x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Art and life in the new Egypt

Nabil Shawkat reports from Cairo on the outpouring of cultural projects that have been inspired by the revolution.

An interactive exhibit in south Cairo’s avant-garde Darb 1718, a gallery that has featured a variety of art with links to the revolution that overthrew the Egyptian government earlier this year.
An interactive exhibit in south Cairo’s avant-garde Darb 1718, a gallery that has featured a variety of art with links to the revolution that overthrew the Egyptian government earlier this year.

Everyone seems to be celebrating in Egypt these days. Poetry readings, musical nights and photography shows are being staged at every imaginable artistic platform, from the prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina to the glamorous Opera House, the community-based Sakiet al-Sawi and the versatile Townhouse. Even market-oriented galleries, such as the upscale Safarkhan, have started exhibiting revolutionary art.

Wherever you look, you'll see tear gas and smoke, smouldering vehicles and fluttering flags, children with painted faces and teenagers climbing on tanks. The imagery of Tahrir Square is just too powerful to dismiss, too haunting to shake off. A month or two after the revolution, and we're still paying tribute to the 18 days of turmoil that changed the face of Egypt. It's our victory lap, our homage to the martyrs, our way of turning a new leaf.

This, one has to admit, has been a well-documented revolution. When I went with my wife to Tahrir Square during the protests, we had produced a simple poster featuring a coloured photo of the ousted president. Every time we unfurled this poster, cameras started clicking in our direction. Dozens of people took our picture. Ours wasn't the most artistic poster or the funniest, but it must have been photographed hundreds of times. So by now every home in Egypt must have its own gallery for the revolution. Each home can stage a show.

But it is more fun to celebrate in the company of revolutionary-minded people.

Darb 1718 is an avant-garde art space in the pottery-making section of Fustat in south Cairo. Of all the art spaces in Egypt, this is the only one that is actually named after a revolution. The 1718 part of the name is a tribute to the bread riots of January 17 and 18 in 1977.

In mid-March, Moataz Nasr, the director of Darb 1718, curated a revolutionary exhibition of photography, video art and installations.

The exhibition featured a set of self-portraits by Nabil Butrus, in which the artist appears in various guises, including a Muslim sheikh and a Christian priest, to make the point that "We're all Egyptian." The set of self-portraits made several appearances in Tahrir Square during the protests.

Participating in the same show, the art critic Yousef Limod contributed a pile of rubble. He calls it an "incomplete pyramid", and it is all made up of the stones used by the rebels to defend their positions in Tahrir Square.

Another intriguing display, by the Swedish artist Goran Hassanpour, involved a ballot box hanging from the ceiling, with the audience asked to throw darts at it. The darts are made of ballot papers, and they tend to fall from the box unless you throw them really hard, an allegory perhaps to the difficulty of keeping democracy on the right track.

As part of the exhibition at Darb 1718, the Choir Project delivered fresh songs about justice and hope. All members of the choir are volunteers. They get together every two months or so for a week, during which they collectively write a new song lasting five to 10 minutes.

"It's not a band," said the impresario Salam Yosri, who has been running the Choir Project for some months now. The choir, which started with 20 volunteers and has grown to nearly 50 performers, is a work of love. No one gets paid, everyone gets yelled at by Yosri and they all keep coming back for more. Their lyrics are offbeat and colourful. A lot of clichés are spun around, old sayings recycled, and the whole thing comes across as irreverent, folksy and offbeat: think Sheikh Imam meets Sayyed Darwish.

The experience of that particular choir shows that the revolution was not that simple, or even over yet. One of the choir's members was picked up by secret services linked to the army three days before the concert at Darb 1718. So the choir performed while bearing signs that said, "Aly Sobhy is our friend; he is not a thug; he is an artist."

Sobhy was released the next day, having been beaten and tortured. His story, now posted on the internet, is painfully poignant for two reasons. One is that it happened after the revolution and the other is that the culprit was the army, for which many revolutionaries still have high regard.

But this doesn't dampen the spirits of Yosri, the choir's director, who maintained that once the secret services stopped muzzling intellectuals, the art scene would flourish. "The revolution has brought out the best in the people," Yosri said.

Other artists are equally sanguine about the future.

Although creativity exists even in restricted societies, when freedom arrives, art changes as a result, the photographer Hesham Labib said.

Artists may still experience some forms of censorship, including self-censorship, but the whole scene will be different, Labib added. "Take for example the fact that you'll be able to take photographs in a public place without being asked to obtain a permit first. How great is that?"

Adel al-Siwi, one of Egypt's most-acclaimed painters, believes that revolutionary art is just a phase. Soon, the full impact of the revolution would be felt, he said, and the outcome would be far more profound.

"The revolutionary art you see around the country is not what matters," al-Siwi said. "What really matters is the public is becoming more attentive, and their attentiveness is going to change everything, especially culture. We used to have a small elite interested in the arts. From now on, we'll have a lot of people, especially the young, getting involved in culture."

Egypt used to resist change because the old regime wanted everything to stay the same, he added. Now that the regime is gone, change would become unstoppable.

Artists are not only speculating about the future, they are making sure their voices will be heard.

In the Coalition of Art Institutions, a recently formed gathering of nearly 100 Egyptian art groups, artists are discussing such issues as government control, unionist laws, art sponsorship and intellectual rights. Their aim is to recommend policy and keep the government accountable and transparent.

One member of this coalition is Hoda Farid, a much-respected photographer and art administrator. Like al-Siwi, Farid is dismissive about revolutionary art. In fact, she discourages artists from pandering to the current international interest in revolutionary imagery.

"Taking money from donors to produce revolutionary art is not necessarily a good thing," Farid maintains. "We're in the middle of creating a new identity in this country, and we need to remain focused on what matters most."

For more information about the Darb 1718 gallery and the Choir Project, go to www.darb1718.com and www.thechoirproject.webs.com.