Art in Cairo

The radio program The World just ran a piece I did on the Cairo arts scene and particularly on how artists are taking advantage of the current chaos/freedom to use public spaces they were barred from before and to connect with new audiences.

The piece discusses the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival and an installation by Ganzeer and Yasmine El Ayat.

I also spoke to several other artists, but due to time constraints, those conversations didn't make it into the piece. 

Artist Hady Kamar, for example, took time to chat with me about the difficulties of defining "revolutionary" art and the reasons behind the (modest but noticeable) increase in new arts spaces and initiatives in Cairo. 

"I think a lot of people are doing more now on their own because a lot of the promises of the revolution weren't fulfilled, " Kamar said. "For example, openness -- societal openness or just a political openness. You can only rely on yourself and you can't sit around relying on [the fact that] the government is going to assist with this or we're going to become a place where there are going to be a lot of cultural spaces,  without people taking it on themselves and doing it themselves. "

Kamar is one of the artists behind the charming new Nile Sunset Annex, a one-room exhibition space (in an apartment/studio in Garden City) that puts on a monthly show of physical (as opposed to digital) work and that, in my view, plays with the boundaries between professional art-making and other forms of creativity and craftsmanship, as well as those between genres (in the two shows I've gone to I've seen drawing, music, furniture replicas and embroidery).

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The other artists I had the pleasure of meeting recently is Amira Hanafy, who did a piece entitled Mahdy's Walk for the gallery Art Ellewa (in the informal neighborhood of Ard Ellewa). In fact, I am part of Hanafy's piece, an aural portrait of the area made up of conversations with residents and visitors, recorded while following a circuit through the neighborhood. The walk took in one of the remaining open fields in the area, a patch of emerald-green barsoum that will undoubtedly be gone in a few years (there are already half-built apartment blocks standing on its edge) and the sound collage features conversations about the area's history, break-neck development and problems: land speculation, security, garbage collection. 

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

Graffiti featuring kids from Ard Ellewa

While not all art can (or need) be socially or politically engaged, this particular moment in Egypt is such that many artists are both looking for new models to organize and sustain themselves and for ways to break out of Cairo's small alternative gallery scene and engage wider audiences. Hanafy's piece and the work at Art Ellewa generally is a great example of art that is embedded in, and relevant to, the community that surrounds it. 

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Blind Ambition

I'm sitting in the beautiful old Radio movie theatre in Downtown Cairo, watching a black and white movie filmed on a cell phone. On screen, people (all so familiar I feel I crossed them once in the street) are complaining, arguing, not listening to each other while charging forward in endless linguistic loops. The dialogues, as one audience member suggest afterwards, are as frusrating as unresolved mathematical equations. They are also captivating, the way overheard snatches of intense conversation often are, full of urgenty invoked cliches and naked self-assertion and self-righteousness.

We laugh, out of both the pleasure and the discomfort of recognition. Humour, I would venture to say, is rare in contemporary art films, which is another reason that Egyptian artist Hassan Khan's "Blind Ambition" is worth seeking out (although I do wonder how much of this very verbal film is lost to non-Arabic speakers). I saw it last night, as part of the ongoing D-Caf cultural festival. As Khan explained after the screening, it is based on "daily, personal observations" but also elaborated through a painstaking directing/acting process (which as far as I understand toes the line between scripted and improvised) and clever formal choices meant to undercut the exchanges' seeming naturalism. When people aren't speaking, for example, the film is silent. It is as if the characters' voices make them "come into being," says Khan -- the space of single, memorable moments. 

Here's a good write up in Egypt Independent, too. 

Writers and artists protest 'Brotherhoodisation' of Egypt's constitution

Writers and artists protest 'Brotherhoodisation' of Egypt's constitution - Arts & Culture - Ahram Online

Mohammed Saad in  al-Ahram:

The protesters said that the Assembly is part of the Brotherhoodisation of the country, as its members only reflect the views of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, they charge, is consolidating its grip and monopolise the next constitution to conform to their views.

The first leaked draft of the articles on freedoms show signs that the new constitution might hold onto the times of censorship and actually put new constraints on freedoms of creativity and expression.

"We’re here today to call for a constitution that reflects the views of all Egyptians; we want a real social contract - not a contract between the Muslim Brotherhood, which is very discriminatory," publisher Mohamed Hashem told Ahram Online.

"The discourse they’re adopting is very racist and discriminatory. We won’t accept that. They do not respect the rest of the people and they think we’re all atheists. Imagine what kind of a constitution these people could write!” he added.

I'll back Mohammed Hashem on pretty much anything. And am glad to see these issues being raised at a time (reported in the press today) Islamists are yet again agitating about "Satanic" heavy metal bands. But I'd like to see political parties take part in this type of activism, not just artists and writers. 

Re-imagining culture post-uprisings

Sonali Pahwa and Jessical Winegar, in the latest issue of Middle East Report:

The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.

Two fundamental aspects of this emerging cultural politics are frequently overlooked: the support for culture industries in mainstream Islamist circles and the underlying structural transformation of the relationship between arts and the state. The story is not simply one of liberation from authoritarian states, new desires to criticize such states or Islamist threats to freedom of expression. Rather, there are complex shifts in the overlapping cultural and political fields. Changes in the cultural scene are not simply a barometer of broader political and economic change, but part and parcel of it, particularly in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In these places, the dominant state ideology poses culture as a path to progress and enlightenment. In this moment of opening, cultural producers, intellectuals and politicians are asking foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and thus a bellwether of sorts, is a case in point.

Read on.

Egypt and censorship

Khaled Dawoud reports on artists' concerns in Egypt:

The main conference hall at the Press Syndicate was packed with nearly all the big names in the Egyptian art and culture industry. Actors and actresses, poets, painters, musicians, novelists and writers all gathered on Saturday to announce the creation of the "Egyptian Creativity Front" to face what they see is growing pressure to limit freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt following the landslide victory political Islamic groups scored in parliamentary elections that concluded last week.

Where have these people been all this time? The Mubarak regime practised censorship – political, cultural, and other – widely. Often the reasons were Egypt's terrible legislation and bureaucracy of censorship, which is very politically malleable. No doubt an Islamist government may enforce some forms of censorship more (and others less).

I'm very glad people are organizing to protect freedom of expression and the wave of creativity of the last few years (culminating in the 18 days of Tahrir). But taking the position that the Islamists are the problem is the wrong approach, it's the legislation and the mentality of a ministry of culture that seeks to micro-manage cultural life that's the real problem.

One more thing: I am willing to bet any taker that, within a year, even if the situation for political or human rights really improves, we'll see some people writing of an Islamist winter in Egypt because they've banned a movie or something, and we'll have no mention that under the Mubarak regime courts for instance banned the reprinting of the Arabian Nights because it was considered too lewd.