By Hannah Wilkinson
Suhair Al Hapashy picks her way through her paintings, paint pots and brushes laid out on the unpaved street in her hometown of Damietta. An accomplished young artist, Al Hapashy has displayed her work publicly before, but this is the first time she has exhibited anything independently of Damietta’s government-run libraries and culture palaces which played host to her previous exhibitions. Around her, artists have hung colorful banners from the balconies of the surrounding houses; others have balanced their sculptures on a wooden cart on the corner of the street.
Al Hapashy and her fellow artists are part of a group of Damietta artists publicly displaying the results from a series of visual art workshops run by the Cairo-based Mahatat for Contemporary Art, an Egyptian initiative for art in public space and community art. A crowd of local residents — who don’t quite fit the culture palace’s target demographic — are gathering to see what is going on. Al Hapashy’s intention is to paint in public to show people how she works, but some kids have come to see what all the fuss is about and start dipping brushes into paint themselves.
Seeing this, Basma Elkafrawy, another artist and workshop participant, is in her element. Elkafrawy usually runs art classes for children, so she immediately provides the kids with sheets of paper and sorts them out into groups so that everyone gets a turn. “At last, someone is keeping the kids entertained!” says one mother, looking on.
While Egypt’s dominant artistic voices have in recent years come largely from a select group of Cairenes, art is nothing new to the people of Damietta — a city built on craft and workmanship. “This is what we do here,” gesticulates an enthusiastic man in a bright yellow tracksuit. He disappears for a while, then comes back with some small pieces of wood covered in glitter, carved into the shape of the word “Allah,” placing them triumphantly in the middle of the other paintings and sculptures to prove his point.
Despite local enthusiasm, the centralization of resources as well as chronic mismanagement on a national scale is stifling the voices of creative Egyptians — not just in Damietta, but across the nation.
“There is an artistic movement in Assiut, but it’s not on the same level as what goes on in Cairo,” confirms Hamdi Said, the head of artistic activities at Assiut’s Bahaa el Din Center, an independent cultural center with a theatre and library. “There is a great amount of local talent, talent which is present in every field, not just in funoon el tashkeel (plastic arts) but in music as well. But of course the way they practice art is very traditional […] and they don’t have many opportunities to exhibit it.”
During this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), held predominantly in Cairo, Hamdi collaborated with the D-CAF’s artistic director Ahmed El Attar to bring performances to the cultural center. But these individual ventures, and the cultural exchanges they facilitate, are few and far between, leaving Egyptians outside the urban centers without the means to experience art or develop as artists themselves.
Damietta’s Elkafrawy says street exhibitions are a crucial way to take arts to the people. “Their thoughts are always with work,” she says, adding that even if there are arts events going on in the city, most people never hear about them.
Although Al Hapashy seems optimistic about the arts in Damietta, she admits it needs development. “We need a lot more support and a lot more opportunities,”’ she says. Asked whether she makes her living as an artist, she laughs, “No, I don’t earn anything! It’s possible to sell one or two paintings in an exhibition, but not many people do.”
Breakdown of a Network
Even in Cairo, new artists complain they are unable to get a break in an art scene controlled by government venues and select independent galleries. But such problems tend to be compounded outside of the capital. This a departure from the multiplicity of voices which formed Egypt’s artistic heritage.
“Egypt’s main writers and poets, they came from all over […] there’s not one geographical location for creativity — that’s a disaster,” says D-CAF’s El Attar. “Over the last 60 to 70 years, these voices have almost disappeared. We need to question what we are doing wrong to not hear these voices any more.”
Angie Balata, project manager of Women on Walls, which in April and May used graffiti and other forms of street art to discuss women’s empowerment in Mansoura, Alexandria, Cairo and Luxor agrees: “Egypt has one of the most eclectic arts communities in the world, and one of the least well managed,” she says, noting that where governmental and independent cultural institutions exist at all, many people in them lack basic art management skills. “The fact that Cairo remains the central […] city for art and resources […] that’s a sign of how badly this is managed.”
Mahatat’s outreach program in Damietta was an attempt to work with local artists to fill the gap left by local institutions. The workshops were part of the Face to Face project, in which professional Cairo artists provided workshops in documentary photography, performance and installation in public space.
For instance, noticing that Damietta has an active independent camera club, program organizers decided to offer a photography workshop and help to connect participants with other artists in the city, to help establish “the only thing that doesn’t exist in Damietta […] an independent scene,” says Heba el Cheikh, the project manager. “The only things are happening either in the library or the culture palace […] It’s very difficult to have a collaboration with these venues […] there were long procedures to get permission to use it. [Otherwise] people can’t find a place where they can organize a workshop, something as simple as that.”
The fact that there are even government cultural venues already present means someone at some point understood the importance of the proliferation of voices. “When Nasser wanted to change the cultural life of Egypt, he made a culture palace in almost every city,” says El Attar, “but [they haven’t] been working for at least 30 years. [….] Is the bad service [provided by government institutions] better than no service?”
In Said’s experience in Assiut, local governmental facilities do not serve the local community. “The people who work there don’t do it because they want to,” the Bahaa el Din Center official says. “It’s only their job so that they can earn money, it’s not a personal choice.”
The high levels of corruption, nepotism and incompetence present in government institutions are, according to Attar, a result of the wrong people in the wrong jobs. “One of the main reasons of corruption is that you don’t put the right people in the right place […] not the people of merit,” he explains. “The people who deserve it don’t get it because they’re not part of that circle or this circle, whether it’s an Islamist circle or a Liberal circle — it doesn’t matter. The Ministry of Culture needs a massive restructuring on all levels […] not like the way it’s being done now; just sacking people will create the same problems again.”
Even if government institutions did function properly, having a strong independent scene is vital. Said notes that as an independent organizer, “we have much more freedom.”
No Money to Show
Finding financial support is an even greater challenge for any artists outside of the capital.
“There is a big misconception about being independent meaning that you’re not funded by anyone,” explains Attar, “Independence comes from having a variety of funding so you don’t belong to one entity.”
For instance, independent art projects could be funded partially by the state, but El Attar notes, “The government spending on culture in Egypt is not independent. You don’t get government funding if you’re not a government body […] a mouthpiece for the government.”
Nor is income from the events themselves in the form of ticket sales a sustainable source of income. Balata points out that outside of Cairo and Alexandria you’re unlikely to get people to pay more than LE 10 LE for a ticket to a cultural event.
The complex bureaucratic nature of the institutions that regulate ticket sales means that many companies have no choice but to put on events for free.
Private funding is equally difficult to find. El Attar notes, “There is very little fundraising among local companies and individuals. This culture is not there at least [not for] art.”
With little local assistance, independent arts organizers end up relying on one single source of support — foreign funds. Not only is this unsustainable in the long run — “Nothing lasts forever,” warns El Attar — but it is totally inaccessible to the majority of Egyptians.
In April, at the close of D-CAF, EU Ambassador James Moran used a round table event to launch a call for funding proposals, making available €300,000 for art outreach and development projects. Moran emphasized the EU’s desire to support cultural projects outside of the capital: “The country is massive of course. I think you should try as much as you can […] to give people outside the capital at least some taste of these kind of activities.”
However, he admitted that he didn’t expect to receive anything from outside of Cairo and Alexandria, despite the large numbers of people living outside the urban centers. Certainly if the enthusiasm of the people in Damietta is anything to go by, there are many young people all over Egypt who would love to use some of this money. So why aren’t the proposals pouring in?
Astrid Thews of Mahatat points to the disconnect between what the EU and other foreign funding sources are offering, and the skills and expectations of the people who could most benefit from the funding. “Probably many of them don’t know about the call,” she says, referring not just to the most recent EU funding but to foreign funding in general. “Most of the marketing happens online but on the pages that are accessed by people from Cairo and Alex.”
In addition, Thews notes the applicants would “need to be registered as some sort of entity” in order to receive foreign funds, and most Egyptians don’t have the skills required to apply for this type of funding. “Especially for the EU proposals,” she explains. ‘For the amount of money that you get, they are an extreme hassle to fill in. […] You have to know […] what the donor wants to hear,’ with a solid understanding of what terms like ‘sustainability’ and ‘stakeholder’ mean in this context.
And then there is the language itself. “You have to know English at a pretty high level,” says Thews. “This is a barrier which you find.”
It would take a seasoned arts organizer to stay passionate about the project through this long, complex process. But even were an independent arts organizer to manage that, it doesn’t always make sense to base your projects on foreign funds. Thews explains, “I think for EU funds […] usually you need a partner from the EU. So how do you know this partner? Sometimes it does not make sense to have this sort of collaboration. Maybe it would make more sense to invite an artist from the Arab region.”
The centralization of Cairo and marginalization of other voices in Egypt “creates a serious problem, that‘s why people hate Cairenes.’ says Balata, who laments the impossibility of cultural exchange between different parts of the country.
“Stories are different when you go to different parts of Egypt. Siwa has been influenced by the Berbers who came over from Libya — they have a whole other history and stories,” she explains. “The fact that you can’t get the stories means that you have no idea of what’s going on with these people, and they live among us.” et