It is always changing.
It has order.
It doesn't have a specific place.
Its boundaries are not fixed.
It affects other things.
It may be accessible but go unnoticed.
Part of it may also be part of something else.
Some of it is familiar.
Some of it is strange.
Knowing of it changes it.
-American artist Robert Barry (1936) on art.
Art is one of those concepts, like love, or time, that is hard to encapsulate in a single definition. One way to try to define a concept is to question what it is and what it isn’t. Artists, and perfectly normal people, have asked many questions about art over the years – is it meant to be beautiful? How can art be judged? How can art be preserved? But a discussion series held from 3 to 6 April at The GrEEK campus in downtown Cairo, as part of the third annual D-CAF festival, decided to tackle one towering question: Is art important?
In his introduction to the discussion series, D-CAF founder and director Ahmed El-Attar said: "This seminar poses one of the few questions that I personally already know the answer to," to giggles from the audience. Then why ask it at all? The festival director says that the question, while a no-brainer to many of the people in this hall, if often asked by those beyond it, and is therefore worthy of discussion. He goes on to say that revisiting art’s importance is heightened in the context of the change that has recently engulfed Egypt and many other Arab nations.
Through conversations over e-mails, Skype and finally Viber, curator Jumana Al-Yasiri spoke to Ahram Online about the four-day discussion series.
Al-Yasiri explains that D-CAF thought up the idea for the series, and gave it its title. Al-Yasiri explains that, working within this framework, she felt that the first session must present D-CAF’s question, Is Art Important? and open up avenues for discussion.
The second panel would tackle Art and the Political, she decided, to overlap with the Middle East focus-week in D-CAF programming, which featured a dance performance dubbed "Violence Lointaine", directed by Egypt's Omar El-Ghayatt, France's Maxime Denuc and Congo's DeLaVallet Bidiefono, a performance by Lebanese musician Yasmine Hemdan, two theatre performances, 'Zawya' and 'The Hour of Curfew' directed by Hassan El-Geretly, among others.
"At some point, I felt that we can't talk about the importance of art without talking about art education," she says, and so she inserted a panel on Arts Education and Educating through Arts.
The final panel was entitled ‘Contemporary Middle Eastern Art from the Perspective of an International Audience’, the dominant question being: what is expected of Arab artists?
The panelists were cultural practitioners, artists, academics, and researchers with experiences in various nations including Egypt, Syria, France, Mexico, Burkina Faso, the USA, and others. The seminar was attended by students, artists, members of the public, and international delegates, including programmers, curators and festival directors, invited by D-CAF.
Moderated by Amany Abouzeid, the first session revealed that the discussion series would not tackle whether or not art is important, but rather why it is so important, and in what ways. Abouzeid started with a plea for "a safe place, to listen, to differ…and to change our minds." Indeed, the trilingual panel opened up multiple avenues of reflection about the role of art and the artist in local and international contexts.
For instance, independent theatre director Hassan El-Gueretly spoke of how Egyptian artists today grapple with art instrumentalisation. He expressed that discussions around the "benefit" of art, largely prompted by funding bodies that seek to link art to development, compromise the freedom of artists and the integrity of the artwork.
Meanwhile, producing director for the Sundance Institute Theatre Programme, Christopher Hibma, spoke of Sundance's role in offering up a space for artists to produce work away from another type of pressure; commercial pressure. He echoes El-Gueretly's belief in the power of art to "change people," on the inside. Artists can use art to dig deeper inside themselves…it doesn't have to solve something bigger," he says.
El-Gueretly also spoke out against the pressure of finding grand functions for art. "Art is there to give people hope, art awakens the dormant motivations of our young men and women," he said.
The second panel included artists that have been active on the scene in both the Arab world and beyond, including Egyptian visual artist Ganzeer and Syrian cartoonist Saad Hajo. We were then transported to Mexico City for the duration of a presentation by Emmaneul Audelo, who paints murals on the streets of the Mexican capital. He defines street art as a kind of dialogue that unfolds on the street.
Egyptian theatre director Sondos Shabayek spoke of her work with theatre and the challenges she has been faced with in the process. "I always face the question of how to reach as many members of the audience as possible and address them freely?"
One of the busiest and most riveting sessions was the one on Arts Education and Educating Through Arts, at the start of which moderator Mia Jankowicz, who ran the panel with nuance and flair, asked the audience to consider: "What was the most educational moment of your life?"
Jan Williams spoke of his experience with Theatre Day Productions in Gaza, in which art was found to be a "tool of enormous importance." Williams called theatre "live-saving," explaining the hope, possibilities and strength that theatre gave to the children of Gaza.
Echoing remarks made by Etienne Minoungou in the first session about the place of art in daily life, Williams eloquently said that "art should be like bread and salt; it should be part of everyday life."
In this panel, art and creative education seemed to emerge as subversive tools in the context of occupation and oppression. In Egyptian artist and educator Shady El-Noshokaty's presentation, he expressed that his strong belief in alternative art education stems from suffering as a student in the public education system in Egypt. He maintains that "dictatorships are built on the failure of education."
Brian Conley, who also teaches at the Department of the Arts at the American University in Cairo, says "art is an interesting place with which to make interventions in culture, politics, and society."
He also offered an interesting answer to the question posed by the discussion series – is art important? "Art is about the subjectivity of the individual and the social, political, cultural context coming together."
The final session, which revolved around contemporary Middle Eastern art from an international perspective, coincided with the sixth anniversary of the April 6 protests, but was once again extremely well-attended.
Independent theatre director Omar Ghayyat expressed his frustration with being expected to engage exclusively in political subject matter in his productions. This was also echoed by Syrian Cairo-based actress Nanda Mohamed, who spoke of the challenged of expressing oneself without having to do so in political tones.
Cynthia Schneider, a professor of cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, presented art as an important tool of cross-cultural understanding. "In our own little way, we are trying to challenge stereotypes, and get people to think in a more human way about other people," she said.
Novelist and arts and culture consultant Laila Hourani explained that the sudden interest in Arab art, which was triggered by political events such as the 9/11 attacks and the Arab Spring, led to a much needed showcase and exchange of contemporary Arab art
Very insightfully, she says, "Arab art did not parachute into the 90s. It was a question of who was monopolising the scene."
The Q&A sessions that concluded each discussion were key factors in their success, as the rapport between the panelists and the audience was lively.
The four panels were different in terms of management, panelists, and discussion, but they were far from disjointed. The conversations that started in the first day flowed into successive sessions, as Al-Yasiri had intended.
She crafted the panels to run from broad discursive issues such as art's role in the writing of history, the artist as a narrator, and the transcendental role of art, which played out in the first session with panelists that were more experienced, cosmopolitan and of deep intellectual backgrounds, to the sharing of more personal experiences by younger panelists who are creating art on a daily basis, are in more direct interaction with daily struggles and are engaged in social, political and educational battles through the arts.
Unfortunately, Al-Yasiri was not able to attend the seminar in person, due to the rejection of her visa request to Egypt.
She says she was extremely frustrated. "You suddenly lose control of something you've been doing for months," she said.
Al-Yasiri believes that her personal experience here is emblematic of a serious problem faced by Arab artists with regards to travelling within the Arab world.
A number of other Syrian artists were unable to obtain visas as well, and so Hello Psychallepo at Sherazade Nightclub and Damascus Theater Lab's, 'It Happened Tomorrow,' were both cancelled.
"I can understand that one million refugees in Beirut is a crisis, but I cannot understand that Syrian artists cannot go to Egypt to perform and then go back," she says. "What are the 100,000 artists from Syria supposed to do, if they can't travel?"
Al-Yasiri, who was born to an Iraqi father and a Syrian mother, says she is able to travel freely across Europe, but that she frequently has trouble with visas to Arab countries.
She says that while reflecting on what it means to be an artist in the Arab world today, it is also worth reflecting on what it means to be an Arab citizen in the Arab world.