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A new heartbeat in Cairo’s art scene

by Alaa Elbannan

An interview with Nour El Safoury and Marwa Benhalim about the first edition of the Cairo Art Book Fair. 

Cairo Art Book Fair at Start Up Haus – December 2022

In the heart of Downtown Cairo, the first edition of the Cairo Art Book Fair took place at Startup Haus Cairo from December 8 to 10, 2022. It brought together a community of artists, writers, poets, and ethnographers, as well as readers and curious art lovers. Nour El Safoury and Marwa Benhalim—teamed up to create a warm, inviting corner for art books in the tumultuous heart of the city, generating a discussion that had been palpably missing from Cairo’s art scene. 

What are art books? 

It often feels hard to define art books, perhaps because the content they present can be so eclectic and broad. An art book may be dedicated to the discussion of just a single artwork, or it may be a sweeping overview of entire collections; it may even be an artwork itself, a zine exploring themes through text and illustrations, or a photography album with hardly any text at all. The subjects it tackles could be philosophical, sociological, political, personal, hallucinatory, or any combination of these or different themes; it could be serious or playful; printed on cheap material or handmade from thick, luxurious vellum. In all its forms, though, it is the physical embodiment of a concept that you can own, flip through and return to, time and again. 

Coming together to create a community and an ongoing discussion 

When it comes to art books in the Southwest Asia/North Africa (SWANA) region, the conversation isn’t as colourful as it should be. Traditional forms of literature stubbornly remain more popular, so much so that the discovery of a good art book often feels like finding a rare gem. This is where the urge came from. There was a clear need to stage an authentic space where book art is revived, and publishing is perceived as an art practice, a platform that celebrates diversity and possibility in the SWANA region. Thanks to Nour and Marwa—the founders of the Cairo Art Book Fair—this is already happening. When I contacted them for this interview, my intention was to find out more about their motivation and how it all came together within the always and forever challenging context of Cairo. I wanted to acknowledge and shed light on how much energy and faith one must put into realizing any new idea. 

Cairo Art Book Fair – Readers and Audience – December 2022

Marwa Benhalim is a Cairo-based Egyptian/Libyan artist and curator. Her practice explores the micro and macro manifestations and entanglements of power in order to generate innovative approaches and engagements with critical societal concerns. Her work has been shown at Experiments in Cinema V17.2 Film Festival, New Mexico; Héctor Escandón DF, Mexico City; Medrar for Contemporary Art, Cairo; Beirut Art Center, Lebanon; Festival of Digital Audiovisual Art & Contemporary Technologies, Madrid; and more. She co-founded “Attempting Abla Nazira,” a platform that engages women working in creative and service industries by reflecting on food in relation to cultural production, gender politics, and regional socio-economics. 

In 2022, she founded the “Switchboard Project,” an artist-run experiment in care and collaboration that includes monthly gatherings and a curated residency program. She received the Grants for Artists’ Practice, Mophradat, in 2023 and the FFAI Research Grant and Al Mawred Production Award in 2018. She has also held residencies at the Santa Fe Art Institute and SOMA Mexico City. Marwa holds an MFA from Southern Methodist University, TX; a BA from the American University in Cairo, Egypt; and a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design from the University of the Arts, London, UK.

Marwa Benhalim

Nour El Safoury is an editor and art publisher who founded Esmat Publishing List in 2020. Esmat develops and produces publications that engage with contemporary artistic and cultural practices. Esmat’s releases invoke fictional characters—characters that either never existed or existed in the past and are only known to us through mediated access. Nour’s work is guided by her relationship with Esmat, a character played by the actress Sanaa Younes in the film Genon al-Shabab (Madness of Youth). Esmat is a compass and a source of inspiration and often acts as an interlocutor in whatever Nour is doing, whether editing, writing, or working on any other book-related projects.

Nour also writes on visual culture and film and is a member of the Egyptian Film Critics Association. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines, including Mada Masr, Alfilm, and Aalam Alketab, as well as in books released by academic publishers and cinema institutions, such as NAAS—Network of Arab Alternative Screens, Arsenal Berlin, and Zawya Cinema in Cairo.

Nour El Safoury

Alaa: How did it all start? The idea? When did that ‘click’ happen? And what was your motivation?

Nour: Before working on the fair, we each had our own questions regarding our practice and our presence on the cultural scene. Speaking for myself, at the beginning of 2022, after publishing several books under the umbrella of Esmat, I faced constant difficulty in distribution, because they are art books, not literature, and they were not produced with a commercial approach. I wanted them to reach people. During Esmat’s distribution event, the feedback and the interaction was great, so it made me think of the idea of a book fair as an opportunity to exhibit and distribute books such as Esmat’s, and also to break that sense of working in a vacuum. The feeling that I was the only one doing this was very demotivating and unfruitful. I wanted to meet others with similar interests, not only to build a platform to share the knowledge, the experiences, the failures, and the disappointments, but also to create a community of readers who might be more attracted to this kind of book. I wanted to create a space for them to be able to ask questions and engage—something that would seldom happen in a regular bookstore—and to have a platform for discussions on different forms of publishing and expand this sphere of reference. That was my starting point. I started talking about it with Marwa, because we shared a similar interest in providing such books and creating this community. 

Marwa: There are several points where our interests coincided within this context. In my art practice, I was creating art books, publications that were more like zines that discussed sensitive topics difficult to publish for a wider audience. I have an interest in text as a medium that generates imaginary visual images. In 2018, I worked at Townhouse Gallery, where I met several artists creating text-based work. It made me think that they should exhibit their work; my hope was to collect this type of art in a place where it would be both accessible and purchasable. At Townhouse Gallery, there was a small collection of art books, but it wasn’t comprehensive, and there just wasn’t enough space for all the publications available on the scene. A few years later, Nour contacted me, and we started talking. It was great how we each reached the same idea through totally different paths, and I’m happy to say we managed to tackle it from both points of view. What I witnessed at Cairo Art Book Fair—the sense of community and how diverse the event was—showed us that there is so much space for experimentation.

Alaa: How did the fair go? What were your expectations? And what was the reality?

Marwa: We moved with caution and set reasonable goals, and it was a pleasant surprise when reality far exceeded our expectations. Our goal was to reach a modest 5000 followers on Instagram over the coming 5 years. We were more interested in the quality of the fair as an experience for the exhibitors and the visitors;  it was never about the number of followers. We absolutely didn’t expect to get 50 exhibitors who wanted to participate, and we had between 1400 and 1500 guests in 3 days. That was a lot of people, way more than I expected. We had 2000 followers on the opening day. There was wonderful feedback from the exhibitors; they were delighted with how people engaged with them and discussed their work, especially since they were from diverse backgrounds and levels of professionalism.   

Nour: It was valuable for me to see how our visions developed after working together. I’m stubborn, but Marwa has the flexibility necessary to change the shape of things when it’s necessary. I had no specific expectations, but I had a sense of responsibility toward the artists we were representing, particularly when we went to the Athens Art Book Fair and Focal Point in Sharjah, as they weren’t present. In Cairo, that sense of responsibility was even more acute, because the exhibitors gave us their trust within the context of a project that was still raw and untested. The fair confirmed that our idea has great potential; that there is a need for this kind of space and production sufficient to create inspiring conversations. Cairo Art Book Fair is only the second fair of this kind in the whole region, and unlike Focal Point, which is a very institutional art book fair, we’re an independent fair, still exploring and finding our way. All our references are from different socio-political and economic contexts, making it difficult to isolate a specific point of reference. We are still exploring how to sustain the initiative and make it grow. But we ended on a very positive note with remarkable feedback. People particularly liked the public program, which we could definitely develop further in the future. 

Alaa: I’m glad you mentioned Focal Point because I was just going to ask about that; whether you had a reference while planning?

Nour: We were both aware that a network of art book fairs existed, and visiting two of them was a great learning experience, because there are some basic common issues to consider; for example, choosing a venue where food and beverages are accessible, because exhibitors remain there for very long hours. But still, neither Athens Art Book Fair nor Focal Point can be compared to Cairo Art Book Fair; one is in Europe with its highly developed art and publishing scene, and the other is affiliated to an established institution, the Sharjah Art Foundation. They don’t pose the same questions, and their structure is different; it’s a whole other context. 

Marwa: Our experience as exhibitors was a determining point for how we planned certain things; for instance, I wanted the fair to open early in the morning and continue until late at night; then Nour reminded me how exhausting it was for us as exhibitors, so we decided to open from 2 pm to 9 pm. At Focal Point, many volunteers were engaging with exhibitors and guests. We didn’t have the capacity to do that, so we personally visited the exhibitor tables, asked questions, and made sure everything was in order. This close involvement gave us many valuable insights. Our participation at other fairs also helped us define the things we didn’t want; for example, we decided we wanted an open space like the one at Startup Haus. Of course, the first edition is an experiment that has informed us; we now know what to do and what to avoid in the future.   

Cairo Art Book Fair – Organizers and Exhibitors

Alaa: Did you face any challenges? Conversely, was there anything that went smoother than expected?

Marwa: Some challenges came up, of course; for example, the caterer cancelled on us two days before the event. He didn’t think we were worthy enough! The fact that no one knew us definitely made things difficult. Also, we made a conscious decision not to have sponsors, so it was hard to convince people of what we were doing, especially those outside the arts and culture scene. 

Nour: Honestly, it was one big challenge. We were creating something from scratch. At every step, we had to question ourselves: Can we do it? Do we want to do it now? We quickly realized that it could spiral out of control, so we had to decide on the pace. We had several last-minute cancellations from exhibitors and from accommodation providers, so we even had to ask our friends if they could host some guests. Even Marwa opened her house to provide extra accommodation. There was a communal effort to pool resources, and it created a feeling of abundance thanks to people’s generosity.  

Marwa: Some people helped just because they liked the idea of the fair, like Nora Aly, who designed all the material without charging a penny. Nour and I have the same ethics when it comes to compensation of labour; we like to show people how much we appreciate their effort. We were also given a good discount by the venue. Medrar for Contemporary Art provided us with chairs, and Nino’s Bakery catered the event. Our volunteers, Esraa Elfeky, Shahd Ramy, Farida Youssef, Mohammed Ismail Shawky, made an exceptional effort, and they did it happily. So, the fair was made for the community, but ultimately it was the community that made it happen.   

Shakhseyat (an art book) – At Sharjah Art Foundation

Alaa: Talking about communal effort and the decision not to have sponsors: How did you fund the fair? 

Marwa: We travelled as exhibitors to the Athens Art Book Fair and Focal Point and took a percentage of the revenue from the art books from Cairo that we sold. This covered most of our costs. The rent we received from exhibitors contributed a little, but we deliberately kept it low because we wanted to make the fair accessible to as many exhibitors as possible.

Alaa: There must have been certain themes that came up in discussions during the fair. I’m particularly curious about the question of print publishing now that almost everything is going digital, especially books. 

Nour: There is a very exciting community emerging in Cairo and the Arab region interested in exploring letterpress printing and new printing techniques such as Risograph. Maybe a part of this interest is because there’s a feeling that these techniques might disappear, but within our arts and culture community, there is almost a revival for printing techniques, especially within the sphere of graphic designers and visual artists. It’s a refreshing movement. But when we were in Athens, for example, someone posed questions regarding our digital presence and how it could help us circumvent censorship. This is a very complicated matter, but we have a great advantage in Egypt that books aren’t censored before publishing. Problems arise after publishing only if someone decides to sue. In this way, printed books provide freedom. Digital books may be cheaper, but that’s their only advantage. Print isn’t dying. There are many workshops, and people really enjoy owning zines and publications. 

Marwa: As an art practitioner, I can confidently say that print will never die; people love to own art in the form of a book. This medium will survive. There is great potential for the dissemination of art books, especially when people hold them and appreciate them as a part of someone’s art practice. You are literally holding the artwork. It might contain certain knowledge, but ultimately, it’s a work of art. Additionally, art books aren’t usually printed in large quantities. I only print 80 copies of my books and pamphlets. That’s it! Eighty copies in the whole world. 

Mashy Mashy

Alaa: What about self-publishing? In the context of traditional publishing, self-publishing is regarded as a little shameful, a last resort if you can’t find a traditional publisher. What about the context of art books? How healthy is it? And is it easy to do?  

Marwa: In the art scene, self-publishing is the norm. Self-published books even have an edge; if it’s not genuine art, if there is nothing unique about it, then people won’t be interested. Some artists choose to take the traditional publishing path, because they want more accessibility and wider distribution, but that is only possible if the book production process is easy and cheap. In our context, there is a positive and rich discussion about self-publishing and its process. 

Nour: In the field of art, there is space for diverse forms of publishing. In traditional publishing, there is great emphasis on marketing and distribution more so than on content development. Small art publishers might not print many copies, but they focus on the quality of the content and also help with marketing and distribution. There is space for self-publishing artists and for art institutions where publishing is considered a tool, such as museums and organizations like Contemporary Image Collective (CIC). For art books, self-publishing is dominant because there aren’t that many art publishers. Esmat Publishing List is the only art publisher in Cairo, for example. The biggest publisher on the art scene is the General Egyptian Book Organization. They publish for art critics and about artists, but from their own unique perspective, where design isn’t  important, and books are cheap. They don’t work on content development. There is space for publishing within the arts and culture scene, but it is not abundant; publishers don’t work on large scales, but there is room for experimentation. Also, art book publishers have different networks of circulation that depend highly on museums and exhibitions. We lack expertise in art publishing; that’s why distribution is difficult; the necessary networks are still being built. 

The fair plays a role here, to celebrate this diversity of publishing forms, to break any taboos related to self-publishing, and to demonstrate the various possibilities available to artists. It also helps with networking by providing some information on bookstores interested in distribution, as well as cross-pollinating with publishers from other countries. The fair creates opportunities for this to happen organically. 

Alaa: What’s the best thing that happened during the fair? 

Nour: That it happened in Cairo and that there were so many exhibitors. I also like how we were able to silk-screen our tote bags on-site.  

Marwa: We depended so much on social media, but I also think many people came by word of mouth. Some people stayed for hours, left, and returned the next day. People showed up; they were interested, and they said they wanted more of this. That was the best thing that happened.

While you wait for the second edition of the Cairo Art Book Fair, check out the list of exhibitors and the CABF COLLECTIVE table exhibitors. It includes information on all the writers and artists who participated in the first edition. You can follow their work or contact them directly to buy their artwork and add it to your bookshelf. 

Photos above courtesy of Cairo Art Book Fair
Photo on the left courtesy of Kid Cairo
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