Artellewa Gallery: Where revolution started long before January 2011

Farah Montasser, Sunday 19 Feb 2012

Artellewa Gallery is a form of revolution in itself since it opened 4 years before Egypt's revolt in a less fortunate neighbourhood, offering interactive exhibitions like the current one: Displaced


Ard El-Lewa neighbourhood is anything but artistic.

From one street vendor to the next of street food, groceries, Chinese accessories and clothes to more shops with bright lights in alleyways underneath residential buildings. Children scream and run, enjoying their endless hide-and-seek game while the older ones excel in creative exchanges of objectionable vocabulary amongst each other.

Somewhere inside Ard El-Lewa where there is less light from shops, but where colourful and artistic graffiti adds its own light, the Artellewa Gallery’s creative space is open, clean, and warmly inviting. Situated inside this large, chaotic, residential mess, Artellewa makes its own mess, taking its name from a creative word play based on the neighbourhood’s name. And puts a smile on one’s face.

The artist behind it all is Hamdy Reda, an Egyptian photographer. Inside his studio we find his newly-opened interactive art exhibition. The interactivity is just as much for the art community as for the gallery’s neighbourhood. Surrounded by some of the children from the area Ostaz Hamdy ("Mr Hamdy," as children call him), draws them in, as usual, to participate in his project.

Of course the girls were much quieter than the boys and gracefully sat down by Reda’s square, main work table to start on their Displaced project.

Fatma, who is roughly 8 years old but is too bashful to speak her age, is a frequent visitor and participant at Artellewa. "In one of my previous projects, I took several shots of Fatma to showcase familiar faces of this neighbourhood," Hamdy Reda tells Ahram Online.

When Fatma found out about the pictures she was bothered with Reda for a long time, "because no one is to see Fatma’s photos," he recalls her telling him in third person, while looking at him with a childish giggle, her pride for her mentor showing through.

"That’s the purpose of Artellewa," Reda told Ahram Online. "After I graduated from the Faculty of Arts in Cairo I travelled a lot across Europe to continue my arts studies. When I returned I thought of giving back to my community and broaden the art scene in Egypt," he says.

In 2007, Reda founded Artellewa in his hometown to educate his people on the arts and spread his knowledge. "I am a very social person and I love sitting on the streets and communicating with the people," Reda describes himself to Ahram Online.

"I decided to stay at Ard-El-Lewa for its liveliness," Reda comments. "People are awake all the time, coffee shops are open all night… We often meet at the local coffee shop next door and talk about everything," he says. Engaging in conversations and meeting different people seems to be the source of inspiration for this young, enthusiast artist.

Artellewa has two main halls, a white small space where Reda and his guest artists hold their exhibitions and another, much larger, black hall where he meets visitors and works on a variety of projects.

"I couldn’t go live and work around neighbourhoods and people I hardly know - and most importantly they would know nothing about me," Reda comments. He justifies his decision to continue growing and spreading his art in the place he knows best: Ard El-Lewa.

Marking its fifth-year anniversary last January, Reda believes that he has somewhat succeeded with engaging the children of the neighbourhood. "I am well-known in this neighbourhood and the families of those children know that their children spend most of their spare time at Artellewa instead of running around and playing on the streets," he tells Ahram Online.

But Artellewa is not reserved for children of the neighbourhood. In a short period of time, the centre has managed to cater to Egyptians of all generations and social strata, artists and art-lovers alike. Masses come from all over Cairo to visit Reda’s exhibitions, since young artists find Artellewa a platform to display their art. Reda even has opened up a number of residency programmes for artists from Europe and the Arab world to stay at Ard El-Lewa and present their work.

Aside from providing a venue for artists to exhibit their art, Reda sends young Egyptian artists abroad so when they return they can exhibit what they gained in experience and studies in the visual arts in the Artellewa Gallery.

Throughout the past five years Hamdy Reda has also founded a number of workshops for the entire artistic scene in Egypt, including photography, painting, writing and editing.

“We brought in new talents from Egypt and abroad and managed to discover plenty here in Egypt. We give them a place where they can work and showcase their work without any constrains,” he tells Ahram Online.

Indeed such a place became better known after the Egyptian uprising last year, yet Reda believes that Artellewa in itself is a revolution that broke out way before the political movements that took the street in January 2011.

"Revolutions are not a day or two… Artellewa is a revolution on its own and has started its protests and socio-political movement way before 25 January," he comments refusing the Jan25 label since, as he claims, "all Egyptians have started revolting and protesting in their own small ways way before the uprising last year… Revolutions are not days and not positions," he reiterates.

"The revolution is not over and one cannot determine its ending," he believes.  

This month’s programme at Artellewa includes Displaced, which opened on Valentine's Day and will run until 27 February. Displaced is an art game composed of six deliberately selected photographs affixed to the faces of twelve cubes, which are in random order. The overall image is complete only when the audience arranges the cubes in the correct order.

Reda describes Displaced himself as: "a photographic project, which allows the public to interact in the rearrangement and installation of images, in an attempt to engage the audience to come up with the meaning of the images themselves."

The images contrast greatly and don't seem to have a clear theme, except for Reda himself who has collected them in one project. The project raises various questions about identity, culture and visions, simultaneously containing contrasts and harmonies.


Exhibition is open until 27 February
19 Mohamed Ali El-Eseary Street
Ard El-Lewa, Giza, Cairo


Hamdy Reda is a photographer, curator, and director of Artellewa Art Space. He founded Artewella in 2007. Reda was born in Cairo (1972) and graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1997.


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