Townhouse Gallery of Art: ‘Mr. President’s Circus’
things only the people anxiously desire – bread and circuses’ is probably one
of the most famous quotes about a circus. It was the Roman Poet Juvenal who made
this quote more than 2000 year ago. Juvenal made reference to the Roman
practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism.
Egyptian state circus goes back one hundred years. The most famous artists are
the Helw Family. Originally from Morocco, this family came to Egypt and started
a circus. They rose to fame while touring the country, where
they performed with wild animals such as lions and tigers. The first female
lion tamer in the Middle East was also part of this family, King Farouk
actually gave the circus owner Hassan Ali El Helw the title of Bey.
during the sixties, times got rough for the circus, which was mainly due to
competition from cinema and television. The circus sought help from the
Egyptian government and ever since then, they have been part of the Ministry of Culture. President
Gamal Abdel Nasser was very fond of the circus himself, invested a lot of
money in them and set up an exchange program between Egypt and Russia.
John Perkins followed the Egyptian circus around for four years. The photo
exhibition ‘Mr. President’s Circus’ is the result of his time with them and is
being held at Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Downtown Cairo. Besides
Perkins’ work, there are also some old photographs of Om Kolthoum visiting
the circus and one of their acrobats balancing on top of Cairo Tower.
first room of the exhibition, the focus is on the history of the circus and on the
main act; the lion tamers. After that, you walk into the clown and acrobat
division, where one of the most impressive pictures is of the acrobat on top of
Cairo Tower. After that, the focus is on other circus acts and performers. All
the pictures have a brief description underneath, detailing the performers or listing
fun facts about the circus. For instance, because of a money shortage, the
lions are fed donkey meat, which is actually close to human meat.
are also some photographs that were taken during the January 25th revolution, when the circus performers were in Tahrir demonstrating. And even
during the revolution the show had to go on, so between the demonstrations and the
curfew, the performers would rush back from Tahrir.
‘Mr. President’s Circus’ gives very interesting insight into the world of the
Egyptian circus and is definitely worth a visit at Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art.