Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
by Keith Hammond
This is a gem of a space in Downtown Cairo. The gallery and several workshops feels very much part of busy central Cairo but the atmosphere is totally international. It would be difficult to imagine anyone from any part of the world not feeling at home in the Townhouse. Art should be a place that welcomes and brings people together as in this cluster of gallery and workshop spaces.
This is the outside of the Townhouse. It sort of hits you as you walk along …
The Townhouse springs up just when you least expect to find something. It is in Downtown Cairo and very central. Next to the exhibition space are bookshops and a shop of handmade things. Music and gifts are not expensive and the whole area feels extremely integrated. People like to talk about what they make and so there is a lot of good conversation.
Below is a very complex looking diagram but it gives an idea of the relationships involved in the enterprise. It is really a cluster of spaces where relationships with the ‘Other’ give a quality that is the defining characteristic of the place. There are absolutely no preconditions tied to Otherness. It is not difficult to see why this is a really important place for refugees and artists that come to the arts with all sorts of histories. This wee gem of a place gives new meaning to the terms ‘knowledge exchange’ …
The above shows how learning relationships converge on art-making activities. Learning is not just about ‘education’. What hit me most on visiting the shop and gallery was the way the space feels social. It feels shared, showing a shared place as a place of possibilities. Different presences come out in the expression of sharing. The venue was put together in 1988 as an independent, non-profit art space with a goal of making contemporary art and culture accessible to all without compromising creative practice. It has done that and much more. Below is a still from a program of contemporary dance held in the gallery recently …
The Townhouse now supports artistic work in a wide range of media through exhibitions, residencies for artists, curators and writers, educational initiatives and outreach programmes which offer workshops for adults and children, with participants coming from all over Cairo. This means it is very much a venue for the exchange of ideas, including the ideas of people with special needs and those from marginalized communities.
Since first set up the Townhouse has strived to make the arts accessible to different groups of society, whilst never compromising the quality of art making in social integration and understanding.
The gallery’s Outreach Programme thus offers a number of workshops for adults and children, through which the center is able to broaden activities to involve people from all over Cairo, including those with physical difficulties.
The SAWA Workshops for the Visual Arts take place every Saturday at the Townhouse Factory space. Attending are those from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. SAWA (meaning “together” in Arabic) originally started as a small workshop for refugees but has now expanded to become one of the gallery’s core outreach programmes, involving hundreds of individuals a year in a communal, creative process regardless of race, gender of class. The programme shows how workshops break down obstacles to communication and understanding.
Past Outreach programs of Townhouse have included the Friday Workshops for Working Children, which was later transformed into the SAWA Saturday workshops. These provided a creative space where child laborers could express their individuality, build peer relationships and develop their communication skills, bringing them a confidence and self-esteem that could be applied to their daily lives. The workshops encompassed instruction in different fields – visual arts, animation, theatre – and included day trips to places outside of the children’s immediate locale as well as literacy classes and topics relating to the rights of children.
Recently, SAWA’s programmes have included photography workshops, oil painting instruction by renowned Egyptian artist Ibrahim El Tanbouli and a six-month fashion school project from September 2014 – March 2015.
Townhouse collaborates with institutions and arts professionals both regionally and internationally to create exhibitions, share resources, and facilitate artist exchanges. We hope to introduce the Townhouse SAWA project to Glasgow in collaborations with different projects around the city. Further blogs to follow.
*The Townhouse Gallery can be found at: 10 Nabrawy Street – Off Champellion Street – Downtown Cairo + Tel: 2 (0) 127 371 4371