Internationally respected Townhouse Gallery in Cairo is just one in the string of cultural institutions closed by the Egyptian authorities in an unprecedented series of raids conducted by the country's Censorship Authority in the past few days. A day after the closing of the gallery and its affiliated performance art venue the Rawabet Theater, a Merrit publishing house was also shut down for reasons yet unclear.
On Monday (December 28th, 2015) around 7 pm, a group of government officials arrived at the Townhouse Gallery and Rawabet Theater. They identified themselves as members of the Tax Authority and the Censorship Authority and begun to scrutinize the venue. About half an hour later members of the freedom of speech associations arrived on the scene, including Fatma Serag, a lawyer at Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. “For five hours, the places were inspected in detail. They checked personal laptops, ID’s, external hard’s, office documents, and licences right before the place was sealed with wax,” Fatma Serag stated for The Daily News Egypt. One day after the gallery and the theater were sealed, the police officers closed Merit, a publishing house known for putting out edgy literature and supporting new talents.
Human rights advocates believe that the series of raids was organized as a part of a larger operation that aims to prevent anti-government protests in a near future. As the fifth anniversary of the 2011 riots (that resulted in a downfall of the country's former president Hosni Mubarak) approaches, there has been numerous calls for new protests against country's current government. Recently, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decribed the situation as an "effort to destroy the country". Soon a series of investigations begun and the government targeted every group or an institution that is suspected to gather dissidents or receive foreign fundings. And while the shut down of the Merit might be related to the recent poetry reading held in solidarity with Ashraf Fayadh, an artist who is sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for spreading atheism with his poems, the reasons for investigating Townhouse Gallery are less clear. The gallery hasn't hosted exhibitions against the regime, and the employes and human rights activist were presented with contradicting reasons during the event. “Some said there’s a charge against the place, while others said it is just a routine raid,” Fatma Serag recalls in a conversation for The Daily News Egypt. Eventually, administrative irregularities were specified as a reason for the shut down.
Since its opening in 1998 the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo promoted contemporary and performance art scene in the city core. The gallery organized groundbreaking exhibitions, concerts, film screenings and international residencies for artists, curators and other art professionals. The Rawabet Theater was created in 2006, as a platform for performance artists of all genres. Throughout the years, the venue helped shape the careers of notable artists such as Youssef Nabil, Doa Aly and a feminist video artist Amal Kenawy. The gallery also hosted numerous educational programs and workshops with a strong community outreach. In one such workshop, Lebanon artist Mona Hatoum and the children from the streets worked together to built intricate sculptures from items found in the landfills. The goal of the gallery is to help the rise of Egypt's blooming contemporary art scene, but also to bring art to all parts of the society including those from marginalized communities. We hope that the gallery will be back on track soon and that it will continue to promote works by numerous contemporary artists. Because, as Shiva Balaghi, a curator focused on the Middle East reminded us, in a tweet posted about the events : "They say the auction houses stimulated Middle East art scene. No, it was small art spaces like #Townhouse that showed us amazing art."
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