‘Art in Public Space in Egypt’ by Heba El-Cheikh

Heba El-Cheikh is a creative producer and arts manager based in Cairo who has been working with young people and communities since 2009, initially with The Journey and now with Mahatat for Contemporary Art. We met a few years ago and I’m glad to call her a friend. We’ve talked about the challenges of doing community-oriented arts work in her country, but I’ve not yet had a chance to see the work myself. This piece, written to accompany an exhibition of art aftert the ‘Arab Spring’ that has just opened in Vienna, gives a glimpse of how young artists are reimagining community art in a changing world. 

To download the essay as a PDF, click on this link, or carry on reading…

 

Audiences and Art in the Public Space in Egypt: Why we do what we do

Heba el-Cheikh

 ‘What do you mean by “show”?’

The question hung in the air, with a mix of confused and aggressive facial expressions and a clueless, empty gaze that I received from the young officer on this warm winter afternoon in Port Said (a city situated along the Suez Canal in Egypt).

Photo by Mohamed Kamal, courtesy Mahatat for contemporary art
Photo by Mohamed Kamal, courtesy Mahatat for contemporary art

It all started when we decided to expand our activities, thanks to a generous grant that we received from Drosos to support our program ‘Access to Art’ and its three projects: ‘Art of Transit’, ‘Mosaic’, and ‘Face to Face’.  During the ‘Art of Transit’ project we began to organize a quarterly artistic and performative tour of the cities in which we operate: Greater Cairo, and three large cities in the Delta Region, namely Port Said, Damietta, and Mansoura.

Our first tour, in October 2014, was intended to be as visible as possible, no longer a low profile presence in the streets (as was our previous strategy). We brought together the Oscarisma marching band with the giant puppets of Al Kousha for the puppets to make a ‘spectacular’ entry into the streets of the city, bringing joy, happiness and entertainment to passers-by.

Our first march in Port Said was quite successful. The mayor of the neighbourhood was positively surprised by the ‘quality’ of the show – so much so that he recommended we slightly shift the location of the second march, which was intended to be performed at Souk Ali, a local market on the outskirts of the city. The new location was a few blocks away from the market, in a square. Just our bad luck this was in front of a police station – a location, among other sensitive buildings such as hospitals and mosques, we would usually avoid while performing.

They didn’t have to move from their place: all big security trucks, vehicles, jeeps, a dozen special forces in their black outfits and masks, officers, and soldiers of lower ranks were there surrounding us, looking at us with astonishment. Our bouncers and security men with big muscles, and our volunteers on the ground, stepped away, leaving me to deal with the security. I found myself, in my pretty blue dress, with a big smile, delicate voice, and the polite tone of a well-behaved lady, trying to explain to the young officer what we were doing. I had to repeat ‘It’s a show, a performance, you know, puppets, music … you know, old street art? Aragoz?[1] Storytellers?’ over and over in an effort to make them understand what we were doing. I even started to point at the musicians and performers wearing their instruments and puppets in order to explain what our ‘show’ was about.

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Photo by Ahmed Najib, courtesy Mahatat

Finally, I showed him, confidently and firmly, the permit that we received from the neighbourhood authorities. Luckily this was the only authority who consented to hand us a written permit. It is worth mentioning that previous to this tour, organized in October 2014, we had never opted to secure any permits to perform in the streets of Cairo, or Damietta. We were aware from the start that the ‘permission’ and ‘consent’ of our audience and the community living in the space/neighbourhood, (such as coffee shop owners, workers, and vendors), was more important than a permit from the authorities. With the new geographical expansion of our tours, we started to secure permits, as they are important in our times, (especially considering the escalation of events after June 30th 2014), to provide a safe environment for performers, crew, and audiences.

Nervously, the young officer walked away, talked to his chief officer on a walkie-talkie, and then gave me the phone to talk to the chief. I repeated the whole story, again with no success: the chief also did not understand what I was talking about. Five minutes later he came down himself, read the paper carefully, and finally agreed that we could perform, (but not on the market street because ‘it’s a dangerous place full of drug dealers’). Instead, we were allowed to perform on the city’s main street, escorted by a few dozen officers and special forces.

Amused, I followed the march and surprisingly overheard the same young officer talking to his wife on the phone, proudly telling her that he was now providing security for some artists playing in the street. At that moment, I realized this officer might never have attended a live show in his whole thirty years of life – no theatre, no music concerts, nothing! Rien! Nada! This officer is like any other Egyptian citizen who has little-to-no access to art because of centralization, and/or social and geographic exclusion.

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Photo by Rana El-Nemr, courtesy Mahatat

The cultural scene in Egypt is mainly divided between two kinds of organizations: state institutions affiliated with the cultural ministry, such as the opera house in Cairo and the national theatres, and the culture palaces and clubs. With the nationalist politics of Nasser in the 1960s and the 1970s, art and culture became more and more centralized, only diffused and produced in the governorates by the Ministry of Culture and its institutions. These state-sponsored institutions dominate the culture scene in the governorates outside Cairo and Alexandria.

Back in early 2000, independent organizations such as TownHouse Gallery, CIC (Contemporary Image Collective), and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource) appeared on the scene and, with older commercial galleries such as Mashrabia and Karim Francis Galleries, pleaded for quality in art and independence from the corrupt state system. Most of these organizations, galleries, workshop spaces, and exhibitions venues are located in Downtown Cairo. Both state-sponsored spaces and the independent art scene remain inaccessible to the majority of the Egyptian population as they are either geographically, or socially exclusive.

However, there are still a few established organizations located in Cairo that have a community outreach approach, such as Artellewa, Alwan wa Awtar, and El Takeiba art spaces.

In late 2011, my partners and I founded Mahatat for contemporary art, as we aimed at making art visible in the daily life of Egyptian citizens and more accessible and decentralized from the capital by organizing art in the public space and community engaged art projects. Now we realize that by organizing artistic interventions in public spaces, not only do we offer an entertaining, fun, and reflective experience to the audience, but we also create a reference, a new collective image and memory about certain art forms that existed in the public sphere that we are restoring from neglect and dust.

Although the accessibility of art was always, and since the very beginning, Mahatat’s main objective and goal, this reality struck me strongly and deeply.

Six months later! ‘They make us feel like human beings.’

Photo by Malek Eissa courtesy Mahatat
Photo by Malek Eissa, courtesy Mahatat

In March 2015, six months later, we organized a new tour in different locations in the four cities. This time we performed classical music and songs. The programme was a mix of famous opera songs and Arabic oldies, recognized and loved by the whole Egyptian audience. All this was performed on balconies in the respective cities and in a historical ruined palace in Mansoura city. We were there to witness the pure amazement of the audience, watching and listening to the prima donna come out onto the balcony and sing her soprano melodies, accompanied by a violinist and percussionist, all wearing pyjamas and robes. I was enchanted to see the little kids dancing, amazed watching this handsome singer in his tuxedo coming out of the balcony of the ruined Red Palace (al ahmar) in Mansoura, transformed by light and music into a magical fairy palace.

We would have been very content with just the sparkles in the eyes and the enchantment of the audience, but we were also much rewarded! With the constant presence of security escorting our performances with their cars and sirens (to protect us), we were surprised as the rigid faces of the state’s security officers (amn markzy) grew softer and tenderer, song after song. They had also joined the lines of our audience. And this was a new victory for us.

Photo by Ahmed Najib , courtesy Mahatat
Photo by Ahmed Najib , courtesy Mahatat

An old man stopped by and asked about the performance, who had organized it, and what these people were doing. While walking around and mingling anonymously with the audience, as well as the rest of Mahatat’s crew, Omar El Motaz Bellah, the director of the Teatro independent theatre group, replied, ‘You know haj (old man), they are offering opera and oldies songs to the people.’ The old man nodded, looked down, and then said ‘God bless them! They make us feel like human beings.’

In the idealism and simplicity of this statement, the old man summarized the essence of why we are doing this. He might have answered all the questions, the insecurities and uncertainties we had struggled with throughout our four years of working in the streets – the questions we have been trying to find answers to. His statement has simplified all the justifications we had repeated in front of our families, friends, donors, audiences, and even politicians.

We believe that art does not need to have a certain message, it is not about educating people nor cultivating them, but it is all about providing moments of pure joy, and reflection. Art restores life and is rooted in the core essence of human rights and dignity.

Heba El-Cheikh is a cultural manager and freelance writer living and working in Egypt. After studies in French, translation and journalism, she gained a Masters in Arts Management at Utrecht University, with a thesis on Community Arts Evaluation Practices in Egypt (2015). In 2009, she co-founded The Journey Cultural Group in Alexandria, working with young people on creativity and critical thinking, and in 2011, Mahatat For Contemporary Art in Cairo.

 

[1]      The ‘Aragoz’ is a traditional hand-made wooden puppet that used to wander public spaces, usually during traditional festivals, ‘Mouled’, and weddings. Aragoz stories usually criticize one or more aspects of Egyptian life and culture, represented by their reckless and satirical character.

Good enough?

Streetwise Opera The Passion 2016 - 1

‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

Dr Johnson’s quip, reported by his admiring biographer, is a memorable piece of condescension. It also reflects the response that community and participatory art has often met from the art world. Here, for example, is a 1981 interview with an Arts Council officer, in the long-gone community arts newsletter, Another Standard:

‘In the initial stages too great a reliance was placed by community artists on the social aspects of their work. […]  If the ACGB is to argue to the office of arts and libraries that a greater sum should be available for community arts, consideration of the artistic value of the work has to be uppermost.’

The question of what constitutes quality in community and participatory art is crucial to understanding its practice, intentions and value. But we will not get far with rigid ideas of what art is or how it is created. There is good work and bad in community art, as there is in contemporary dance, conceptual art and theatre. Most of it, like most art everywhere, is quite good – and that’s good enough. After all, it is in the nature of great art to be exceptional. But if this debate is defined by standards exclusively controlled by people with fixed beliefs and interests – like Dr Johnson’s about women – it will be hollow.

So here is an alternative – a demonstration of the ambition, standards and quality of participatory art that you can judge for yourself. This staged performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by Streetwise Opera, with The Sixteen was filmed a week ago at Campfield Market in Manchester and broadcast on BBC Four on 27 March 2016. (It will be available to watch online only until 26 April, so don’t miss it.)

Streetwise have worked in opera with people experiencing homelessness since 2002, in London, Nottingham, Manchester and Newcastle. I’ve written about them before and they have many admirers: even so, financing their work remains a constant struggle. It shouldn’t be. As the film shows, they make great art, for everyone.

The production’s director, Penny Woolcock, has written a moving account of its creation that helps explain the process that led to the performance.  As she writes:

‘That’s the wonder of stories when you believe them.’

Streetwise The Passion 2016 - 2

The difficulty of thinking outside of the box

Spare Tyre Productions 2
Spare Tyre production, Feeble Minds, 2009 (© Patrick Baldwin)

Community and participatory art has long roots in Britain. Its practice owes much to ideas that were developed in the 1960s and to policy pressures of the 1980s and 1990s. That long evolution has many strengths – it’s a rich field involving thousands of activists that supports a complex debate about participatory art. There’s probably more research and analysis published on it here than in any other European country.

But there are drawbacks to this weighty history too. In particular, it can be hard to escape the terms of a debate that is so well established. That struck me as I read a short report on participatory art in London published a few years ago by Arts Council England. It’s a useful introduction to the issues, based on a review of 13 excellent participatory arts organisations, such as Cardboard Citizens,  Streetwise Opera and Entelechy Arts. It asks what they have in common and what difficulties they face, before suggesting some solutions.

But the report’s analysis is framed in conventional terms, including familiar distinctions between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ value of art activity, and between ‘process’ and ‘product’. It worries whether the work has ‘true artistic merit’ without asking what that phrase means. And its solutions – better evaluation, learning and advocacy – are also conventional: they have been proposed for many years in British policy discourse.

These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are specific to the culture and country in which they are being discussed. My recent conversations with artists in Greece, Serbia, Portugal or Holland have not turned on these questions because the context for their work has been so different. In other words, the way participatory art is imagined in Britain is shaped by how everything else is imagined in Britain.

We talk all the time of ‘thinking outside the box’, seeming not to notice that the phrase itself is a cliché. It is really hard to think outside the framework of beliefs and assumptions that make up our own culture and identity. Mostly we don’t feel the need to do it much, if at all. But artists, whose work aims to be creative – which means making something new – need to be better at it than most of us. And not only in their artistic practice, but in how that practice is conceived and discussed.

One way of doing that is in dialogue with artists who work in different places and other ways. It can be challenging, but also liberating, to discover that other people don’t see evaluation as a way to convince funders – or may not even see those funders as desirable partners in the first place. Thinking outside the box begins with wondering whether we’re even asking the right questions.

Adult Participatory Arts

Against the odds: Opera in a Portuguese prison

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 1

The old carpentry workshop looks like something from Piranesi’s Carceri, which seems appropriate since it’s in the Youth Prison of Leiria (Portugal). The cavernous hangar is littered with old timber and unused machines: austerity means that no one learns woodwork here any more.

But on this wet Saturday afternoon, the place is packed. Two or three hundred people are crammed into one end of the hall; some of them have stood for more than two hours now. Between them and an improvised stage a chamber orchestra is playing a rhythmic, repetitive melody that underpins a riveting rap by thirty of the inmates who have just sung Mozart. The music builds insistently as they hand microphones to one another and perform in Portuguese, Creole, French and a little English, moving with the beat and savouring this moment that cements their two hour performance of Don Giovanni. A couple of young men have children on their shoulders, because wives and girlfriends have been allowed to join them on stage. There is a strange joyfulness, hard won and attenuated by suffering. Right now hope is strong, for these men, their families and for societies in need of reconciliation. One man waves a flag with the word ‘Liberdade’, freedom. With the performance’s climax comes a roar of applause and everyone is on their feet. Breathtaking. Unforgettable.

SAMP Don Giovanni Leiria 17

Artists often speak of the risks in their work and it’s true that creativity can be exposing. But if vulnerability may be more public for artists who read other people’s opinions of their work in the papers, it is familiar to every human being. One of the things that makes participatory art especially risky is that artists are asking others, including people who may live in situations of great vulnerability, to share in that process of exposure. These risks are taken on by people who may not know, at the outset, quite what they might be doing, how it might change them or what it might eventually cost.

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The idea of putting on a Mozart opera with untrained singers in a prison is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The technical demands of the music are huge; the participants have no experience of staging musical theatre, or the language of opera; the facilities are negligible, the security issues immense and the politics fraught. The list of what could go wrong is very long and the risks taken by those inmates who take part largely incalculable. It is a tribute to the courage, imagination and professional abilities of SAMP and project director Paulo Lameiro that all those traps have been avoided on the path to this performance. (The openness of the Prison Service and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to the proposal should also be recognised.)

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 5

Months of workshops and rehearsals have enabled the participants to build the vocal skills to sing together the role of Leporello, the amoral Don’s servant. Some men even take on solos within the choral group. The staging, in modern dress, has been brilliantly imagined to make the site’s limitations part of the experience. The audience enters through a redundant ceramics workshop whose darkness is exploited to evoke the hell to which Don Giovanni is destined. Dissonant wails of brass, and writhing figures create an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of the best of Punchdrunk’s work. For the opera itself, the principal singers and orchestral musicians are professionals, but the Commendatore, assassinated in the first scene and returning to haunt Don Giovanni, is played by the prison’s director. Prison officers take minor roles or perform with the orchestra. This story of crime and retribution is played out by people who know its realities at first hand and from both sides.

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 7

In most participatory arts projects, the performance would be the culmination of the project. Not here, not today. Lameiro’s vision is not simply to put on an opera in a prison but to open new creative paths for all those involved. The workshops will resume after this performance, giving participants the chance to build on the experience. And dialogue is beginning with arts and cultural organisations in each person’s home town so that, as a man approaches his release date, there is a chance to continue working outside. What form those opportunities may take is still unknown: it may not be in opera or even classical music. But there will be support, interest and a possibility of inclusion.

So this project is only half way through and I shall follow its development in the months to come. My glimpse of the work and brief conversations with some of those involved have convinced me that –against the odds – something extraordinary has been happening here. There is a fuller account to be given, and much more to understand about how the work is being done, and that will follow in time. For now, I’m just grateful to have had a chance to experience the performance and meet some of those involved. Against the odds, they succeed triumphantly and I am full of admiration.

There’s a short introductory video to the project here (it has English subtitles and the images in the post are from the film):