with at the opening was wondering why we would show this type of work. I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that it is in our home. I did get the feeling that people who walked in were much more willing to give it a shot than if they walked in to an anonymous space, they were much more willing to talk to us and talk to the artist. They felt comfortable and would sit down on our couch. I think even people who aren't 'art people' will be willing to ask more questions in this space.
EJ: How do you contextualize the Nile Sunset Annex amongst all the other art spaces in Cairo-what makes Nile Sunset Annex unique?
HK: We are completely self-funded, besides a small startup grant from the Townhouse Gallery's Wednesday Wagbas, just to get us off the ground.
JE: We are also the only artist-run space in Cairo, as far as I know. I think we are working in a totally different way from everyone else.
EJ: Do you see the Nile Sunset Annex in any way tied to The Table Museum or 10 Mahmoud Bassiouny, two other independent art initiatives in apartments? Taha, you were involved in setting up The Table Museum; Hady and Jenifer, you both showed your work there.
HK: The Table Museum, yes; 10 Mahmoud Bassiouny, no. 10 Mahmoud Bassiouny is more of a cultural space while the Table Museum was completely about the artist and what the artist wanted to show. The website featured a discussion about the work, interviews with the artist afterwards. I found these things to be grounded in reality, but also very much about the art.
JE: It was also very much based on a network of friends, which is something we are still interested in. But the work at The Table Museum was also site specific, extremely domestic and a response to the space itself.
EJ: What do you think about the flurry of new independent art spaces which have emerged in the past year or two years?
JE: It feels like a good moment for art and art-related activities. 100 Copies has a new space, as do Medrar and Cimatheque. Also, a really cool space, Beirut, just opened, so it is an exciting time to be running an art space in Cairo; much more exciting than it has been before.
TB: All these places have been born out of necessity. Cimatheque wanted a space where they could develop 16mm film and show independent films – there was nothing like that before they started. 100 Copies is the first place I have ever heard of where you can cut vinyl. And Beirut is the curatorial side – they wanted a place where they could experiment with being an institution.
EJ: What are your thoughts on running a space and on making and showing art in the current transitional context? That is, in a charged and constantly changing political climate?
JE: I am not sure how different it would be opening a space in a non-transitional time. I suppose the atmosphere of possibility still lingers from the revolution... and there is an unpredictability in terms of how no one really knows what will happen next. But I'm not sure how that could effect an organization as small as ours.
TB: I agree, and I would add that it is of course difficult to tell what it will be like as we've just started. So far we have not had to delay openings, exhibitions, events or anything. But because we have just started and we are a small space, that gives us a bit more flexibility and it will hopefully be easier to quickly adapt to changing circumstances if need be. For the most part I think as with most things during these 'transitional' times we just need to take things one step at a time, slowly but surely: taking things as they come.
EJ: What's next for Nile Sunset Annex?
JE: We just received an email inviting us to Vienna to take part in a conference on the recommendation of Bassam el Baroni, who used to run Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum until it closed down. Our next show is going to be a drawing show, entitled What Are You Doing, Drawing? There are fourteen people exhibiting, a mix of artists and non-artists. It's going to be good – extremely different from the first show. It's going to get a lot of people involved in the space and it relates somewhat to the current show at the space Beirut, What Does A Drawing Want?
TB: For me it's really exciting to be involved in art, talking about art and dealing with art on a daily basis, and this is a very real way of doing that. One of the things I perceive is a lot of complaining – which happens everywhere – about infrastructure and its problems, the people in power – and we're doing something about that.
JE: It is also really exciting because we are taking things into our own hands, and I think that is really important. I think many artists do not realize that is the best way to build an audience, get work shown and to start discussions about art. That for me has been very positive.